Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Parenting cannot be delegated

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

How can we ever ensure overall preparedness for major disasters if we cannot even get our act together on a relatively simpler matter such as when to suspend classes due to heavy rains and flooding and how to announce the suspension in a more efficient manner?

As usual, parents and media commentators were all agog Monday evening trying to second-guess official announcement on whether or not there were going to be classes yesterday. Actually, I think media commentators were trying to apply pressure on government officials and the weather bureau people to make a definite announcement while their evening newscasts were ongoing so that they would have a scoop. It was very clear that they were trying to egg on parents and students to make an emotional reaction so that there was something “controversial” that could be discussed on air. As can be expected, officials and the weather bureau people were being very cautious. They’ve been burned before when they made premature or delayed announcements.

It has become really easy and convenient for everyone else to heap blame on our officials when they make premature or delayed decisions and announcements about suspension of classes. They are called inefficient or worse, inutile. People forget that despite advances in meteorology, predicting the weather is not yet an exact science. The reality is that the weather forecasts are really just predictions—they cannot be expected to be 100-percent accurate.

I do understand the consternation of parents who have to go out of their way to pick up their children barely minutes after they have brought them to school. It’s inconvenient and yes, it is infuriating to see schoolchildren being drenched in rain or having to wade through floodwaters when they could have been spared the difficulty with just a little more proactive thinking.

But then again, I don’t think parents are exactly blameless. Parents do have the authority not to send their children to school during days when there is inclement weather and if they think the health and safety of their children are at risk. It’s called parenting and it cannot be delegated to government, school officials, the weather bureau, or even media.

***

I don’t know what I will expect to see tonight when I go to Baclaran Church for my regular novena to the Perpetual Mother. It’s been pretty unpredictable in the last month or so. There were Wednesdays in the recent past when the streets around Baclaran were passable and one could actually walk to the National Shrine without having to go through a gauntlet as perilous as those set up during the medieval times. And then there were Wednesdays when everything was as it has always been—meaning, total and utter chaos and pandemonium.

I really don’t know why the Parañaque government cannot clean up the Baclaran area. If Mayor Lito Atienza of Manila could clean up Quiapo and Mayor Alfredo Lim could sustain the cleanliness and orderliness of the area, why cannot the local executives of Parañaque do it? Sure, Baclaran is not as chaotic as Divisoria. But Baclaran is host to a national religious shrine, for crying out loud. And as if to add insult to injury, the most chaotic area in the whole Baclaran district is right around the Baclaran church where every man and woman, every devotee, is left to fend for himself or herself against the elements.

The vendors around the church are so shameless they actually lay their wares right on the street and deliberately obstruct traffic so that pedestrians will have to go around the makeshift display stalls. It’s a disaster waiting to happen as people are forced to press themselves tightly against each other and maneuver to squeeze themselves in and out of whatever little space is opened up for pedestrians to pass through. I dread the thought of what could happen if a stampede were to occur. There would be lots of fatality as the exit points are quite narrow.

Devotees have had enough of the aggravation so a few months ago, a movement was launched to gather petitions aimed at pressuring the city government of Parañaque to finally do something about the chaos and the mess around the Baclaran church. I was told the organizers were able to gather hundreds of thousands of signatories.

Thereupon, the changes became evident. There were Wednesdays when the streets around Baclaran could actually be seen and people could walk through without having to bump into another person. These were the times when policemen and their mobile cars could actually be seen in the area to ensure that no vendor would dare set up their makeshift stalls and their mats along the streets. This went on for about… two Wednesdays.

But apparently the officials could not be bothered to make sure that the changes become permanent. The number of policemen and mobile cars started to become less and less each week and the vendors started to trickle back, emerging from the shadows with their pushcarts and movable clothes hangers. As of last week, the vendors were back in full force. And they were back with a vengeance. While in the past they would only occupy two-thirds of the streets and would allow at least space for one car to pass through, they occupied the whole street last Wednesday causing traffic to come to a complete halt as no vehicles could enter the side street leading to the church.

This is another reason why we cannot fix things in this country. We lack the political will to make changes sustainable and permanent. Of course we hear that the reason why the vendors in Baclaran cannot be eradicated is because most of them are squatters who produce the votes during elections. There are rumors that there is an untouchable syndicate that controls the operations in the area. And yes, a policeman has died while trying to get vendors out of the area so policemen are quite wary of being assertive and in doing their jobs.

***

Within every few meters, one could see signs along Macapagal Avenue reminding motorists that the speed limit in this particular strip of road is 60 kilometers per hour. Some of the signs are even festooned with twinkling lights—one can see the number 60 blinking up at you in red Christmas lights as you travel down the length of this expensive avenue. Are all these effort really necessary on an avenue that has very little traffic?

Of course, friends tell me Macapagal Avenue’s reputation as the most expensive avenue in the Philippines has come to acquire a newer dimension—it is the most expensive avenue because of the presence of too many cops out to mulct motorists for the simplest of all offenses—swerving, changing lanes, and yes, going above the speed limit.

The speed limit was prescribed allegedly because of the number of accidents in the area. But the presence of too many cops in the area belies the justification. And boy, oh boy, what a conscientious lot they are! There is hardly any traffic to manage except at the corner of Edsa so the cops are all eyes and ears at every vehicle that passes through this strip of road. Anyone who goes even just a tiny bit beyond the limit of 60kph is automatically flagged down and fined. And yes, most of them don’t issue tickets, they just mulct unsuspecting motorists.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No to budget cuts for state schools

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

Thanks to this administration’s incomprehensible decision to cut subsidy for state colleges and universities, we’re seeing a resurgence of student activism. Thousands of students from all over the country walked out of their classes last week. In Manila, they converged at Mendiola, reminiscent of the heady days when the student protest movement was a major force to reckon with in this country.

And as if to spite the lawmaker who filed what is probably the most badly written and most reactionary bill in the history of Philippine legislation, thousands of students across the country prostrated themselves on streets and on various strange surfaces, all in the spirit of planking.

What made last week’s protest actions even more remarkable was that these were sanctioned by their teachers and school administrators. Teachers dismissed classes so that students could join the demonstrations. School administrators provided various kinds of support—logistics, talking points, physical presence.

If plans push through, or until some sense gets into the head of our leaders, we’ll be seeing more student demonstrations in the next few weeks.

As can be expected, Malacañang’s talking head, Abigail Valte, tried to play down the issue with something that sounded like misplaced, if not insincere, parental advice: She said students should be spending more time studying than joining demonstrations. Of course, she also parroted the same yarn that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad has been unsuccessfully trying to sell since the issue of budget cuts for education cropped up—that the budget allocation for SUCs for 2012 is higher than last year’s. Newly installed University of the Philippines President Alfredo Pascual and a number of academicians have already debunked Abad’s claims with figures and facts, many of which were taken directly from the Budget Department itself.

I don’t think anyone is supposed to take seriously whatever Valte says. We’ve noted that when there is something really important that needs to be announced, one of the three secretaries for communications usually takes over the job. In short, she takes over the microphone only when the issue is deemed inconsequential or when any of the three is unavailable.

But as a teacher, I feel I need to remind Valte three things.

First, the Palace should not take student protests lightly—aside from the fact that Benigno Simeon Aquino III (and the late Corazon Aquino, for that matter) owe the presidency to the student protest movement, history has shown that the collapse of many governments can be traced to sustained student protests.

Second, Valte probably needs someone to explain to her that the students are protesting something that affects them directly. In fact, if students take matters sitting down, they may not have the opportunity to do exactly what Valte tells them they should be doing; they may not be able to go to school anymore.

And third, I don’t know if Valte joined protests when she was a student (if she did, she probably didn’t learn anything from them), but there are a lot of things students can learn from joining rallies and demonstrations. I am not embarrassed to admit that I attribute many of my competencies (dealing with all kinds of people, public speaking, writing manifestos in ten minutes or less, even assertiveness, among others) from having joined and led student demonstrations when I was in college.

Truth be told, there are days when I feel school administrators must make joining protests obligatory for students because those of us in human resource management have been noting that fresh graduates today just seem to lack the kind of assertiveness, initiative, and sense of purpose that come from a heightened sense of citizenship. It seems that many of our fresh graduates just don’t care enough—for country, for fellow Filipinos, for issues, for anything other than themselves.

So yes, there’s a part of me that’s glad that our students are marching on the streets again. I wish though that they were protesting about something else; or that this administration didn’t have to force backs against the wall on something that is so basic and commonsensical to begin with.

Education is the most important investment any nation can make. This is not debatable. This is not subject to conditions. There are no ifs and buts about it. We just have to put more money into educating Filipinos. We cannot expect to become more competitive if we don’t invest in training our teachers, building more classrooms and laboratories, if we don’t give research grants to our colleges and universities. It is futile to aspire for greatness if we cannot even guarantee adequate funding for state colleges and universities.

If this means we have to forget about building a skyway over Edsa, then so be it. All our other projects can wait. We can afford to scrimp on other things. What we cannot afford is to have a generation of Filipinos who are totally unprepared to take over the reins of this country simply because a budget secretary or a whole administration had a paradigm that said spending less is better than opening up possibilities for corruption to thrive. Someone told me this is exactly the rationale for the budget cuts—the belief that SUCs can subsist on a lower budget if they cut corruption in their ranks.

I don’t know if corruption truly exists among SUCs although I would not be surprised if it does—corruption is a systemic problem in this country. But we must learn to cut the fat without hurting the meat; we must learn to pull weeds without killing the rice stalks. Unfortunately, this has become the default thinking of this administration and it is evident in the actuations of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and other agencies—the belief that most everyone is corrupt until proven otherwise.

But really, let’s not scrimp on education. This should really be commonsensical. Doesn’t any parent practice the same tenet in their households? Next to food on the table and perhaps medication, money for education is top priority for any household; anything else can wait. It takes precedence over renovations and beautification. It certainly takes precedence over donations for the church.

The proposed cuts on subsidy for SUCs come at the worst possible time.

Not a single Philippine college or university made it to the top 300 in the latest world university ranking of the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds. Only four Philippine universities (University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University, and the University of Santo Tomas) made it to the top 600 list; and all four slipped in the rankings compared to last year.

We also know that enrollment in SUCs have increased in the last few years on account of rising tuition fees in private universities. Obviously keeping the budget at the same level, or even granting a token 10 percent increase will not do the trick. In fact, even the Commission on Higher Education has come out in support of the call for higher budgets for SUCs, calling the proposed budget for 2012 “survival budget.” How can we thrive under a budget that is just enough for our schools to survive?

Who would have thought that such a scenario would come to pass under an administration who has always claimed to have nothing but an abundance of good intentions for Filipinos?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nice try but not yet

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.


Quezon City Representative Winston Castelo shot to national prominence the other week when his bill, the “Four Day Work Week Act of 2011” got picked up by media. Employer groups and the labor sector took turns lambasting the proposal. It was one of the few times employers and the labor sector were on the same side of an issue.

Castelo’s bill aimed to institute a ten-hour four-day (10/4) workweek in the country. In a perfect world, such a proposal would have merited praise and commendation. Unfortunately, not only do we live in an imperfect world, we also are a country that has low tolerance for new ideas, particularly those that require acrobatic shifts in paradigms. Thus, public reaction was mixed but mostly negative. There were a few who thought the idea was an inspired one. And then there were those who denounced the proposal calling it nonsensical. They thought it promoted indolence. And then, because we are in the Philippines, there were those who attacked the messenger. Some attached colorful adjectives to Castelo’s name, many of which cannot be repeated in polite company.

It’s really sad that we seemed to have come to a point where we have lost our capacity to see pure intentions in the actions of legislators. I cannot blame people for mistrusting our legislators. Congress is jammed with bills that boggle the mind. Do you know that there are bills that propose more leaves for workers? There’s even a bill that seeks to further increase maternity benefits for women, another bill that aims to provide prenatal leaves for every month that a woman is pregnant, and yet another bill that proposes family leaves for spouses to take care of sick family members. Thus, people can be forgiven for seeing Castelo’s 10/4 proposal, which seeks to reduce work hours, in a negative light.

To be fair, though, there are merits to the proposal. And really, many people simply engaged in verbal diarrhea without bothering to understand what Castelo really proposed.

The 10/4 proposal will not change the traditional 40 hours of work every week or cut back on service or productivity. “It will still be 40 hours a week, but the work schedule will run from Monday to Thursday instead of until Friday. Public- and private-sector employees will put in two additional hours of work daily,” Castelo said. The proposal cited a number of supposed benefits that would be derived in terms of savings in transportation and other related costs for workers and for companies, savings in overhead such as energy, water, etc.

Unfortunately, it seems Castelo has not really thought through the other details. For example, changing the number of work hours will invariably require changes in computing daily wages, overtime costs, leaves and other benefits, which incidentally are covered by legislation that needs to be amended, revised or changed. It’s not going to be that easy. One bill will not do the trick; if he really is serious about it, Castelo needs to talk to more legislators and develop a more comprehensive bill. For example, surely we cannot keep the current number of vacation, sick, and other leaves if we give employees three-day weekends. Surely we have to rethink the number of holidays in this country. This would mean amending many, many laws.

And then there is the matter of changing production schedules and syncing these with global and seasonal demands. Not everybody in this country works in offices or in jobs that can be done at home and therefore subject to schedules that can be turned flexible. Manufacturing plants, for examples, have fixed production schedules that require at least 12 months of planning.

It can be argued of course that all these can be changed with a little more political will and with strategic thinking. And there’s the rub. I am not sure that our leaders are prepared to go out on a limb to make 10/4 work.

The prevailing notion is that a compressed workweek scheme will promote indolence and will negatively affect productivity. Actually, the empirical evidence that shows otherwise is quite robust. In many countries where the scheme is practiced, they noted that productivity levels actually soared higher, employees reported less health problems, and volunteerism for social causes, which naturally helped promote social equity, surged. Of course the studies were conducted in the Western setting where work is no longer predominantly manual and where unemployment is significantly lower. My point is that we should not be too quick to dismiss ideas.

In fact, I think the quick reaction about how a compressed workweek will reduce productivity and promote indolence is a hypothesis that seems more indicative of a paternalistic paradigm that hues more closely to Theory X—the belief that people are lazy by nature and that metaphorically, if they give them a hand they will grab the whole arm.

Work-life balance is not a just for people have been working hard all their life, nor is it a concept designed exclusively for the harassed, the stressed, and the burned-out. These people probably need more than just work-life balance. Besides everyone is probably harassed today regardless of their station in life (someone once told me that even the jobless do get tired and stressed out worrying about their lot). Work-life programs need to be seen as investments in people’s welfare, not necessarily just as reward for those who are deemed to have earned it by virtue of long years of hard work. We implement work-life programs precisely to avoid burnout.

Having said that, I think it is also important to recognize that there is wisdom in knowing what our priorities should be as a country and as a people. Today, the need is to enhance our competitiveness. The challenge is to generate more employment and enhance employability. Although these can be pursued hand-in-hand with the proposed 10/4 scheme, we need to accept that pursuing both is counterproductive. As the old Chinese saying goes, “If you chase two rabbits at the same time, both will get away.” In short, let’s focus first our efforts in producing more jobs before thinking of ways to redesign them.

This does not mean though that we cannot recognize efforts to think out of the box when we see them. The 10/4 proposal is an innovative idea. What I really like about the idea is its potential impact on efforts to save the environment. In many countries, compressed workweeks significantly reduced carbon emissions as well as usage or energy, water, as well as volume of waste generated. This will work in the Philippines if everyone agrees to cut back on work schedules not simply rearrange work schedules of people around the same seven–day work schedule. Otherwise, the impact to the environment would be the same and the whole exercise would have been pointless.

The 10/4 proposal is a good idea. But unfortunately, it’s ahead of its time for this country. We’re not ready for it. More importantly, we need to think through the various implications of the proposal more thoroughly and more comprehensively.

Nice try, but for the moment, no cigar.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A rollicking fun

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

I will make a confession: At some point in the recent past, I stopped watching Filipino independent films. Actually, I simply stopped watching Filipino films in general. I just got tired of having to sit through the same plotline movie after movie; and watching the same themes being rehashed over and over again.

I still believed that indie films represented our best chance to resurrect the dying local film industry as the chances of mainstream cinema being able to increase its annual output has become almost nil, thanks to the prohibitive costs associated with traditional filmmaking (a huge chunk of which goes to the talent fees of superstars), the oppressive taxation system in the country, and the rampant proliferation of film pirates. Indies films were the way to go. And we have been able to produce quite a number of really great indie films in the last five years. There’s Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivares (The blossoming of Max), Kubrador, (The Bet Collector), Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (The Rape of Fe), among others.

Unfortunately, the local indie scene had also become quite trite and predictable. The recent smash hit indie film Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank (Woman in a Septic Tank) cleverly illustrated the many ways in which we have reduced to a cliché what local indie filmmaking is about. If it’s not about poverty, it’s about homosexuality. Otherwise, it would be about the pains of growing up, or gang wars, or violence against women, or May-December love affairs, or if not any of those already mentioned—it would have to be about, sigh, incest. It’s as if someone developed a formula and decreed that everyone stuck to it.

I’m not sure it’s really about the gaya-gaya (copycat) syndrome although there’s a part of me that thinks the bandwagon effect may have been at play at some point.

For instance, a friend theorized that the reason why there has been a preponderance of gay-themed films in the local indie scene is because he suspects many of the budding filmmakers are gay and have a wealth of stories to tell. I told him it’s a convenient excuse, although it must be noted that even the great Lino Brocka did direct a number of films that tackled homosexuality. Perhaps gay people in this country lead more complex, more cinematic lives that bear retelling in pictures– but surely, there are limits to how many times the same plotline can be rehashed regardless of the approach or the twist in the presentation. It is also possible that the phenomenon has been basically driven by the basic law of supply and demand—it seems there is a market for gay-themed films, which should say something about the purchasing power of this segment of the population but that’s another column altogether.

At any rate, I am glad I acceded to a persistent invitation of a friend to watch Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombie gays: Scare Remington to Death). We caught it over the weekend (I’ve been told it had been running in moviehouses for two weeks already) and I tell you, I don’t think I have had such great fun inside a moviehouse prior to Zombadings. We got out of the moviehouse physically weak from laughing too hard.

The title of the movie already promised loads of rollicking and campy fun (did it really have to be in swardspeak?) and I am pleased to report the film delivered in this aspect.

This was a hilarious, laugh-out-every-minute film. One doesn’t have to be immersed in the local gay culture to fully appreciate Zombadings although those who are I think have a distinct advantage. They get the jokes a split second ahead of the others. Subtitles are provided when the characters lapse into colorful swardspeak, but really, a lot of the nuances are lost in translation.

The whole Zombadings experience is enhanced if one can relate to campiness brought to extremes (think fireworks, stars, and bursts of colors coming out the main character’s body and a magical flying red scarf). In short this is one of those movies that is better enjoyed when one leave inhibitions and intellectual pretensions at the door. Oh yes, this is a gay-themed movie, but I noticed that majority of the people inside the moviehouse when my friend and I went there were heterosexual couples. In fact, I made a survey among my friends and was pleasantly surprised to note that most of those who have watched the film were heterosexuals. And they said they enjoyed it immensely. So as Neil Patrick Harris sang in the recent Tony Awards “it’s not just for gays anymore.”

Camp is something that is difficult to achieve—it doesn’t have a middle ground, it either works or does not. Something is either done with a certain flair that sends people on a laughing fit, or just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. To my mind, the campiness of Zombadings works because, pretty much like the original Temptation Island movie by the late Joey Gosiengfiao, it is largely unintended. I think the people behind Zombadings just wanted to make a movie that was fun, period.

Thus, what I really liked about Zombadings is its unapologetic tone— the film doesn’t bombard you over the head with metaphors and symbolisms nor does it attempt to overexplain things. They leave things as they are and leave it up to the viewers to make sense of. I am sure there’s a meaning behind why the female “authority figures” in the film from the main characters’ mother to the town mayor seemed masculine or why the main character delivers certain dialogues in English and the others in swardspeak, but this isn’t one of those films where such attempts at nitpicking is material.

Zombadings reminds us that watching a movie is supposed to be a sensory, not just an intuitive, experience. Here the colors are bolder, the actions are over-the-top, the dialogues are campy, and the whole point of the movie seems to be focused on just one goal: Telling a story in the most cinematic and fun way. I have nothing against movies that throw people into bouts of reflection and deep thinking, but if you just want to be entertained, Zombadings is a movie you should not miss.

And oh, it’s actually a well-made film. The acting is superb (Eugene Domingo is in it), the editing was tight, the musical direction was competent. This an indie movie, yes, but it’s one that is clearly notches above many mainstream movies. I think I will begin watching Filipino indie films again.

Go catch Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington if you still can.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

More of the same

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. In fact, a cursory look at the top issues of the last few days will bring us to the inevitable conclusion that certain things in this country have not changed at all. We seem to be caught in a time trap where the same things happen over and over again.

The President’s state visit to China was trumpeted as a huge success but the news bit that many members of the international press picked up was Mr. Aquino’s off-the-cuff remarks about his zero love life. Aquino started his address to the members of the Philippine community in Beijing by poking fun once again at his love life. “Someone asked me, how is your love life? I said it’s like Coca-Cola, before it was regular, then it became light, now it’s zero,” the President cracked. People found it funny. What was funnier actually was the rejoinder of Pepsi Cola, which were full-page advertisements published over the weekend showing a can of Pepsi max and the tagline: “Love life? Go from Zero to Max.”

Only in the Philippines can such an equation be possible: President + love life = cola wars.

I am not sure this is funny, but the President’s remarks about the state of his love life and the subsequent cola wars that it ignited are probably what people will remember most about the state visit to China. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot!

This is something I continue to be flabbergasted about and will continue to rile about for as long as the President keeps doing it: Why this President persists in making references about the state of his love life in major public affairs when he claims he doesn’t want people to speculate or even talk about it. As a consequence thereof, local media went all agog over the supposed brewing romance between him and actress Iza Calzado, a rumor that the actress quickly squelched. I can understand his youngest sister’s incessant desire to tattle about the state of her heart – Kris Aquino is extremely fascinated with anything that has to do with Kris Aquino. But surely a President has many more important things to talk about other than the state of his love life.

Of course when I say that the President has better things to talk about, I don’t necessarily recommend that he pick a fight with Kristie Kenney, former ambassador of the United States to the Philippines, currently holding court in Thailand. But again, some people’s amor propio got the better of them and compelled to dignify the “alleged slur” on the President.

Revenge is a dish best served cold— so a simple “we will not dignify the issue with a response” would have been more appropriate. Actually, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang was already on track when he said “we normally don’t comment on purportedly leaked cables but it’s quite consistent with talk that went on in the diplomatic community at the time that Ambassador Kenney had been co-opted by the Arroyo regime.” Unfortunately, Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte didn’t follow Carandang’s lead.

And then the President, himself, joined the fray, which was quite unfortunate because of a number of reasons. First, the comments attributed to Kenney came from non-official sources—anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. I don’t think it makes for good policy to respond to unverified information. Second, the supposed analyses attributed to Kenney are really mere first-hand observations of someone on-the-ground; they are hardly definitive conclusions drawn from empirical processes of data collection. In short, they were subjective perceptions. Third, Kenney’s alleged perceptions were quite representative of those “critical” of Aquino during the campaign. Fourth, the reaction only served to validate perceptions that the President is onion-skinned and cannot roll with the punches.

In fact, we could all have gotten a hint from Kenney’s reaction on her Twitter account. The ambassador simply tweeted: “Good morning! Don’t believe all you read.”

Former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos was not part of President Aquino’s official delegation during his state visit to China last week but many kibitzers noted how the Imeldific managed to upstage most everyone else. It’s almost tragic, just how the former First Lady seems intent on recapturing the heady days of the dictatorship when she couldn’t be anywhere else but in the spotlight. Why, just a few weeks ago, she managed to put herself in the maelstrom of that unfortunate controversy over Mideo Cruz’s art installation, even to the extent of claiming credit for that ill-advised edict from Malacañang to pull the curtain on the exhibit.

Our senators continued to shoot their mouths off over the plunder case filed against former First Gentleman Juan Miguel Arroyo and 25 others including former military officials over the allegedly anomalous sale and purchase of two helicopters in 2009. Of course we all know there is now intense competition among our leaders as to who gets to outrun the Arroyos and be the first to pin them down to the ground, but really, we don’t have to do the game of one-upmanship so publicly. Senators bewailed the fact that someone beat them to the chase in terms of filing a plunder case against Arroyo. And then they announced that they would file their own cases as if doing so was their main job description (weren’t the hearings supposed to be done in aid of legislation?). I can understand the need to pursue cases against the Arroyos; do our leaders have to salivate in public while doing so and act like canines fighting over spoiled meat?

Baguio City, which used to be the cleanest and the most popular summer destination in the country (long before people discovered getting seen naked in Boracay was more fun) was in the news all week long last week, thanks to the landslide of garbage that happened at the height of the last typhoon that descended on these islands. We all know Baguio City is decaying—it’s a tragic shadow of what it used to be. And the decay is getting worse every year. We still have to see more concrete actions to stem the decay. Nothing is being done to preserve Baguio City.

Another congressman is alleged to have been involved in another mauling incident, this time involving a security guard who was simply doing his job at an Ayala Mall. Denials were initially made, but as more information and more witnesses came forward, revisions in the story were made. We don’t expect anything to come out of this regardless of how many people feel outraged.

Increasing concern over the fate of four overseas Filipino workers supposedly part of the household staff of one of the family members of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddhafi threaten to come to a boil as media begin to pay attention to the issue. We smell attempts to sensationalize as media networks begin competing for better coverage of the emerging human-interest issue.

Some things never change.

All these, however, seem less important with the Christmas spirit already hovering in the air. It seems most everyone wanted Christmas to arrive earlier this year. Why not? We probably need cheering up today more than ever.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Lost in translation

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

While on vacation the other weekend in my hometown in the heart of Leyte, I chanced upon a spirited conversation among some members of my extended family during one of the usual impromptu gatherings. It seemed they were in a fix trying to find logic about something that an aggrieved relative—a widowed mother of five children with barely any means of support for her brood—was seemingly smarting about. They were talking about something that initially sounded like “por piyes” (Waray for four feet). I thought they were contesting pieces of lumber. I was not really paying that much attention to the discussion until a cousin asked me what I thought about the “four peas” that was being discussed in the small huddle.

What four peas, I asked. “For peace,” my cousin repeated, which just added to my confusion. It turns out they were discussing the government’s conditional cash transfer program, locally known as the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s four P’s program—or Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. Four P’s, I exclaimed with great relief. Alas, the problem was not limited to another case of “lost in translation.”

From what I gathered, certain relatives in the sitio where the family farm was located were chosen beneficiaries of the program while the widowed mother of five was not. This was most unfair, everyone thought. If there was anyone who really needed a lifeline, she was it, they chorused with all the indignation they could muster. She was the one having the most difficulty making ends meet what with five young hungry mouths to feed, four of them in school. She made a living washing clothes and an assortment of odds and ends for the neighbors. Were it not for the vegetables she painstakingly grew in the grassy knoll around her house, her children would have already died of hunger, she offered plaintively.

She was interviewed by the people who conducted the survey for the four Ps. But when the list was released, she was not in it. Some of her neighbors, among them people who really didn’t need as much help, were. She figured it was because she was living in a brick house that was really owned by and which she was keeping for a relative who was abroad. She went to the barangay chairman who took her case to a sanggunian bayan member, who allegedly brought it to the attention of the mayor. Everyone promised to look into her case but apparently the screening system was not open to interference from local executives. The chairman insisted she was in the initial list. Someone who was on the list even offered to switch places with her. But apparently, the list was final; but as if it was any consolation, everyone at least commiserated with her. I called up a friend in Tacloban, a media person who knows someone in the DSWD who promised to look into the case. Everything was not lost, I was assured. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

I don’t want to make conclusions about the whole Four Ps program based on one anecdotal evidence, primarily because I know it’s not fair to expect the system to be perfect at this stage. I want to believe that poverty reduction programs can only work if people work together to make it work. As I told my aggrieved relative, her exclusion can be chalked up to a gap in the system that could be fixed. It was a good thing, I assured her because it meant DSWD people were not being lax doing their jobs.

But the story, and the feedback I gathered from the people I interviewed revealed insights that are telling.

First, the perception that the program promotes indolence and mendicancy persists, particularly among those belonging to higher social classes in Philippine society. The negative perception persists because, let’s be honest about this, there has been little social marketing being done about the program. This is sad because poverty reduction programs need a whole ecosystem to be successful. The last thing we need in this country is to create stigma for the beneficiaries of the program. In reality, conditional cash transfer programs are not handout, hence the term conditional—beneficiaries are supposed to receive aid in exchange for certain non-negotiable deliverables. In reality, the whole cost of the program is peanuts compared to what is gobbled up by corruption in this country.

Second, most people don’t understand what the program is really about. Even public schoolteachers had the wrong impressions about it. One of the main goals of the conditional cash transfer program is to ensure that schoolchildren are kept in school—it’s supposed to be a direct investment in human development. Schoolteachers, community leaders, even neighbors are important elements of the system— they will have to provide the necessary support system that will ensure that the funds are used for the purpose they were meant to achieve.

Third, the mechanisms for the cash transfer system remain inchoate for most people. People talked about producing receipts, having made to account for expenses, attendance records of schoolchildren, etc., but nobody knew exactly what the guidelines were. As can be expected, unfounded rumors swirled about how funds were tied up somewhere.

Fourth, a number of local executives seemed skeptical about the program. Apparently, many feel slighted for having been bypassed or overruled in the targeting process. I have two minds about this. There is wisdom in insulating the system from the machinations of local executives who have the tendency to use government programs to favor supporters. But there is also wisdom in taking into account the advice of community leaders who know first hand the real conditions of the poor in a given community.

I really wish the program would succeed because empirical data from Latin American countries show such a program can do wonders to alleviate poverty. It is a palliative effort; it will definitely not eradicate poverty altogether but then again, we must start somewhere. But above all else, I want the program to work because darn it, billions of aid money is involved! We must make it work.

I am not exactly a fan of Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman and I am aghast that she seems to project this idea that she invented the whole program (former DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral piloted the program, for crying out loud), but this is not about her. This is about the millions of poor Filipinos who need a lifeline. This is about ensuring that millions of Filipino children are given the necessary break to make it in a world made increasingly more difficult by conditions beyond their control or making.

What government needs to do is marshal the spirit of bayanihan in making the program work. Programs like the conditional cash transfer program need to be contextualized within a set of cultural values—from a sense of pagbabahala (responsibility or social obligation) to a positive sense of hiya (self esteem and integrity). But above all else, the program must promote a collective sense of accountability. Regardless of how we feel about the government, we have to make it work. We must make it work.

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In a recent column (Up close but not personal), I wrote about a social encounter I had with Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte and Pagsanjan City Mayor Maita Ejercito at the lobby of a hotel in Davao City. I mistakenly identified the latter as lady mayor of Tagaytay City instead of Pagsanjan. A number of readers pointed out the oversight to me. I’ve always known Ejercito was the mayor of Pagsanjan because I have seen her in action many times in Pagsanjan, where my favorite training program venue is located. I apologize for the oversight.