Ask and you shall be beholden

published on August 24, 2013, MST page A5

Cavite Rep. Lani Mercado-Revilla has this rather haughty thing to say about proposals to abolish the so-called pork barrel fund: “Sige, basta wag lang manghihingi ang mga tao sa amin. (Sure, just as long as the people don’t ask from us!)”

I say haughty because she shifts the blame from the lawmakers and their misuse of the fund to the people who are so overcome by their poverty that their only recourse is to seek assistance from their local politicians whom they perceive as being on their side.
On one hand, yes, people do ask for many things. Look at the district offices, and sometimes the homes, of lawmakers, teeming with people who seek assistance for whatever purpose— hospitalization, burial, jobs.
This will continue as long as there is poverty in the Philippines.
On the other hand, the lawmakers enjoy dishing out favors as if they were god. That helping others is a good thing is not disputed. But when it is seen as a means to an end—of perpetuating oneself in power, for instance, banking on the “utang na loob” one has sowed among the people who can see no further than meeting their current need —it morphs into something else.
They’re not even using their own money in the first place! It’s taxpayers’ money, taken out of our meager salaries every month.
But who says we expected much from the arrogant and defensive Ms. Revilla? Her senator-husband has been identified as one of the lawmakers “invested” heavily in the NGOs set up by now-fugitive Janet Lim-Napoles.
On Friday, President Aquino recognized the public’s outrage and announced it was time to abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund. Should we be giving each other high-fives already?
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Political patronage, according to American professor and author Paul Hutchcroft, is not unique to Philippine culture. He says patronage politics traces its roots to the period of colonization when national politicians dispense favors to get votes from areas controlled by local politicians.  These local politicians in turn use resources that help them get re-elected.
It has many forms, too, depending on the values held by a particular society or nation. For instance, in Indonesia, the focus in on social-religious organizations. In Malaysia, it’s political parties.  In Thailand, brokerage ties. Hutchcroft said these in an interview with several newspapers when he came to the Philippines to observe the elections.
In our country, because we value relationships a lot, patronage is seen most in terms of a sense of kinship.
This may explain why we vote people into office when we don’t know anything about them except for their last name.
This may also tell us why candidates seeking our votes try to show that they care about us in a personal way.
These ties sometimes enable us to transcend reports of or wrongdoing just as long as we maintain that illusion of being “connected.” So what if there’s a little corruption? Our leader cares about us. Look, he gave money so that our neighbor can bury his father. He sponsored the uniforms of our nephew’s basketball team. She gave a few hundred pesos so that I could buy my ailing mother some medicines.
This is the relationship that Rep. Mercado-Revilla believes would be so hard to do without.
So how do we end this practice?
It’s unfair and uncharitable to expect the poor to stop asking, or to blame them for asking. When you’re worried about meeting your  basic needs, the last thing that will occur to you is that the money given was not even the politician’s, or that you are opening up an avenue for corruption, or that you are helping perpetuate a cycle of favors and paybacks. When you are in need, you will instinctively ask – whether or not you know that those who are giving are getting something else for themselves.
The decisive action must thus come from government. Foremost, poverty must be fought. People must be empowered with jobs and self-sufficiency. And since it is impossible to expect that lawmakers would voluntarily shun pork, the system has to be the one to ensure they don’t dip their hands into something that is not for them to enjoy in the first place.
The President seems to have uttered the things we want to hear. But he must also assure us that PDAF would not be replaced with anything similar, albeit with a different name, and that he is ready and sincere to do the right things— at whatever political cost. Because that’s what differentiates a leader from a mere politician.
We must continue to be vigilant. And vocal. If our officials think they can distract us, or make us forget, or mollify us temporarily…they’re wrong.