COMMENTARY: Why isn’t Manila budging on Mindanao’s budget issue?

Earlier, Daisy Avance-Fuentes, governor of South Cotabato and president of the Confederation of Provincial Governors, City Mayors and Municipal Mayors' League Presidents in Mindanao (CONFED), said that the island should have “more than 25 percent of the national budget.” She said in 2002, Manila only managed to release a paltry 19 percent for Mindanao.

For her part, President Arroyo, no less, promised an increase of not less than 30 percent for Mindanao. She said this only recently, in Cagayan de Oro City, “as is the tradition of every visiting President,” according to a Sunstar account.

Nothing new

These officials’ statements about the Mindanao budget, of course, are not new. When the now- defunct Office of the President-Mindanao (OP Min) was created in 1992, one of the issues that burned in the minds of its policy analysts was the small share Mindanao was getting from the national coffers. It was a reality that had plagued the island for decades. It seemed no one, to anyone’s recollection then, had noticed it as a serious aberration, and therefore had ever tried to buck the system.

It was precisely because of “dehado” issues like this that OP Min assumed an aggressive consensus-building mode. Various groupings were created, among these being the Mindanao Lawmakers [now Legislators] Association (MLA), the Mindanao Agricultural and Fisheries Council (MAFC), and the Mindanao Business Council (MBC). These and other groups, task forces, and island-wide associations elevated socio-economic issues from the level of public discourse to the attention of the national government.

The Mindanao budget was one such issue. And the principal venue in which this was articulated was the Mindanao Budget Summit. There have been two summits since then.

In 1999, some 200 stakeholders participated in the first gathering in Manila, which was organized by the region-wide alliances of the CONFED, the MBC, and the MLA.

During the second budget summit in 2003, also in Manila, Mindanao leaders pushed for a 30- to 34-percent share of the national budget for the year 2003-2004. This would be appropriate for the region, they said, considering that the latter accounts for 37 percent of the Philippines' output in agriculture and 44 percent of the domestic food trade.

This time, participants doubled to 400, the president was on hand to grace the affair, and line agencies took turns pledging increased budgetary allocations to Mindanao:

The Department of Public Works and Highways, 30 percent; National Electrification Administration, 40-50 percent; National Irrigation Administration, 30 percent; Philippine Ports Authority, 37 percent; Department of Agriculture, 37 percent; and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, 29 percent. Even then Department of Budget Management secretary Emilia Boncodin pledged to give Mindanao an increase of 2-3 percent from what was then a share of 26 percent in the regional allocation of the national expenditure program.

But promises are one thing. Actually making them happen is quite another.

And obviously, nothing much, if at all, has changed.

Why so?

Getting figures right

Veteran economic reporter and Businessworld Mindanao bureau chief Hernani de
Leon believes that “the island's leaders should have empirical data to prove that an increase in the Mindanao budget would result in a higher Mindanao growth rate that would pull the country's GDP (gross domestic product) up.” This should be manageable for local economists, he says, “unless previous regression analyses showed otherwise.” In short, what’s in it for the rest of the country?

The island accounts for only a quarter of the national population, de Leon says, which might partly explain the small budget share. And because of government’s limited resources, “an increase in Mindanao’s share will naturally result in a reduction of shares for the other regions,” he adds. The idea alone doesn’t sit well with a lot of non-Mindanao congressmen.

De Leon said that if Mindanao's advocacy efforts are “supported by figures—even mere targets—the island would get wider support and have a better chance to get what it needs.”

But even today’s figures are contested.

Onetime Mindanao policy analyst Fermin Adriano believes that the 25 percent increase being asked by Zubiri and other leaders may no longer be accurate “if the basis of allocation will be based on the contribution of the Mindanao GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to overall Philippine GDP.” His reason: The relative contribution of Mindanao’s economy to the national economy “has gone down due to the fast-growing—and hence increasing contribution of—the ICT sector mostly concentrated in Metro Manila and other urban centers of the country.”

Adriano also doubts claims that Manila granted a 19 percent budget share to Mindanao in 2002, saying that it may not have been based on “a systematic analysis of the GAA (General Appropriations Act).”

He further pointed out that “there should be think tank institutions in Mindanao that should be doing this kind of analytical work to guide stakeholders on their advocacy work for the development of the island.”
Over the years since its inception in the early 1990s, the Mindanao Economic Development Council (Medco) has been at the forefront of coordinating development efforts in the island. But pressed for updates, it admitted that it is “still in the process of coming up with a reliable study on whether the national budget allocation for Mindanao has really increased.” Staff member Klein Fernandez said that such a study will commence three months from now. And by January 2008, he added, “we can release our initial findings in line with the upcoming Mindanao Budget Summit on February.”

To each his own

Still, there’s nothing much to go by. Granting that correct figures are put together at all, considering the absence of a policy research institution in Mindanao, will the next show of bravura produce results come February?

Not if Mindanao’s public officials don’t get their act together, writes Mindanews columnist Patricio Diaz. For all their posturing and lip service, Mindanao’s congressmen, not unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the country, seem parochial and averse to concerted action.

Diaz writes: “Do they work together to plan projects for funding in the national budget? Oftentimes, the local executives and their representatives could not transcend their political interests – fighting over ‘achievements’ as political capital in elections.”

He asks the rhetorical question: Could it be that Mindanao's share is only that much because the local executives do not coordinate with the national line agencies and their representatives in Congress?

Other people in civil society are just as leery of public officials.

Roberto Palo, onetime field worker of the International Committee of the Red Cross and now independent project evaluator, says politicians may not even know their numbers.

“What I cannot see is the other side: how much exactly are we in Mindanao contributing to Manila? It would be interesting to know. Do the politicians know exactly?” asks Palo.

To some extent, some of them do—or did. Eleven years ago, a flaring Erasmo Damasing, a congressman from Cagayan de Oro City, blasted Manila for the measly sums it gave away as congressional initiative allocations for Mindanao, better known then as the pork barrel. Damasing cited many examples of “skewed funding priorities,” including that of Agusan del Norte which received a “negligible” P21 million compared to amounts not lower than P100 million in other areas in Luzon and the Visayas.

Not just the pork

Of course, pork barrel being what it is, the whole story smacked of self-interest. But on that same floor where Damasing demanded for his “fair share” of the budget pie, another congressman said it wasn’t just about the pork barrel. Then Misamis Oriental representative Victorico Chavez noted that in spite of Mindanao’s 50 percent contribution to the country’s Gross National Product, it received only nine percent of official development assistance (ODA) funds, compared to more than 27 percent for the National Capital Region.

A year after that harangue, members of the Mindanao Legislators League took the issue of disproportionate allocations into a congressional budget hearing. Davao Oriental Rep. Thelma Almario complained that Mindanao only received a pitiful P3.7 billion from government’s P28 billion public infrastructure program (PIP). Former Maguindanao and now Shariff Kabungsuan Rep. Didagen Dilangalen said that in order to make up for the official neglect of years past, Congress ought to restore the P19 billion it slashed from what was originally a P47 billion PIP, and channel the amount to Mindanao. He said that because of lack of national support, development in Muslim Mindanao was “insignificant,” and warned of “a never-ending poor economic condition” of his constituents.

The National Economic Development Authority (Neda) responded by stating that the Ramos administration was making up for the budgetary trickles by launching peace overtures with the Moro National Liberation Front. Peace-building efforts will eventually translate to economic dividends, said then Neda Director General Cielito Habito. Besides, he said, “in every opportunity that we can have, we will always make a special case for Mindanao to fill up the deficiencies in the domestic allocation of funds.”

Not very reassuring, those words.

Bias

And nothing much came after that budget hearing—or other high-level deliberations of such nature. In fact, Manila’s glaring bias against Mindanao was manifested not only in the budget appropriations. At about the time that the MLA was rattling the walls of that congressional hearing in 1997, Mindanao traders demanded that the island receive its “proportionate share” of the coconut levy fund.

Utilizing carefully researched policy inputs, stalwarts at the 6th Mindanao Business Conference in Zamboanga City called on Malacanang to declare as public fund the controversial levies, then estimated to total P140 billion. Mindanao accounted for nearly 64 percent of the country’s total domestic production, and it was only right that it benefited from the fund “to raise the industry’s efficiency and productivity.”

Mindanao leaders then, for all their insular proclivities, clearly did their homework. This was on account of the fact that OP Min, during its heyday, had a strong partiality to policy reform, and brooked no politics and intrigues when it came to delivering intelligent, compelling results.

What came after that heady period can be anybody’s speculation. But one reality remains constant: despite the years of advocacy, Manila isn’t budging.

“This has been a perpetual, anguished cry,” notes former newspaperman and now development official Gus Miclat, of the ceaseless clamor for an appropriate budget share. He adds that the public, including its conscientious officials in government, may now be jaded from the entire exercise, “but woe to all when the people finally become tired of being tired.” (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Nikki R. Gomez served as special aide at the Office of the President-Mindanao during the Ramos administration.)

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