Why Patronage Politics Cripples the Philippines

This blog is now more than a year old. There is an impression perhaps that nothing ever good is said about the Philippines. This is a correct impression if one looks only at how government approaches or addresses the challenges. There are people, however, that are making a difference and there are positive actions taken by individuals as well as nongovernment organizations. One huge difference between what is going in Philippine basic education and the rescue and relief effort in the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda is time. Problems in Philippine basic education have been lingering for a much longer time than the lifetime of this blog. The crisis in the central Philippines is less than a week long. Yet, in spite of this difference, these share something in common. One simply has to consider the following phrases, for example, "Every child a reader by Grade 1" and "Zero casualty". One simply has to look at logistics. One simply has to look at the ability to prioritize. One simply has to look at the lack of evidence-based actions. And here is one more: Patronage politics.

In the Washington Post's Monkey Cage, a recent paper by University of Michigan political scientists James Atkinson, Allen Hicken and Nico Ravanilla provides an insightful examination of politics in the Philippines specifically how it responds to the needs of people. It considers, for example, the typhoons that have historically passed and affected regions in the country.

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Pork & Typhoons: The Political Economy of Disaster Assistance in the Philippines
This is a first shot at testing the following set of hypothesis:
  • The amount of per capita reconstruction funds distributed to a given area is positively related to the extent of storm damage in that area.
  • All else equal, areas controlled by political allies should receive more per capita reconstruction funds than other areas.
It is a good first shot because it does ask the right question. However, looking at the map which made use of 2001-2010 data, the regions recently hit by very strong typhoons (especially Mindanao) are not yet properly represented. A lot of the storms in the past ten years have been concentrated on the northeast side of the Luzon island. This is the limitation of the data. Here, one greatly depends on how the years from 2001 through 2010 correctly represent the typhoon hazards or risks in the country.

As an alternative, it may be useful to instead map the country according to poverty. I hear a lot of people say that in America, tornadoes seem to find where the poor people live. Typhoons do too. The point is that the poor are much more vulnerable to natural disasters. Mapping poverty therefore can provide a picture of where the biggest needs would arise if disaster does strike. Here then is the poverty map from Rappler:

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The above map should then be placed side by side against where funds from calamity, pork barrel and Disbursement Acceleration Program have gone. 

Tacloban City is not home to friends or allies of the residents in the national palace in Manila. In fact, its mayor is related to the wife of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. This of course is not a scientific approach to collecting data, so here is one that is not anecdotal. In the pork barrel program, each member of the House of Representatives and senator is entitled to the same amount. "By 2008, each congressman could collect up to P70 million, while the senators, P200 million, per year, in pork." (Malou Mangahas, "PDAF racket rocks ‘daang matuwid’", Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism). This is equality or fairness. What the Philippines needs is equity, however. Areas of greater need require greater aid. The president also has special funds. Such system is very much susceptible to political patronage. In the most recent barangay elections (these are the elected officials of the smallest unit of the Philippine government), people are already being told to choose those who are seen as allies of officials at higher levels. It is not longer about what a particular candidate can offer or do, but what a particular candidate can get from the governor, for example, as favors. Of course, the officials at the higher level use the leaders at the barangay level for the grassroot mobilization necessary in their campaign in the next election. This is really a "I scratch your back and you scratch mine" relationship.

The same happens in Philippine basic education. Buildings for classrooms are constructed not because of a greater demonstrated need but through political patronage. If the mayor of a town is not in good terms with the governor, it is simply much more difficult to secure funding for school resources in the town from the office of the governor.

The Philippines being divided into so many islands and so many languages naturally give rise to clans or political clubs. And in times of disaster or great need, it is not what you know or what is known, it is who you know. Political patronage is really a formula that makes challenges catastrophic.