A Poverty Resource Hub of Focus on the Global South Philippines

“We Want the Sectors to Have a Voice within Government”

“We Want the Sectors to Have a Voice within Government”

Jan 14, 2012

“We Want the Sectors to Have a Voice within Government”

On November 10, Focus on the Global South interviewed Secretary Joel Rocamora of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) in his Quezon City office. The interview was done in the context of wanting to hear from the anti-poverty point person himself, amid criticisms hurled against the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), what opportunities the marginalized sectors have under the P-Noy government and what kind of anti-poverty strategies the new government will set into  motion. It was a candid and insightful interview at best.

Focus: Why NAPC? Was this a position you have always envisioned yourself as taking in government if an opportunity presented itself?
Secretary Joel Rocamora (SJR): I was in the campaign staff of Noynoy. Every opportunity I got then, I pushed for Noy not to allow the other presidential candidates get the better part of the pro-poor territory. Erap[i] and Villar [ii]could not go into an anti-corruption campaign, but we could stretch ours toward a pro-poor stance. After the elections, Butch Abad and I talked, and I asked him what they would want me to do. Butch[iii] said “eh ikaw naman ang nagtutulak ng pro-poor baka maganda na isulat mo, magbuo ka ng pro-poor strategy.” (It was you who have been pushing for the pro-poor perspective; it would be good if you could develop and write a pro-poor strategy)

I organized a team from among the volunteers of Dinky[iv]. We wrote the draft in June, just after the elections. But Noy wanted to prioritize the establishment of a new brand of presidency—a different kind of presidency that would really show he is anti-corruption. His first step was to appoint people of unimpeachable record, and who are not only technically competent but have track record of being reformists.  When it was time for him to form his cabinet—this was around August—Noy asked if I was ready to stand by my pro-poor advocacy. He put me in NAPC.  My first day of work here was in September 27.

So, to go back to the question about going into government—in my present position, there’s a lot more that can be done and gained for the poor. In terms of resources as well as connections with other agencies, I can give pride to the anti-poverty work in government.

Focus: How has NAPC performed based on its mission and objectives? Has it been an effective anti-poverty agency? What were the weaknesses that you’ve so far seen and how do you intend to address these?

SJR: NAPC, according to the law and according to how it was conceived by the people who started it during the time of FVR[v], primarily works for and with sectors; it assists the sectors in organizing themselves so they can have a voice within the government. There might have been misconceptions though that NAPC is just an event organizer, the main aim of which is to organize a sectoral assembly; the sectoral assembly then elects a sectoral council; a sectoral council elects a sectoral representative; a sectoral representative elects a vice chair for NAPC. And then NAPC organizes an en banc meeting of the commission, chaired by the president, with corresponding agencies sitting in the meeting as well.

Although NAPC is not an implementing agency, it is has its own projects that place it in a better position to actually make decisions about the allocation of resources for the poor. For example, during the time of Mary Nicolas[vi], she developed a water service project. Government’s money has been invested in this, but when Hyatt 10 happened, a politician took over the funds. So, we conceptualized a way to run that project whereby NAPC provides the secretariat role but then we work together with the Department of Health; we pay attention to water borne diseases identified by DOH. Now, I want to link this project with local governments. Jesse Robredo[vii] has performance-based grants program, and we agreed that the P1.5 billion funds for this water project will become one of the resources for local governments with good performance.

Focus: How much decision-making authority and implementing powers does the NAPC secretary have vis-à-vis other agencies addressing poverty/poverty related issues and implementing the government’s social reform agenda?

SJR: NAPC’s role is to coordinate government’s pro-poor programs. But as NAPC secretary, I have to make a major effort to get the agencies with the money to listen. Now, thankfully, it might help that I’m the oldest in the cabinet and that I drafted the anti- poverty strategy. P-Noy wants a strategy for the duration of his whole term. I have been tasked to formulate an indicative anti-poverty budget for the whole term of P-Noy.

Focus: What is your vision for NAPC as an institution?

SJR: I want NAPC to be pro-active in pushing the advocacies of the sector. For example, the demolition in North Triangle did not sit well with Noy and he called for a meeting to work out what government can do as far as following the laws on demolitions and relocations are concerned, which are good laws but are not being implemented. I helped by organizing informal consultations with urban poor groups. And then, once the urban poor groups have worked out their agenda, I plan to bring it to Jesse Robredo and Dinky Soliman, “dahil ako sigurado ako na pro poor, pro urban poor sila.” (…as I am sure that they are pro-poor, pro-urban poor) This is what I meant by being pro-active.

But we are going to choose also the sectoral advocacies we are going to support. “Kasi baka mamaya ang advocacy pala ng sektor ay ibagsak ang naghaharing uri, eh di ako payag dyan dahil naghaharing uri na ako.” (Some sectors might be calling for the downfall of the ruling class, and I will not agree with that because I am now with the ruling class—said in jest, therefore drawing laughter from Focus staff–Editor)

So, that’s on one side. On the other side, we also have to address some confusion resulting from the election process of representatives of the sectors.  When Erap was removed from office, those associated with him were also removed as sectoral representatives in NAPC; when Ging Deles[viii] joined the Hyatt 10[ix], people who came in during her term were again replaced. We also want to think of how the sectors might be more active in the implementation of pro-poor programs.

The framework we use until now is the Kalahi[x] convergence, through which we localize programs; we try to replicate national programs at the local level. The region has some level of authority for planning because the big government agencies also have planning process at the regional level. But the actual implementation happens in the lower levels of government. I want to have a mapping of where the poor are located geographically and where the pro-poor programs are being implemented. I also plan to have a mapping of sectors and where their groups are found and what their advocacies are. There are always emerging new organizations. Those who volunteered during Noynoy’s campaign, for example, are now being converted into something which is called People Power Volunteers for Reform or PPVR. These are members of the middle class who have the resources and time. We can bring in the local government and civil society into the process.

I have a maximum goal, but I don’t know how much I can do to reach this maximum. Well, in the end anti-poverty work will work when there is economic growth, and there are data showing that the economic growth during the first decade of the century was poverty negative, not even neutral, but negative. Growth generated more poverty because it generated worsening disparities in income distribution. I am pushing for structural changes, which will reorient economic policies. “Sa totoo lang, hindi naman ultra radical na magsabi ka na, pwede ba tutukan muna natin ang domestic economy dahil hindi tayo makaka- sigurado sa external economic relations dahil ang gulo-gulo ng mga markets natin.”  (Honestly, I think one is not being radical when one says that the priority should be the domestic economy because we are not assured by our external economic relations and the markets are in a mess.)

That’s not a Walden Bello[xi] type of advocacy. But I think if Noy says that, then it will create an impact. I also want to push for generation of more revenues from taxation—taxation revenues should be part of asset reform. Taxes should be collected from the people who can afford to pay in a significant way. That’s an asset reform. This is simple enough for me: rationalize tax incentives which have resulted in more corporations paying less tax. The other thing is if we want to build the domestic economy, we have to think of agriculture. There’s no way we can sustain economic growth in the country if agriculture is not pushed to grow faster. And then specific to anti poverty work, 75 percent of the poor are in the rural areas. A large percentage of the populace relies on agriculture. Having seven to eight percent growth does not necessarily impact on poverty. Faster growth in agriculture will have greater impact on the anti-poverty work. These are the structural changes I am thinking about.

As I was saying earlier, I want NAPC to become a major player in the pro-poor agenda, but I can only achieve this by doing a better job in the sectors. I probably won’t start the process of electing new sector representatives until February next year or so, as we are still doing a mapping of the sectors; so that when we say inclusive, we really mean it. But I want the sectors to be strong enough in organizing so they would be the ones to push for people power within government. I cannot claim that I can unite the sectors.

I also need to beef up the capability of the staff for economic research. I need people who can do technical stuff. I hope I can achieve this before the end of the year or by first month of next year.

The money for the CCT is not unlimited, so we need to improve government’s capability to generate employment. Though we already have a 2011 budget, what I’m pushing is for the infrastructure budgets of the different departments to be examined to check which projects can use labor intensive approaches in order to maximize employment selection. Often, this is not a consideration of engineers of the Department of Public Works and Highway. I have a long term goal on this, and we can begin with disasters. What we are proposing is in places hit by disasters, where economies suffer, we can give job guarantees to victims of disasters, say for instance work guarantee for 50 days.

Focus: How would you situate your vision/social reform agenda with that of the President’s?  Can you give us a picture of the overall anti-poverty/social reform agenda of government?  What is your prognosis of the chances of realizing this agenda?

SJR: You have to think of reform as a series of phases. For instance, we called for the abolition of pork barrel because it has been a source of corruption. But we have to find alternate ways of dealing with the development financing needs of local areas, because there are studies that show that in fact the pork barrel accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the development funds of local governments. That’s where Jesse Robredo’s performance-based grants come in. Our first step should only be to remove the insertions, because there lies the power play. Removing the insertions is not only an important reform in money terms. It is also an important structure reform in national legislature. Butch was looking at ‘twisting’ budget priorities towards pro-poor programs through the CCT, for instance, but Congress wouldn’t want this, because they will not earn from this.

I think Filipino political culture in the end is one of the most important obstacles to reform. This is not just a struggle between those who want things to remain the same versus those who want change. This is also how people think about change.

Focus: Coming from civil society, what were your expectations going to government? Can you describe your experience so far?

SJR: The most difficult for me is changing my fashion sense, getting used to wearing long pants and shoes, and to be called ‘sir’. The staff is finding it difficult to heed my request that they call me “Ka Joel.” It helps that I am a political scientist, and I have the capacity to analyze and understand things; I am thus able to control my depression level because I understand why things are the way they are. I’ve also known since before people in the government. My expectations are not unrealistic; this is only as important as the level of ambition we set for ourselves.  It would be easy to justify the areas where we have limitations.  As for colleagues in the political movement, they are willing to listen to me. I am still thinking of organizing meetings with people and groups, and they are already coming to me, asking to meet with me.  So I guess it helps that I crossed over. So far, I think this is very challenging; my level of frustration has not gone up. If worse comes to worst, I can always invite my friends to come have a drink.

I’m building a powerhouse, and many people have offered to volunteer. We still have to figure out how to get them; to mobilize them.

[i] Former president, Joseph Estrada

[ii] Presidential candidate and Senator, Manny Villar

[iii] Florencio Abad, now Budget and Management secretary

[iv] Corazon Soliman, now secretary of Department of Social Welfare and Development

[v] Former President Fidel V. Ramos

[vi] Imelda Nicolas, NAPC Secretary-Genaral under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo government

[vii] Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG)

[viii] Teresita Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process under the present government

[ix] A group of 10 cabinet members and bureau chiefs who resigned from GMA’s government to protest the electoral fraud the president committed; they gathered at the Hyatt Hotel to announce their resignation

[x] The Kalahi is an anti-poverty program aiming to empower the poor and deliver basic services to them; one the core strategies is to create regional centers or replication of this program involving regional and/or local stakeholders

[xi] Akbayan Party-list Representative Walden Bello and Senior Analyst of Focus on the Global South

 (Published in Focus on the Philippines: November-December 2010: http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/469/52/)

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