Monday, October 15, 2007

Indeed, only the truth is Neda’s redemption

THE refusal of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) to hand over to the Senate certain documents related to the national broadband network (NBN) controversy seems to confirm the view that Neda is part of the problem. It signals how Neda as an institution seem to have lost its way and drifted into the web of a corrupt bureaucracy that is hampering our efforts as a country to achieve progress.

Is Neda trying to hide something fishy as regards the national broadband network deal? Is it part of the huge sleazy transaction? Thus far there isn’t anything that gives reason to believe any one in Neda, from its top brass to the hardworking technical staff below, has made money from this or any other project—the integrity, or at least belief in the integrity, of its individual staffers represents the institution’s one noteworthy quality—but at the rate things have been going, many people understandably start to suspect that someone or some people in the agency is covering up for something stinky.

We used to call Neda the National Economic Council (NEC), a public agency funded by people’s taxes to coordinate government plans, policies and programs. Since its inception, the Filipino people always looked at Neda as an institution free of the taint of corruption and sleazy compromises that characterized Philippine politics—until the NBN came.

It’s unfortunate because prior to the NBN controversy, Neda has always been looked up to by the general public as a public agency that is above partisan and rent-seeking politics. Since the time of Marcos, Neda has never been linked to corrupt deals.

The common perception then seems to be that Neda is staffed by nonpolitical and geeky types whose judgments vis-à-vis programs and projects brought to their attention for evaluation and approval are guided by objective and sound technical and financial assessments and not by political considerations or instincts.

Neda’s recent actions therefore seemed to indicate that, as an institution, it has been dragged to the gutter of survival politics of this administration. The claim of “executive privilege” that its officers now keep invoking has been a classic Malacañang ploy to prevent Congress and the general public from unearthing the truth about controversial deals recently entered into, with questionable characters playing dubious roles.

Do Neda officials really think they can fend off Congress from seeking the truth? We think, however, that this question is secondary. The primary issue is, to what extent would Neda sacrifice its reputation and credibility to save a very unpopular leader or a cause that has been questioned and deserves a just closure?

For giving its approval to a project that was tainted by bribery and corruption (the offer having been exposed by Neda’s former head no less), for its failure to perform due diligence, it has destroyed its credibility as an organization. The only way it can regain this credibility is by coming clean and giving complete access to all the pertinent documents to Congress and the Filipino people. It could choose to tough it out with Congress, but it can only do so at the risk of completely losing the trust and confidence of the general public.

Do Neda officials really think they could ignore Congress’ subpoena powers forever? The doctrine of “executive privilege” by itself is a tenuous ground to stand on. There is no specific constitutional provision on that. The lawyers simply assume that executive privilege is embedded in the separation of powers between and among the Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary. And given the gravity of the issue—a multibillion-peso loan allegedly marred by bribery and wholesale corruption—it’s only a matter of time before they have to cave in to the clamor, not only from Congress, but the citizenry.

Section 5 of Executive Order 230, which reorganized the Neda, says: “In the formulation of basic policies, plans, programs and projects, there shall be maximum participation by and consultation with concerned private-sector groups, community organizations and beneficiaries and local government units in order to ensure that priority needs are incorporated into such policies, plans, programs and projects…”

The provision mandate Neda to ensure “maximum participation” by the private sector and civil society in development planning. Transparency and openness is assumed in the said mandate.

As of this writing, the news came in that Neda officials had declared that only a court order will compel them to open the NBN documents to the public. How they will then, given the premise such a court order indeed comes, make those fine distinctions between “official papers” and “official deliberations” is another thing worth watching. This is one game that won’t end that easily. The teasing out for truth is a long, difficult struggle in this country, as recent events have shown. The last thing that exercise needs is a respected central planning agency seen as having allowed professionalism to become subservient to politics. Indeed, complete transparency will be Neda’s atonement and redemption. There is no other way. (Note: written as editorial for BusinessMirror, Oct 16 2007)

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