MONITORING - the process of observing an activity to check that it is carried out fairly and correctly - has assumed a high profile since 1 July. Let us hope that this healthy manifestation of transparency continues for at least the next 70 months.
Associated with monitoring is the concept of a national conversation, where there is genuine feedback to proposed policies. Perhaps the most significant example of what we hope will turn out to be a substantive conversation is associated with Armin Luistro's proposals for radical changes to our education system. The pragmatic ones see the proposals as recommending a change from a mediocre 10 year system to a worse 12 year system. After all, the 2009 proposal by CHED to extend four year college courses to five years was met with disapproval from the vast majority.
Sec. Luistro's task, therefore, is to explain that his proposals are not merely about the length of schooling but also raising content quality. He may believe that he has done this already but implementing change, particularly fundamental change, requires amazing tenacity on the part of those who are seeking change. It is inappropriate to show signs of impatience towards those who are unconvinced that change is desirable. There are many aspects, standards of teaching for example, which need to be addressed. We hope Sec Luistro will stay the course and engage in many vigorous public debates on his proposals.
* * *
The Sugar Regulatory Administration is an organization which has a range of authority embodied in EO18, May 28, 1986. But, in practice, the SRA is also a monitoring body, designed to ensure fairness to all. We wish newly-appointed Gina Bautista Martin every success with this challenging and important role.
For many of us, the industry is a mixture of transparency and opacity. The transparent part s are at the beginning and the end. NFSP tells us the prices its members obtain and we know the prices paid by the end-consumer. But we know little about what goes in between. What we do know however is that the margin between the end - consumer price and the price obtained by the NFSP member is greater this year than ever before. So the president's inaugural speech with its strictures directed towards middlemen seems to be appropriate in the context of the sugar industry. We hope this issue will be addressed by the SRA.
Sec 2 (B) of EO18 states that an SRA objective is to: 'Establish and maintain such balanced relation between production and requirement of sugar and such marketing conditions as will insure stabilized prices at a level reasonably profitable to the producers and fair to consumers.' Well said. But in order to achieve this objective there needs to be an untrammeled flow of sugar from producers to consumers. There are two aspects which interfere with the sugar's untrammeled flow, neither of which is within the control of SRA.
The first is smuggling, which of course is illegal, but the SRA has no police powers. It is dependent on the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to prevent smuggling. A recent, well-publicized example showed that BOC is not as pro-active in eliminating sugar smuggling as we would like. It required considerable NFSP prodding before BOC officers in Cebu took any interest.
Smuggling exists because of our 38% tariff. No tariff. No smuggling. At a midnight cabinet meeting in June, a decision was made by the previous administration to reduce the tariff progressively from 2011 until 2014 so that by 2015 the tariff would be zero. Over the years there have been extensive discussions within ASEAN about our need for sugar tariffs. It remains to be seen whether the current administration accepts the idea of zero sugar tariff by 2015.
The second aspect which interferes with the flow of sugar through the system is hoarding. The problem with hoarding is that, although anti-social, it is not illegal. Also hoarding, like pornography, is recognizable when we see it but it is hard to define. Naming and shaming sugar hoarders is the only weapon we have. Perhaps we should use it EO18 also specifies SRA powers which may not currently be in operation. Sec 3 (A, B) states: 'The SRA shall have the following powers and functions (A) To recommend the establishment of a sugar production quota which shall be attached (to) the land for each planter. (B) To institute regulations for implementing, controlling and monitoring the production quotas.'
I am not aware that this edict reminiscent of Cuba's Fidel Castro, is in force. In any case it is not implementable due to the many factors which affect yields, including the vagaries of our climate.
SRA's monitoring role is crucial now that we are a net importer of sugar. It is vital that SRA does not fall into the same trap as NFA with importation. The NFA has built up a deficit of P177 billion as a result of losses associated with rice importation costs of being much higher than market prices. Recent statements by Archie Amarra have suggested that the retail price of sugar could, as result of importation difficulties, reach P70 per kg. It is likely, we believe, that DTI would resist the implementation of further substantial price hikes to sugar consumers.
* * *
Government monitoring of our national flag carrier, PAL, is shedding light on a management style that many of us find unpleasant. The unkind ones have updated the PAL acronym from Plane Always Late to Pilots Already Left. Now it turns out that PAL terminates cabin crew when they turn 40. Recommending new labor laws is rarely a good idea because many such laws are either unimplementable in practice or even counterproductive. But firing people at an age where they may well be an important or even the only breadwinner in the household is cruel. We recognize that being a cabin crew member is physically demanding job but many 40 year olds are still in excellent condition. The decision to fire people at 40 is not only repugnant but also poor management. As a passenger I prefer the competence of mature and experienced staff over the back-chat of a snippy 25 year old.
* * *
Monitoring is important. We all learn much. We look forward to this Administration's extension of monitoring to, for example, the processes which lead to the formulation of infrastructure projects. Good monitoring leads to greater transparency!