As country battles pandemic, Duterte adopts Bong Go's new pet project

After Malasakit Centers, make way for Balik Probinsya.

President Rodrigo Duterte's longtime aide Senator Bong Go's new pet project just got Malacañang's seal of approval, again assuring him more mileage and association with a major government initiative.

Executive Order No 114, institutionalizing the "Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa" program, was signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on Wednesday, May 6.

Balik Probinsya (nicknamed BP2 by the EO) is Go's latest initiative which he introduced in the middle of the country's battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Only two days before the EO was signed, the Senate adopted a resolution, sponsored mainly by Go, calling on the executive branch to implement the Balik Probinsya program.

He has touted it as a long-term response to the pandemic, with its aim of developing the provinces to entice more people to stay there instead of heading for Metro Manila. The high population density of the megacity, he said, explain its high number of coronavirus cases.

The EO says as much, saying the program is supposed to "boost countryside development and inclusive growth, provide adequate social services, and promote full employment, industrialization" in rural areas.

The Duterte order creates the "Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa Council" to be chaired by the Executive Secretary and count as members 15 secretaries, including the Interior Secretary, Budget Secretary, Public Works and Highways Secretary.

Extensive, but redundant. Part of the Balik Probinsya program is the provision of "comprehensive assistance packages" to encourage workers in Metro Manila or migrant workers to return to their home provinces and find employment there.

But much of the Balik Probinsya program's components aren't anything new. 

It lists down initiatives that the government is already doing through various departments and agencies.

The "Empowerment of Local Industries" component, for instance, says "support shall be particularly provided to micro, small and medium enterprises," which the trade department is already doing through its Negosyo Centers, among other initiatives.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, asked by Rappler what Balik Probinsya's added value is, said it could lead to more funding for existing programs like Negosyo Centers.

A system for connecting provincial businesses to various markets and encouraging businesses to set up shop in provincial economic hubs is also already being pursued by various agencies.

Promoting modern rice farming and farm mechanization, part of the "Food Security and Agricultural Productivity" component of the program, has been the Department of Agriculture's targets even under previous administrations.

The upgrading of local health facilities and building of more hospitals and clinics has always been a Department of Health running goal, with its mandate to improve access to healthcare for all Filipinos.

Existing government plans and programs, like the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 and Ambisyon Natin 2040 already espouse Metro Manila decongestion and rural development as a priority of the administration.

The EO itself says that the short-term implementation of the Balik Probinsya program will make use mainly of existing government programs with ready funding. These will merely be "adapted" under Balik Probinsya.

The priority will be "pipeline or existing programs, activities or projects with available funds or appropriations" which can "readily implemented during the Enhanced and General Community Quarantine," reads the EO.

Funding. The presidential order means the wide array of existing and upcoming government projects, including infrastructure, can now be labeled as part of the Balik Probinsya program, which is associated with Go.

The EO empowers heads of agencies to realign items in their budgets to fund projects that will be promoted as part of Balik Probinsya.

Heavy promoting by Duterte, other officials. In the weeks leading to the EO, government officials, led by no less than Duterte, went out of their way to promote Balik Probinsya.

The program got its big break when Duterte allowed Go to talk about it during his April 23 coronavirus public address, watched by millions of Filipinos.

The address took place during a meeting of the Inter-agency Task force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID).

"Bago ko makalimutan, isingit ko na lang (Before I forget, let me just insert this), and I have asked Bong to talk about this because he was the one who – he was the proponent who submitted it to me," said Duterte in the middle of the public broadcast.

Go then launched into his appeal to the government to implement Balik Probinsya.

"Nananawagan ako sa pamahalaan na mag-umpisang maglatag nung programang 'Balik Probinsya' at iba pang hakbang na magbibigay insentibo sa ating mga kababayan na lumipat mula sa Kamaynilaan at ibang malalaking lungsod papunta ng mga probinsya," said Go.

(I am calling on the government to begin laying the groundwork for the 'Balik Probinsya' program and other steps to incentivize our countryment to move out of Manila and other urban centers and go to the province.)

Go has been present in government task force meetings even if, as senator, he is not part of the executive branch and is not a member of the IATF-EID.

Officials in charge of Palace communications made sure to mention it in radio or television broadcasts mainly about the coronavirus response.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar devoted a few minutes of his Laging Handa PH virtual press briefing to Go and the Balik Probinsya program last April 25.

Videos of Go flashed across the scene as he read out a script about why Go is calling for such a program.

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque also mentioned Balik Probinsya in his April 28 virtual press briefing.

"On other matters, on Balik Probinsya, many are asking about the Balik Probinsya program of Senator Bong Go," said Roque.

In the midst of the pandemic, government officials found time to set a meeting about Balik Probinsya.

"Don't worry, there will be a meeting later with all the agencies of government to discuss the long-term plans for Balik Probinsya," said Roque on April 28.

In an April 26 press release, Go's camp crowed about the momentum the program was gaining in the executive branch.

"Support for the 'Balik Probinsya' program has started to snowball with key officials of the Executive department expressing support to the Senator's initiative," reads the press statement. 

It mentioned the support of Trade Secretary Lopez, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Socioeconomic Planning Acting Secretary Karl Chua, and Agrarian Reform Secretary William Dar.

Before Balik Probinsya, Go's pet project was the Malasakit Center, which he started back when he was Duterte's special assistant. The number of Malasakit Centers grew rapidly in the months leading to the senatorial elections, where Go was a candidate.

Go frequently attended the openings of Malasakit Centers all over the country, leading critics to accuse him of using the program for political mileage. Go won his senatorial bid.

Duterte eventually signed a law ordering Malasakit Centers be established in all public hospitals. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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