In addition to getting the correct saw, “sharpening the saw” at the Department of Agriculture (DA) must also be immediately done. This is needed for agriculture to progress from its dismal 1.6-percent average growth during the last six years.

The phrase “sharpen the saw” comes from management expert Stephen Covey. It means “enhancing the greatest asset—people.” The DA personnel were among the most talented and committed people I worked with when I was the DA undersecretary for operations. But because of misguided direction, they were not “sharpened” to maximize their potential contributions. Worse, some agreed to corruption under pain of dismissal. Much has improved since then. After writing weekly columns on agriculture for the past 17 years, it is now that I see agriculture possibly realizing its great promise.

To successfully cut a tree, you need a large saw. Equally important is that the saw should be sharpened. The DA never got a large enough saw to address our agriculture properly. Worse, this small saw was not sharpened to effectively produce the desired results.

Today, we have a chance. Because of the stimulus fund, agriculture is getting a much larger budget (or saw) of P66 billion out of the proposed P1.2-trillion fund. Still, agriculture should get a larger share than its current 5.5 percent. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, through its president, Benedicto Yujuico, said: “Given the importance of farming and fishery to our economy, the P6-billion loan allocation is miniscule in comparison with the assistance given to other industries—P43 billion to tourism …” Here is the little known DA budget breakdown: P32 billion for the Plant, Plant, Plant program, including the expansion of farm areas, rice resiliency, an integrated livestock and corn program, coconut-based diversification and fisheries development; P10 billion for food logistics and markets, involving local government unit extension support, an agriculture and fisheries commodity exchange and digital agriculture; and P15 billion for a cash for work program, with the details still being finalized.

Since the abolished private sector committees mandated by the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act to provide budget input have yet to be restored, others may wish to contribute their input by emailing DA’s chief of staff, Undersecretary Cheryl Caballero ([email protected]).

Now that we have a larger saw, sharpening the saw is the next step. The very qualified DA personnel must be revitalized to navigate the new normal with creative initiatives. I learned the importance of “sharpening the saw” through fellowships I earned abroad (e.g. from Yale, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University), foreign business experience (e.g. from Xerox Corp.) and the Philippine and Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) presidency of cement manufacturer associations.

In the government, all the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) regional directors I supervised had MBAs from the Asian Institute of Management. At the DA, though many were smarter than the DTI directors, not one had a management degree. In 1987, I helped introduce the globally recognized ISO 9000 management system to the country. Within three years, each DTI unit had this system. Today, 30 years later, the DA has less than 10 of their 27 major units with ISO 9000. The DTI has submitted more than 30 industry road maps guided by a standard outline to the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. The DA has not submitted any, and does not follow a standard outline. Their road maps lack thoroughness and practicability.

The shortfall is due to key DA senior officials who did not bother to “sharpen the saw.” Secretary William Dar must be credited for not only getting a larger saw (or budget), but has also committed to sharpen the saw. He is ordering professionally done realistic road maps, installing management systems such as ISO 9000 in every major unit, and strengthening the management capabilities of key DA personnel.

Armed with the larger DA budget and the sharpening of the DA saw, immediate public-private action must now be taken so that agriculture not only meets the urgent COVID-19 challenge, but also fulfills its critical role in our development.

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