Sunday, August 27, 2006

CSR: why don't we call a spade a spade?!

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.” (Gordon Gekko, in the film Wall Street (1987).

"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare)

THE Philippine corporate sector is currently abuzz with the latest in-thing from the West: “corporate social responsibility” or CSR. These mostly pertain to acts of the corporate goodness ranging from donation to charities, to tree planting, to feeding malnourished children of slum dwellers, to providing market solutions to festering social problems, all usually done under the glare of media attention. But companies here in the Philippines should better define what they really mean by CSR, otherwise the general public would simply think it’s another term for public relations gimmickry that has nothing to do with improving people’s lives.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development defines CSR as “the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community at large.”

Supposedly, it started as a response by corporations in the West to global problems like the growing disparities within and among nations, worsening poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continued destruction of the world ecosystems. Events like the collapse of Berlin Wall, the riots in Seattle during the 1999 WTO ministerial conference, and the demonization of “big business” as the prime beneficiaries of globalization have forced global corporations to rethink how they do business. Somehow, they realized the rules of the game are changing, that the “right image” is increasingly becoming important as determinant of profitability, and that the traditional public relations strategies no longer worked as effectively as in the past. Voila! Corporate social responsibility. CSR!

In the Philippines, CSR has been manifested in various forms. One is the classic “resource transfer,” of companies doling out plastic bags and notebooks during school openings, a few feeding programs here and there, and a trophy or two for the winning basketball team in some forgotten barangay. It could also be about community relations like providing some health centers and school buildings, livelihood projects surrounding the cellular antenna sites to discourage rebels and malcontents from burning them down, among others. It could also be through the adoption of “codes of conduct” affirming commitments to certain values like “greening the value chain,” doing away with sweatshop operations, among others.

At the surface, most of them are harmless, even nice projects. But it begs the question why companies are doing the things that government are supposed to do and whether or not they are really helping solve social problems. Certainly, these are projects that are first and foremost, beneficial to the company. This is because “socially responsible” companies usually attract fund managers and investors, and consumers are likely to buy products and services from morally and environmentally upright companies. Again, this is fine, only that these are probably ineffective and unsustainable, and some might even be seen as hypocritical. Why?

“CSR is about giving back to society what we get from society,” says one executive of the League of Corporate Foundations (LCF), an umbrella organization of CSR practitioners in the country.

And how much do some businesses really give back to society? They say its P4.2 billion (US$80 million) in the last few years! By itself that’s huge, but taken in context, it’s a drop in the bucket. And how much do they get from society?

Let’s not count the companies’ gross revenue, for certainly they do provide the goods and services for which society pays. Let’s not count the tax evaded. Let’s count only the fiscal perks that they draw from the public coffers through tax holiday, tax credits, duty-free importation of raw materials, among many others through lobbying and connections with bureaucrats. These are estimated at about P300 billion a year! And for what? According to UP economists, almost 90 percent of these fiscal incentives granted were redundant, meaning, these companies would have invested anyway without those perks. Had many of the country’s firms instead just paid honest dues to the government, the state would have not suffered fiscal deficits, and the government would have had enough money to pay for infrastructure, rural development, social services, health, and education. It means that with taxes paid honestly, there would have been no need for “CSR” those little paternalistic gestures by corporations for which they repeatedly issue press releases.

Don’t get us wrong. We want local companies to be nice and compassionate to their employees, customers, suppliers, and to local communities where they are operating. But we simply want to highlight the fact that companies should never do CSR at the expense of their larger responsibilities to society.

And certainly, instead of firms doing giving away doles as well as tiny and ineffective projects, society would actually benefit more if firms just internalize CSR as the centerpiece of business strategy—like producing products that poor people can afford, providing electricity and water to impoverished areas, providing microfinancing to “nonbankable” farmers, cleaning the streets by using garbage as inputs to some socially beneficial products, providing decent and affordable houses, setting up advanced science and technology schools that welcome poor but smart students. That way, companies might yet transform Philippine society.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Distress signals from the job ads

THE results of BusinessMirror’s Jobs Ads Index for July seem to provide mixed signals, something that the country’s leaders, both from the private and public sectors, should take heed of and do something about.

On the one hand, the 36-percentage jump in the Jobs Ads Index seems to indicate that business confidence, at least in the short-term, is up. Certainly, business managers are not likely to put job advertisements out there if they feel demand or overall business prospects are dim. When one expects higher volumes of business, one would likely seek more people to hire.

The top 10 job advertisers include cyberservices (e.g. call centers, back office operations, engineering design, software development, medical transcription, animation, among others); construction and engineering; manufacturing; wholesale and retail; health and social work; transportation, storage and communication; and mining and quarrying.

What sort of skills and occupational types are required by these industries? The six major ones—by rank from highest to lowest—are professional and technical people, clerical, production-related workers, sales people, administrative and managerial and service workers.

On the surface, this statistical pattern seems to indicate that broad-based growth is probably in the offing.

On the other hand, a major component for the surge in the Jobs Ads Index is global demand for Filipino labor, a trend that could surely accelerate brain drain in the Philippines.

Are the other countries harvesting the country’s skilled labor and professional class? That seems to be one of the implications of the rising share of job advertisements in local media and job sites. In June about 30 percent of the job advertisements in the Philippines were for overseas work. In July, the share of overseas jobs rose to 35 percent.

Certainly, that’s good because people do get options in life. The country’s 5-percent gross domestic product growth rate has not been good enough to soak up joblessness. The vibrancy of the global job market therefore would somehow ease the pressure from the high rate of joblessness in the country. Imagine a scenario where a significant chunk of those 8 million discontented—mostly from the ranks of middle class and skilled professionals—stay within the country’s borders, while no one from abroad is pumping in more than US$12 billion into the economy. Then one can see how overseas employment has prevented the country from sliding into utter social and political implosion.

This economic strength, however, will eventually hurt the local economy once a certain threshold is reached. What that threshold is, of course, is the big question. Right now, there are more than 8 million Filipinos abroad. That’s equivalent to about 10 percent of the total Philippine population and probably close to 15 percent of the country’s labor force. We keep on sending our talents abroad and we will wake up one day to find there are not enough skilled and technical people around to hire for crucial expansion programs and projects by local businesses. For how long can the Philippine economy keep sending out its best and brightest?

Of course, the basics of labor supply and demand says that once local industries feel the crunch, they are likely to raise wages, thus preventing people from leaving or attracting those who have left. With rising wages, the middle class and skilled professional and technical class could now afford to dream of a better future even if they stay. This perspective is certainly optimistic and ignores the fact that such a phenomenon would mean the loss of much economic opportunity for the country. In the last five years, major job creators in the country have been the global sectors like the business process outsourcing and electronics. These are footloose industries whose main reason for existence here is the availability of a large pool of skilled labor. Once everybody thinks there is no longer room for expansion due to the skills crunch, new players are likely to look elsewhere.

Local business makers need not have to wait for the magic of supply and demand to do something. Certainly, the problem of diaspora lies in economics, but much of its solution lies in compassion and common sense. For far too long, the country’s policy on wages had involved mostly politically-driven increases on minimum pay once inflation rates approach the double-digit rate. Since the pay scales of most professionals and technical people are usually a little higher than the minimum wages, they have not benefited from the pay raises, thus resulting in distortions. That policy environment means that in the last decade the pay scales of most professionals and skilled workers have been declining in real terms; and for most of them, the uncomfortably narrow disparities between their shrinking incomes and those of the usually-protected minimum-wage workers has added to the disillusion and compulsion to leave.

This is not to argue for a legislated wage for the professional class here. But obviously the need of the moment is for local managers to have a paradigm shift of sorts. Local managers are used to looking at their workers, including the professional and technical ones, as dispensable cost items. Now, they should start looking at them as partners in business. They should invest in their training, pay them based on their real worth, and institute career-tracking for each. That way, both business managers and their skilled people could afford to dream together. And they will dream here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Wanted: A disclosure policy for government

WHY don’t we adopt a clear disclosure policy for the government? After all, we have strict policy on that vis-à-vis companies listed in the stock market and it all seems to be working out well?

The reason for the disclosure policy that government imposed on listed companies is fairly simple: to make the market transparent. Behind this are several assumptions. One is that a well-informed citizenry is likely to make wise investment decisions. Two, well-informed investors are likely to improve corporate governance by penalizing nonperformers and supporting those that are doing better. Of course, the least of the reasons is to ensure continuing confidence of investors on the market. Otherwise, they wouldn’t invest. Regularly, listed companies release updates of their financial performance, change in leadership, and major decisions by their stockholders and managers.

Maybe the Philippine government could do the same if only to restore confidence in the country’s bureaucracy and political institutions.

Recently, Pulse Asia released its latest survey and the findings simply confirmed widespread cynicism of the government. About 21 percent of the people feel that the “country is hopeless”; and 30 percent would rather migrate to other countries if they had the chance. Certainly, among the primary reasons for this is the continuing perception of graft in high places, a major factor for which is the utter lack of transparency in government transactions and activities.

Why did the fertilizer scam happen? Why all the brouhaha about Comelec officials playing fairy godmothers to politicians during election season? Why the bungled computerization of the electoral process? Because nobody really knows what’s going on inside those opaque and rotten institutions. That’s because, despite all our pretensions to democracy and open society, we don’t have a reliable, legally-mandated system of accessing information.

How do people react every time the government announces a good gross domestic product growth rate? “We don’t feel it,” they say.

For every investment figure from the Board and Investments and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza), the people say “these are just promises for them to get fiscal perks but no one knows if these investments would push through and when. The figures are probably bloated.”

For every “moderate inflation rate,” people will say “moderate prices are only in the papers; not in the market stalls.”

For every promise of a major economic infrastructure, people will say, “it’s just another source of graft.”

And for every news story about graft and corruption hitting the headlines, people will say “just as I suspected.”

The main point here is that people are wary of the government’s information system. The prevailing perception seems to be that whatever information the government dishes out to the public through media releases is likely to the selective. Besides, government spin doctors may have massaged and masticated all of them to paint a rosy picture of reality. One cannot help but suspect the same because of the lack of a system by which people could verify most of these information or statistics independently.

The solution to this conundrum is simple: a disclosure policy that ensures that the country’s institutions, bureaucracies, organizations, and units of government provide adequate and truthful information to the public on a regular basis.

Somehow, this lack of transparency in government operations partly explains the country’s inability to grow and prosper. It’s not for lack of good ideas. In fact, Philippine policy makers in this country are among the most creative. For instance, the Philippines is among the first ones to have a build-operate-transfer law that creatively harnesses private sector resources and energy for infrastructure development. But right now, our build-operate-transfer system is totally discredited, thanks to bureaucrats and politicians who creatively used the same law for personal enrichment. Why? Because of the lack of transparency in all those BOT transactions and projects. That we are stuck with a multibillion useless “international airport” that we can’t operate is a testimony to how serious this problem of lack of transparency is. Remember the PEA-Amari scam? That’s another shameless example. Had citizens of this country gotten effective access to information, these scams may not have happened.

All transactions of the government, staff meetings, and technical working groups concern the public interest and therefore all these things need to be disclosed by the government. A lot of graft and corrupt activities, shady deals and horse-trading happen during these government meetings, “technical working groups,” and lobbying activities by cronies and friends. People therefore should have ready access to minutes of meetings of tax-funded projects, technical working group meetings, memoranda, statistics, and documents related to all government activities, especially biddings and purchases.

People in the government, the bureaucrats, are probably reluctant to disclose information. But maybe Congress could do something about it. Congress could enact a “public disclosure law” requiring all instrumentalities of the government to disclose all information to the public regularly through the Web or through regular reports in a prescribed format. This is very important in view of super infrastructure projects that the government is cooking up in the runup to the 2007 mid-term elections. These projects costing several hundreds of billions pesos would simply go down the drain without adequate safeguards. And the first safeguard would be information.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reaping the whirlwind

The message is loud and clear: 41 percent of Filipinos feels their destiny is controlled by an oligarchic few; 29 percent fears the mobs may rise in violent action after losing faith in democracy; 21 percent fees that the “country is hopeless”; and 30 percent would rather migrate to other countries if they had the chance.

That’s the findings of the latest survey by the private polling agency Pulse Asia. And it’s an indictment of the country’s political and economic elite. The leaders of this country should better listen.

Imagine 30 percent of the country’s population leaving the country should they have an opportunity. Given the resources needed for migration, it follows that those who are going to leave are from the country’s professional class, people who have the skills needed by the country in nation building. And this phenomenon is happening right now. Many of our professional class are leaving as domestic helpers, engineers, nurses, teachers, and caregivers. It’s unfortunate that this trend is happening in such a time that certain sectors like electronics, outsourcing, mining, aviation, and other sectors of the service economy are growing.

Another disturbing aspect of the Pulse Asia survey result is the growing percentage of the undecided. The survey says that 41 percent is undecided on the issue on the oligarchy; 41 percent undecided on the prospect of Philippine democracy; 32 percent undecided on martial law; 30 percent undecided on whether or not “the country is hopeless; and another 30 percent undecided on whether or not they would migrate.

What do these numbers mean? It could mean that a significant number are getting sick and tired of the country’s political institutions and prospects as well as the capability of its leaders to put their acts together. A growing number of people simply don’t care about anything anymore.

Perhaps an equally important message that the people want to send to the country’s political and economic masters lies in historical trend in those who disagree with the questions raised in the survey. In July 2002, Pulse Asia said 68 percent of adult Filipinos disagreed to the statement “this country is hopeless.” Since then it has been on the downtrend to reach 49 percent in July 2006.

What all the figures seem to indicate is that the country’s leadership has lost its capacity to inspire hope about the country’s future. This is bad; what this country needs is a strong citizenry, willing and able to participate in its political process.

Certainly, the spin doctors in Malacañang may have felt these dark foreboding sentiments from the people. That should be one of the major reasons for the upbeat back-to-the-future state of the nation address of President Gloria Arroyo about the humungous infrastructure projects, “super regions,” and super public spending. Certainly, the level of public investments envisioned in the Sona would surely perk up the country’s economy, assuming they were indeed invested in the right sets of programs and projects.

Higher growth from such huge investment projects, however, would probably not stanch the bleeding of professionals to foreign shores. As shown in our special reports last week, while the main reason for the diaspora of professionals are economic, the main trigger for the decision to migrate is essentially political: the current political standoff, the continuing legitimacy question, the continuing impunity of murderers and malefactors in high places. Next year, the country is going to have a mid-term election; the least that the current occupiers in Malacañang could do is make it thoroughly credible. It should start with cleaning up the pigsty called the Comelec and computerizing the electoral process. Sad to say, we didn’t hear much from that during the Sona.

Apparently, the country’s oligarchy is one reason for the country’s sense of drift as indicated in the Pulse Asia survey. Every day, the middle class, the professionals, and aspiring middle class are distressed by high telecommunications charges, inefficient banks offering very low savings rate, poor transportation system, low wages, skewed distribution of income and wealth, low economic growth that constrains the creation of job and investment opportunities, and lack of appreciation of their talents. And yet, the Sona hardly mentioned anything about addressing oligopolies and rent-seekers that continue to hobble the country’s development prospects.

The worst thing could be that the super promises of the Sona were simply just promises intended to be fulfilled on “best efforts” basis. We fear that scenario considering the utter lack of financial planning that came with it. That would be tragic because it would only heighten people’s cynicism, bitterness, and sense of hopelessness. We could only imagine the consequences but as the Scripture says in Hosea 8:7: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.…”

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Globalizing Pinoy's manners

THE Philippine economy is highly globalized whether we like it or not. The next thing we should do is “globalize” our Pinoy habits, traits and manners as well, if only to improve our image abroad as a people.

Close to 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product—the value of goods and services traded within the country’s borders—are accounted for by the country’s merchandise exports and dollar remittances from overseas workers. And close to 70 percent of the country’s exports is electronics, proof that we have become an important player in the world’s production of trade of electronics and semiconductors. Of course, the top generator of jobs these days are call centers and other outsourcing industries, globalization’s latest and the most tangible metamorphosis.

Anybody who watches CNN or BBC each day would notice that for all the world’s misfortunes and mishaps (e.g., hostage-taking in an oil rig in Nigeria, bombing in Indonesia, tsunami in Thailand, war in Lebanon, a shipwreck in Korea), at least a Filipino is always involved. Yes, that’s how the Philippines has become so globalized.

Right now there are more than 8 million Filipinos working and living abroad. Every day, close to 3,000 Filipinos are leaving the country for foreign jobs. And each year, they send back home at least US$12 billion that translate to spending on food, education, cellular phones, and the building and repairs of houses. That in turn has buoyed the country’s factories, banks, restaurants, school, and shopping malls. And that trend will continue for as long as the country’s domestic productive capacity remains constrained by ruinous politics, sloppy governance and slow growth.

With all these adventures abroad, Filipinos have developed quite a reputation as good finance managers in Indonesia, smart technical guys in Vietnam, efficient nurses in Florida and California, and hard-working engineers and technicians in oil rigs and oil platforms in Nigeria and Gulf States, and “courageous” mercenaries in Iraq. The flipside of this, however, is the negative perception of us Filipinos because of some bad habits that some of our countrymen bring with them when they work abroad. There are only a few of them but it takes one rotten tomato to spoil the entire basket.

We hear embarrassing stories of some Pinoys in the Gulf States using the peso coins to take cans of softdrinks off the dispensing machines. We often hear about some Pinoys bringing with them bath towels from hotels as well as head sets from airlines as “souvenirs.” Don’t be surprised if some of the headsets you see your fellow passengers at those FX taxis bear the tag “Cathay Airways” or some such airline—probably the man or woman beside you brought home the headset that’s issued during all flights.

Some of our countrymen probably think these acts are harmless and innocent, but this is the type of behavior that puts the Filipino nation in a negative light. Surely, those Arabs who felt cheated upon opening their soda- dispensing machines full of Pinoy peso coins must have thought Filipinos are a bunch of thieves.

In the last three years, tourist arrivals in the country have been growing at double-digit rates, thanks to the successful efforts by the Department of Tourism to attract East Asians, particularly Koreans. We also have lots of foreigners coming in, many of them investors and top managers for the blooming outsourcing companies here in the Philippines. They may have come here in the country with the thought that we Filipinos are gracious and hospitable.

As a people Filipinos are indeed gracious. But many of us still have a lot of things to learn, especially when it comes to living in an urban context. Surely, lots of our foreign visitors are shocked to see Pinoys pissing against a wall and throwing garbage in the streets. Worse, Filipino drivers, both rich and poor, behave like rascals behind the wheels. One recalls a very innocent question that an 8-year-old Filipino-Aussie boy asked his mother barely 10 minutes after they hit the road from the international airport: “Mom, don’t they have lanes here?” To which the irrepressible mother replied, “No, they make their own.” Imagine what went on in the mind of a boy so used to Sydney’s strict traffic rules.

In places like Brunei, Malaysia, New York, and Washington DC, drivers immediately slow down upon seeing pedestrians attempting to cross the streets. In the Philippines, drivers would even harass the pedestrians by stepping on the gas pedal upon seeing them trying to cross the street. Such barbarian behavior should have no place in the country’s “globalizing cities.”

Such behavior signals one thing—that most Filipinos are nothing but hillbillies trapped in the urban setting. This is not to denigrate rural dwellers but to highlight the fact that the pattern of human settlements and disparity in population density means the rules of human behavior are different in rural and urban, nay globalized, settings. For instance, waste in rural areas is largely organic; disposing them straight to the environment is even “sustainable.” In the rural setting, settlements are sparse; letting the animals run wild is romantic. In urban, globalized settings, people who now ride cars and jeepneys must learn to respect those who walk the streets. And those who walk the streets should learn to appreciate the fine and manly art of going to toilets to relieve themselves. And everybody should learn the value of proper waste disposal.

Filipinos never had an industrial revolution; thus, most of us have not experienced working and living under the strict rules of compact, organized, regimented and rules-based existence. Many of us, rich and poor, simply came to the “city” and went straight to working mostly in the formal and informal services sector, bringing with us obsolete values, traits, and habits. In other countries that experienced a similar path of development, the State through its instrumentalities—city ordinance, traffic rules, educational system, local government units, zoning, among others—played an important role in changing people’s behaviors.

In the Philippines, the state failed in this job. But it’s not too late to work on this one. Maybe the private sector could help. It’s time we brought the Pinoy’s habits, traits and behavior up to “global standards.”

Monday, August 07, 2006

State of the Nation Address: Show me the money!

NOW it can be told: the wish list embodied in the State of the Nation Address (Sona) was basically a lot of hot air. As reported on this paper’s front page Monday, the government really has nothing to show in terms of financial planning vis-à-vis the humongous infrastructure programs unfurled to the nation last week. All along, we had raised the theory that it was all just a rainy-day storytelling. Subsequent reports bore out this suspicion.

The source of the new information is no less than the Commission of Audit. A report of the COA said the medium term development plan (MTPDP), from which all development policies, programs and projects emanate, “has failed to consider the funding sources” for the public investment component of the plan. We all know that despite all the high- sounding words contained in all “development plans,” such document is really nothing until one sees the specific programs and projects and how government is going to fund them. In short, projects make the plan and money makes the projects. Without the money, plans are plain-ah, sorry for the strong word, bullshit.

Which brings us to the dynamics regarding the preparation of the President’s speech. Much has been made of the fact that the Sona wasn’t so much a “state of the nation” as a list of the administration’s plans between now and 2010. Well, if the Executive sees no reason to render its own state of the nation and leaves it to the people to render theirs, that is its lookout. By doing so it has merely opened the floodgates to so much more interpretation of what’s really going on in this country.

We are told the Executive is fine with that because the President deemed it more important to let people know her ambitious vision for the future-a vision that a concededly hardworking President like her could lead us through, given the right resources, and assuming she didn’t suffer from credibility questions.

But with the multiple versions of how exactly the vision will be funded, serious questions have arisen since July 24. Could it be that those “super regions” and the infrastructure projects that go with them may have been proposed as a last-minute addition, an afterthought?

A well-prepared government is expected to have a matrix of the objectives, the programs and their parameters, the specific project per programs, and amount of the money to be spent per project, the source of money, and the performance indicators. Right now, the government doesn’t seem to have this very simple information. Maybe Neda really doesn’t have all the information just yet because the Neda people weren’t given time to do any serious planning for this. And, until now, the government agencies, including Neda, doesn’t seem to have a handle on any number. Is it P1.5 billion or P1.5 trillion?

One might wonder why the President had to rush the idea of “super regions” without the benefit of thorough planning. The inevitable suspicion again is that it’s really about the politics of survival. Weeks prior to the Sona, the Social Weather Stations Inc. (SWS) had released survey results saying the President’s net satisfaction rating has remained in the negative since the Garci controversy and the Joc-joc Bolante fertilizer scam. Furthermore, the government’s drive for Charter change was also foundering. On 13 July, the SWS released its poll results on Cha-cha, showing 67 percent are against any constitutional amendments that the President wanted.

Apparently, the President felt she needed something new, something that could generate shock and awe for her remaining three years in office. Well, Superman has just returned to the cinema in glorious 3D to wow the nation. Certainly, another “super” attached to something that easily rings a bell (infrastructure!) to the ears of local politicians and congressmen would create excitement and a new sense of “direction” for the administration. So now we have the “super regions” and all the buzz about megainfrastructure like highways, bridges, roads, and cybercorridors.

Make no mistake about it; the country needs a shot in the arm through massive investments in infrastructure development, besides other important programs like education. These will help it catch up with its Asian neighbors. Investments both in public infrastructure and in human development must run alongside, as we stand in peril of lagging even further in our commitments under the UN Millennium Development Goals.

In the last several years, the government has allowed most of our economic infrastructure to deteriorate in its single-minded pursuit of “fiscal consolidation.” Study after study of various organizations, including the World Economic Forum, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank have shown that the country has been losing competitiveness simply because the government has neglected infrastructure development. So if the government is serious, Malacañang and the Neda should prove the critics wrong by showing us the specifics of the plan, the programs, the projects, and-most of all-the money.

No, Joey Salceda may be smart, but it’s not enough for him to tell people, “read my lips: no new taxes” will be needed to pull off GMA’s vision.

As a recent UNDP-funded study by graduate students at the UP National Center for Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) said it so aptly in tracking the state of financing for the eight MDG goals: “May pera pa nga, pero kulang na kulang na [Yes, there’s still money to meet the MDGs, but it’s woefully not enough].”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

State of the Nation Address: Story telling on a rainy day

“I’ll build a bridge that will link us to the future.”
“No need; we don’t have a river here.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll build a river as well.”

WAS that the president of the republic talking or some fantasy story teller?

For a State of a Nation Address, that speech did not dwell on the “state of the nation” but rather on the wishful thinking of a president hoping to survive, hoping to get a better positive survey rating. She peddled solutions-a massive infrastructure program- without analyzing the roots of the problem. What are the problems based on people’s perceptions as gauged by Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys? Inflation, jobs, hunger, poverty, deteriorating education system. And what’s GMA’s solution? Infrastructure-roads, bridges.

That’s nice except that the message was probably intended for certain constituencies like politicians who are salivating for more pork barrel and kickbacks. The message seems to sound this way: “Friends, stay with me until 2010. Don’t impeach me for I have something for every body.”

Why did the President not dwell on the state of the nation? Critiques say there’s nothing to tell. The President actually rattled off a few statistics about people getting removed from poverty but it’s also true that these changes are imperceptible. People simply can’t eat her statistics. For every ripple of numbers about how things are getting better, comes a flood of other numbers of rising cynicism, hopelessness, and negativity-something that a Sona could not force off people’s consciousness. For a line on graft and corruption (“We are lining up corrupt officials to face the consequences of their misdeeds”) comes back the image of Joc-joc Bolante escaping to America so he could avoid the Congressional inquiry on the billion-peso fertilizer fund scam.

And for her vow to stop political killings comes the image of General Jovito Palparan, grinning among a riotous crowd in the gallery of supporters like Darth Maul, the dreaded Iridonian Sith apprentice in The Phantom Menace sans the six horns and the black ominous cape, able and maliciously eager to terminate the enemies of the little Empire with extreme prejudice. In fact, the President herself called on Palparan from the crowd of sycophants, like Darth Sidious revealing her new lethal apprentice to the rest of the trembling galaxy.

In truth, there are a few good things to tell. The economy has been growing at 5 percent or more in the last several quarters. It has been resilient despite the continuing rise in oil prices. Business process outsourcing has been growing fast, thus providing job opportunities for many fresh graduates. Henry Sy is still building malls in all corners of the country. Overseas workers are still sending in dollars, giving their families money for education, health, and cellular phones. Indeed, there are many positive news among the flood of bad news and misfortunes. But certainly, the President did not have to dwell on them because, in truth, these tales of heroism from people and entrepreneurs, are not part of Malacañang’s accomplishments. The people achieved them despite the government, despite the monkeys on their backs, so to speak.

Well, if you could not tell the truth because it’s just too painful you might as well tell children’s fairy tales, like those tall talk and dreams about some kingdoms called “cybercorridor,” and “super-regions.” After all, no one could criticize dreams and fantasies. Panaginip na lang, pinag-iinitan niyo pa! We all know how “regional planning” works in the Philippines: they are usually all about “vision-mission-objectives” and not much details on programs and projects and how they are implemented. You hire highly paid “consultants” to prepare those fancy documents for a press conference then keep them in some shelves to gather dust.

And yet, we should really take a closer look at those mega-projects being dangled before our eyes. Those projects are worth billions of pesos and we are not sure how they are going to spend them. Next year, we will have a mid-term election and the fertilizer scam is still fresh in our memory. Those billions are going to be spent in the regions, in infrastructure projects that are likely to be used to win the “goodwill” of local officials and lawmakers. If there’s one language these politicians gravitate to like ducks to water, it’s “infrastructure money” where one could have something to hang a sign board on (“another project of Congressman….”) besides the usual percentage kickbacks.

Apparently, occupants in Malacañang fear the 2007 mid-year elections are going to be a seen as a “referendum” on President Arroyo’s continued stay in power. A decisive victory of her allies therefore is necessary for her to say she has another fresh mandate-hopefully, to erase all doubts about the stains of Virgilio Garcillano’s tapes and Bolante’s politically toxic fertilizer. Of course, if we should learn from history, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos had all those huge 11 industrial mega projects when he felt his Administration was on its last legs. Tales of corruption followed until it collapsed under the pressure of people power mass actions. We therefore have to be extra watchful these days because it might just be history repeating itself.