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].”

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