Thursday, September 14, 2006

Drifting to the edge

THERE seems to be no end to the government’s embarrassment from the spate of lectures it has gotten from foreign institutions and organizations— lecturing us to shake up, shape up and change or else the world will leave us behind. The latest comes from no less than Juan Jose Daboub, managing director of the World Bank, who came here from his perch in Washington, D.C., to warn us about how strengthening regional competition is steadily making us bite the dust.

“The strength of regional competitors sounds an alarm bell that this country cannot afford to ignore,” he said. “Time wasted, reforms lapse, large segments of the population with untapped potential, continued tolerance of corrupt practices, will have a real price, not just in lost income and lost market share, but lost opportunity for millions of Filipinos.”

But of course, the message from the top WB honcho, one that has been obvious years ago, is only the latest. Last week, WB’s private sector financing arm, the International Finance Corporation, announced that the Philippines has among the lousiest business environments in Asia-Pacific because of the increasing tangle of regulations that the government has put in the way of entrepreneurship. It’s funny that an entrepreneur has to take 11 steps and completes the process of registering his business in 48 days. It’s funnier still that the government doesn’t seem to recognize the problem. After the announcement of that study, one expected the government to initiate a program to address the problem, or at least dispute or reckon with it. But, no reaction. It’s as if the IFC is just dreaming crazy dreams.

Last week, stakeholders in the mining industry canceled their big international conference after their frustrations about the government’s flip-flopping and indifference reached a breaking point. They thought all along that since the government has formulated a “minerals action plan” it would firm up its policy about the industry. The private sector, led on by government, conducted road shows all over the globe and when the investors came, they found Malacañang suddenly disinterested—or at least, mouthing interest while sending conflicting signals.

Of course, the French, the Spaniards and the Germans have been complaining about the mixed signals and inconsistent policies. They have been reaching out to the government functionaries but they don’t seem to get across.

What’s happening here? This is alarming because it means two things. First—it means that international observers are finding that this country, specifically its leaders and policymakers, are dozing off while other countries are scrambling to reform their policies and procedures. And second—it seems to suggest that the government is in total disarray and drift. It portrays an administration that has totally lost its energy to do its job, to perform even its basic functions, even just to attend meetings.

When leaders of international organizations—people who are steeped in diplomatese—speak about what’s wrong with us we better listen hard. That means they see a boat being carried away by the current of sheer inertia, drifting dangerously toward the edge, and everyone onboard seems to have totally lost situational awareness.

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