Monday, July 23, 2007

GMA's state of the nation address: more goodies, sans reforms

WAS it a State of the Nation Address (Sona) or a planning session by Neda?

The way President Arroyo presented her Sona, it was as if all we need is the construction of more septic tanks, canals, ports, roads, airports, bridges to solve the country’s problems and usher it into the 21st century. One wishes it were as simple as that, but it seems we need more reforms to achieve progress and those things are not mentioned at all in the Sona.

First things first. We all believe in the importance of infrastructure development, and in fact pointed, in this same space, to the need to make up for all those years on underspending as policy planners obsessed themselves with simple fiscal discipline.
We sorely need good infrastructure at this time of declining competitiveness. We need to upgrade all those deteriorating roads and bridges, ports, airports and seaports if only to attract investments and create more jobs. And we need to build a lot more of them if only we could catch up with the neighbors in global competitiveness.

In the last several years, we have been growing decently, topping at 6.9 percent in the first quarter of the year. But that growth performance has not been generating enough jobs beyond the major cities because of bad infrastructure, besides the fact that these new growth drivers are basically technology-driven, implying that only the schooled ones are benefiting.

Indeed, if we want to bring the dynamics of growth to the countryside, we need more infrastructure to generate economic interaction between the urban and rural economies. But in an archipelagic country separated by bodies of water, building those roads, bridges, Internet cables, ports, and airports alone would not do the job. We need policy reforms to make the operations and the use of such infrastructure competitive and efficient, and this aspect is completely missing in the Sona.

President Arroyo mentioned Mindanao several times, promising that government agencies like DENR, DA and DAR are going to spend 30 percent of their budget on the island. That’s certainly good news. There are also lots of promises about new infrastructure projects. That’s positive, given the continuing neglect of the island.

Nevertheless, all these promised goodies would have limited socioeconomic impact given its continued isolation from the national economic mainstream. Why? Because Mindanaoans are not going to be competitive in the global marketplace unless we have a competitive inter-island shipping and port services industry. And we can achieve a competitive inter-island shipping only if we reform the policy regime that has been encouraging and nurturing oligopolistic structures in this industry.

Certainly, the focus on infrastructure development would make a lot of local executives very happy as it was clear those projects were solicited by local and regional politicians, and by congressmen—and the President took pains to attribute who pitched what project to her.

Many of those projects, therefore, are politically driven and could have doubtful economic and social impact. But if we grant that indeed those projects were planned carefully, it begs the question whether or not they are going to be implemented honestly and the funds not dissipated in graft and corruption.

This question is important because until now the government has not offered any measure or policy reform promoting transparency and openness in the bidding and implementation of these infrastructure projects.

One such possible solution is legislating a freedom of information law allowing access by citizens to important documents governing government contracts as a check-and-balance mechanism but there is no such thing in the Sona.

In fact, the Sona does not offer any significant policy reform at improving governance at all. There was faint reference to cheapening the cost of power but the statement doesn’t provide any detail at all.

The legislation she sought from Congress pertained mostly to the political, such as buttressing the witness protection program, increasing penalties against abuse by law enforcers and several other measures that, at the bottom, might very well be covered by existing statutes.

One gets the sense this was her “comfort crumbs” to those who had been nipping at her heels the past year, for allowing a virtual undeclared dirty war, involving state elements, to wreak havoc on militants and activists—including those from the media, legal, church and peasant sectors.

One gets the sense this was meant as a Palace catch-up to the widely praised Supreme Court initiative to make the judiciary a more aggressive player in stopping the steady erosion of constitutional rights, particularly the handling of petitions or appeals for habeas corpus, among others.

And yet, all she had to do, instead of “thickening the thicket of legislation,” as Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. had put it in his paper at the judicial summit, was to act on the recommendations of her very own presidential commission, chaired by ex-Justice Jose Melo.

One of which, ironically, was to run after those who, while not directly proven to have ordered political murders and abductions, admitted to “inspiring” some uniformed men to carry them out. The poster boy of such “inspiring” figures was the man singled out in the last Sona, a certain general Jovito Palparan. Ironic, that the President praised him highly last year and now, because of Chief Justice Puno’s initiative, plays along with recommendations to curb abuses from people like him.

Rich in irony, indeed, was this Sona. Rich also in pork-barrel-type promises, strewn hither and dither, but with no firm anchor, apparently just meant to please a lot of local allies.

But then, as she says, she meant this to provide a “harvest” that her successor can gather. The question, though, is, are they the right seeds to plant?

Note: originally prepared together with our editor in chief Chuchay Fernandez as editorial for BusinessMirror, July 24 2007.

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