RARELY would a president leave office without reforms done, whether pervasive or just a drop in the bucket; whether it is acknowledged by all or just a few. A six-year term allows a leader to decide where he wants to go, how to do it and how to make the reform rooted for sustainability.
Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on June 1, 2021.
As we move to the last 389 days of the Duterte administration, we need to institutionalize what worked well in order that the reforms continue regardless of who sits in Malacañang. One reform most welcome in this administration is the Build, Build, Build (BBB) program. The blueprint of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (PGMA) for the super regions program, nautical highway and information technology corridor, among others, were set aside by the succeeding administration. Imagine if the National Broadband Network-Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment Co. deal was done without the accompanying issues, the Philippines would have been better now with the infrastructure technology backbone: well prepared for the blended learning and eBusiness.
When asked what are the key legacies in terms of steering the economy, PGMA wrapped up her nine years thus: "One, the sheer momentum of economic growth on my watch: 35 straight quarters of growth, unprecedented, capped by continued positive growth even through the depths of the worst global recession in decades. Two, the fiscal reforms I instituted early on my watch capped by the expanded VAT, which brought down our deficit ratios, earned us multiple ratings upgrades, and funded economic stimulus and social safety nets against the worst of the global recession. Three, the infrastructure we have been able to invest in with the additional resources generated by our fiscal reforms, including physical infrastructures of roads, bridges, seaports and airports, which have brought down our national cost basis especially in food and have led to permanently higher efficiencies in transport and distribution. It also includes virtual infrastructures such as investment in education and the digital infrastructure in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, which are contributing to the success of the BPO (business process outsourcing) and O&O (owned-and-operated station) industries. And four, the international advocacy I have pursued on behalf of our millions of overseas Filipino workers as well as our country's leadership in the discussion of such global and regional issues as the rebuilding of the global financial system, regional economic integration, and climate change. Aggressively marketing and looking after our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) is an unparalleled investment in our human capital as well as our global market presence."
With PRRD and despite the pandemic, frontline services have been felt, landmark legislation passed and the BBB program continues to move even with the fiscal weight of the pandemic and the financial assistance to the critical areas where risks are high. Pre-pandemic, the poverty rate went from 22.3 percent in 2015 to 16.7 percent in 2018. And the economy was one of the hottest in the region. Then in March 2019, everyone was knocked down by Covid-19.
Critics keep asking for the plan in dealing with the pandemic and initial hiccups were felt, but with the combination of vaccines reaching the Philippines, we are now second in Asean in terms of vaccination. Of course, we are not talking here about herd immunity. We are far from it but we are moving and responding to the needs of the time. Though focus is on the Executive branch, including local government units (LGUs), there are pieces of legislation moving such as the amendment to the retail law and finally, there is action on the Public Service Act.
One measure moved in the House of Representatives was the recently approved House Bill 8151, which adopts a 30-year national infrastructure program. The measure was authored by party-list Rep. Romeo Momo (CWS) and filed last Dec. 7, 2020. The BBB Program was supposedly designed to "accelerate infrastructure spending and develop industries that will yield robust growth, create jobs and improve the lives of Filipinos. Public spending on infrastructure projects is targeted at P8 to 9 trillion from 2017 to 2022." CWS stands for Construction Workers Solidarity. Rep. Momo is from Surigao del Sur, a civil engineer by training and used to be an undersecretary at the Department of Public Works and Highways before his election to Congress in 2019.
The BBB program has seen several evolutions, changes in design, loan earmarks and getting Public-Private Partnership (PPP) going. With the pandemic, a temporary setback is felt. But BBB is the way to jump-start the economy because it will provide jobs, alleviate poverty due to the pandemic and create the multiplier effect to get the economy back on its feet.
HB 8151 provides for a 30-year National Infrastructure Program for the Philippines from 2023 to 2052. It covers projects of the national government, in the fields of transport, energy, water resources, ICT, social infrastructure and core infra projects, including projects under PPP schemes and in partnerships with local government units. With the Mandanas ruling by the Supreme Court on the additional income of LGUs, apart from internal revenue allotment, there could be matching funds for these projects. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) will be the point and will have mandatory review of the program every five years.
The measure also mandates the budget department shall see to it that the total annual budget allocation by the government for the 30-year program is at least 5 percent of gross domestic product. Further, the bill provides for various project financing and implementation modalities. It likewise calls for the preparation of medium-term infrastructure programs, which shall be integrated with an overall national medium-term infrastructure programs and the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan to be formulated by NEDA. Momo truly knows the snags in bureaucracy from plans to budget because he also provided for a clear integration of the program to the annual infrastructure budget.
The so-called golden age of infra that became real in the days of Duterte will finally be sustained in the next three decades if this measure is approved by the Senate. Let's get the Senate to move so the encore will be loud and strong that legislative bodies found their unique role during the pandemic.
No nation develops without investing in infrastructure and this is the reason why in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Western countries massively invested in infrastructure. It is also the reason why Japan and South Korea, and later, China undertook a drastic improvement in their infrastructure" so as to ensure it "enables" faster economic growth and development. Clearly, there are no substitutes for infrastructure development and there are no shortcuts for faster economic growth. It is only when these aspects are taken care of that nations develop. PRRD started it, the succeeding administrations will have to continue with the initiative and taxpayers will need to do their share for the nation to rebound from the economic malaise brought by the pandemic.
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