Understanding social risks: A post-SONA commentary

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Every society, located in specific political junctures, manifests a set of social risks. In this context, Philippine society is at a critical moment confronted by two conditions—the COVID-19 pandemic and the penultimate year of the Duterte presidency. Among other risks, the continuing public health challenges, corruption and inequality represent the more affiliate threats.

Based on the fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered by President Rodrigo Duterte on 27 July 2020 at 4:00 p.m., the president was in a way able to provide a tinge of hope to the falling optimism of the Filipino people during this time of pandemic. It is really remarkable to see when the leader of the nation is willing to stand by his people and ventilate their gut issues.

This speaks well how his grounded style of leadership communicates with the masses. From a national perspective, however, the president’s SONA was aimed at consolidating support from both houses of Congress to push thru his remaining legislative and executive agenda for the last two years.

Despite his charisma and strong political will, however, much more could have been said and articulated on how the nation plans to recover and build better in the next or new normal. In another way, this spells the disconnect when a national leader applies retail politics to national issues and lose a strategic perspective along the way.

The same could be said about his narrative on illegal drugs. As the story did not perhaps contain any variations from the past aside from the household analysis, the narrative should have been contextualized as a personal concern and not arbitrarily projected as an urgent national concern. In a shortcut, who would not want a drug-free or crime-less society?

More so, a more objective look is needed in order to learn from the lessons in being at the helm of government after four years and in the process of implementing measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notwithstanding the upgrading of our country’s credit ratings from BBB+ to being A-, curtesy of Japan Credit Rating Agency (JCR), and the “promising” remaining two years of Duterte presidency, we should take into consideration of what is happening on the ground and what has been underneath in the past four years.

As our place in the Philippine Global Competitive Index (World Economic Forum) has gone down by 8 places, from 56 in 2017-2018 to 64 in 2018-2019, the worst performance of the country was associated with the Health pillar at 102nd place from being the 55th.

While the health issue was recognized as a national concern, the implementation of the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act alongside other important health legislations such as the National Integrated Cancer Control Act were given scant attention.

Instead, attention was given to the development of barangay health units but this was discussed in relation to the barangay development program, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines having a key role in the process. Dangerously however, such could be interpreted as another “tactic” for counter-insurgency.

Meanwhile, the World Governance Report / World Governance Indicators showed that Philippine performance slid down from 2017 to 2018 in terms of Voice and Accountability (from 48.77 to 47.78), Rule of Law (from 37.02 to 34.13), and Control of Corruption (from 39.42 to 34.13).

What is even more telling points to our performance in the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, where in a span of four years our record has significantly plunged to 113th place in 2019 from the 101st place in 2016.

Remarkably, it ranked 99th in 2018 but fell by 14 places in 2019. This means that the Duterte administration needs to address more effectively the following—bribery, the diversion of public funds, the effective prosecution of corruption cases, adequate legal frameworks, access to information, and legal protections to whistleblowers, journalists and investigators.

All of these boils down to our governance performance through the period being considered regarding the Rule of Law Index. While the WGI report showed a continuous drop from a score of 39.42 in 2016 to 37.02 in 2017 and then down to 34.13 in 2018, the Rule of Law Index under the World Justice Project demonstrated a similar trend.

From a score of .51 in 2016, our country’s score was down to .47 for the next three years. As for the ranking, it has dropped by 20 places, positioned at the 70th in 2016 then down to the 90th place in 2019.

Amidst crisis, government alternately embellishes its responsive measures to legitimize (their) power. Pundits say that this action subliminally projects electoral candidates and even “grabs” the merit of an effective and efficient response to the pandemic.

In these trying times, while the weakness of our healthcare system and the token character of social protection have been exhibited and made the poor more vulnerable, the existing conditions of inequality have been transformed into greater risks. Crosscutting along political, economic, social, and cultural divides, inequality was exacerbated and even multiplied during the crisis, where the powerless and marginalized sectors of society bear the brunt of government measures in mitigating the impacts of said crisis.

This pandemic is also a great revealer. Experientially, we are witnesses to the incapacities of government in dealing with societal affairs purely by its own. While an all-of-government or an all-of-nation approach could forge and hasten the collaborative spirit between and among government departments and instrumentalities, such is still insufficient. Arguably, this could be one of the main reasons for the flaccid performance of government in the past four years.

Empirically as well, the whole-of-nation approach needs to be broadened and strategically encapsulated under an even wider whole-of-society perspective. Bringing back society into the political equation has demonstrated countless potentials, opportunities and innovation, especially in this time of health crisis.

While government assistance has been commendable to the vulnerable sectors, the social amelioration package provided has proven to be insufficient for extended lockdowns and quarantines. But such great disparity was filled-up and alleviated by the private sector and social volunteers and philanthropists who provided additional relief to poor families.

In toto, the sum of funds that have been dispersed and still available for government disposal now stands at US$14 billion or equivalent to P741 billion. According to the Department of Management, the government has spent P355 billion for the COVID-19 response as of June 24, 2020.

In terms of foreign commitments, sources from the Department of Finance said that Philippine government has secured and accumulated US$7.761 billion in the form of loans, grants and bonds, or equivalent to PhP386.6-BILLION.

Given such humongous amount, the task of ensuring transparency, accountability and implementation equally becomes a gargantuan challenge. Though the president committed that government would lead a transition to online systems, this long delayed vision of e-governance goes beyond the elimination of physical queuing or going paperless.

This requires the digital transformation of the national and local government. It will need a systemic overhaul that retools and re-organizes bureaucracies based on the most appropriate technological solutions that ensure transparency, efficiency, and accountability in the execution of government processes and projects.

To effectively seize the opportunity of this serendipitous effect of the pandemic, government will need private sector partners who have the capacity to help build and re-engineer government systems and its personnel.

The government will need to drastically eliminate the debilitating bureaucratic barriers that have been delaying the development of our telecommunications infrastructure for decades. Investing in the digital infrastructure to deliver fast and robust broadband services must be a priority in the recovery strategy.

Saying many things about a thing is something; but saying nothing about many things is a whole different thing altogether.

In a nutshell, the rants expressed by the president at the beginning and in the end of his SONA could have been spent in explaining the meaning of “better governance,” i.e. how could it mitigate social risks, thereby alleviating inequality, combating corruption, and financing the implementation of the UHC Act. In this way, the next or new normal will be a lot more acceptable for Filipinos.

On a final note, “inclusive recovery” could indeed be an all-encompassing strategy only if the life of Filipinos in the new or next normal is participatory and they will not be lodged into a state of dependency or mendicancy.




This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao.


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