A legacy of far-reaching initiatives

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage societies and economies, Philippine society is currently confronted by an information crisis characterized by widespread disinformation and misinformation. The political and economic predicaments borne by these conditions reinforce the democratic decline being experienced by established, developing, and fledgling democracies.

The countervailing factor a decade ago, however, points to the philosophy of “Daang Matuwid” (Straight Path), that was espoused by the Aquino Administration. As I have argued, this guiding principle was able to set the appropriate political, economic, and social environment for the promotion of information integrity and democratic values.

It is in this spirit that the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, in collaboration with the Aquino Foundation, hosted the virtual town hall discussion “Looking Back to Build Forward: Lessons from Aquino’s Reforms” on Aug. 20.

Four major and notable arguments were raised in the webinar. For one, principled leadership and good governance redounds to economic success, wherein the Philippines was able to earn the status of a resurgent economy.

A good case in point is the “Good Governance Reform and Anti-Corruption Program.” According to former Secretary Rogelio “Babes” Singson of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), they adopted a management mantra that is comprised of 3Rs — Right Projects, Right Cost, Right Quality. After presenting it to President Aquino, two more Rs were added: Right on Time, and Implemented by the Right People. The whole initiative effected an organizational change in the DPWH and in the implementation of its operations.

Another exemplar of principled leadership was the philosophy of “Walang mahirap kung walang corrupt” (There are no poor when there is no corruption). Former Cabinet Secretary and Secretary of Energy Jose Rene Gregory Almendras expressed that this motto was not a mere campaign slogan. According to him, President Benigno Aquino, from the get-go, “wanted to make a dent in people’s lives and, as he said, ‘I hope to leave a better situation than what I inherited.’”

Referring to job generation, Almendras further emphasized that “The drive to address poverty was not about dreams or talks up there, very macro, no… This was all part of balancing the challenge of where you put the money… we prepared a plan that said wherever you put the money in, it always resulted in human development, poverty reduction, economic development, and national development.”

The second argument refers to the important role of infrastructure. By using key result areas, roadmaps, systems analysis, and integration of data in planning, infrastructure projects were undertaken with clear implementational standards.

As conveyed by Singson, they were able to painstakingly develop the infrastructure budget. According to him, “when we started with 2011, we’re practically scraping [the bottom of] the barrel and we just started with P146 billion for the infrastructure for the whole government which accounted only for 1.8% of GDP. But, by the time we left in 2016, we were able to ramp this up to as much as 5% of GDP and the budget for infrastructure was already at P759 billion. All told during the six years, we spent P2.4 trillion.”

Seeing as the gaps in our national roads were being caused by partisan party politics and resulted in what was described as “our national roads were broken up into political dynasties or political areas,” Singson said they had to “upgrade to higher standards and safer roads. By the time, as of Dec. 31, we already had paved almost 100% of almost all primary national roads, 90% of secondary roads, and tertiary at 80%.”

Needless to say, projects under the High Standard Highway infrastructure plan that they conceived, such as the NAIA expressway, Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union expressway, NLEX Harbor Link, Skyway 3, and the Plaridel Bypass, have always been there, Singson added. An important addition was the Mindanao Logistics Infrastructure Network.

Still on infrastructure, Almendras also explained why the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) became an option: “Because President Aquino decided we would be better off spending our money in social services rather than building all these other infrastructure projects which clearly the private sector could do. And that was the basis for the massive push to try to get the private sector to do infrastructure, so that the money we did not need to spend on that infra, we could spend on the social services.”

With regard to budgeting, former Secretary of Budget and Management Florencio “Butch” Abad, said that President Aquino had one clear message: “do away with incremental low-priority, poorly designed projects and programs.” With transparency, accountability, and budget and anti-corruption reforms in his administration, “we created fiscal spaces that allowed the government to make huge, dramatic increases in the budget allocation of key sectors and programs.”

A third essential argument is going beyond political divisions. Rather than distributing projects nationwide based on political accommodation or concession, a much better and more effective way of delineating project implementation is to get across patronage politics. In this manner, an impartial and principled system is established.

Fourth is the stand for “the rule of law.” As contended by Ambassador Albert del Rosario, Chair of the Stratbase ADR Institute and former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, “one of the greatest legacies of President Aquino is the Award on the South China Sea Arbitration rendered on July 12, 2016, by the Tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

President Aquino believed that those who think “might makes right” have it backwards. It is exactly the opposite, in that right makes might, he added.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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