• EU is not the problem, but our own institutions

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    ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

    I AM writing this as one who has been engaged as a consultant in a few government projects that were funded by foreign money, and not just as a detached academic or a noisy columnist.

    I want to drive the point home that statements made by our public officials have to be analyzed beyond their words, and into how they articulate with existing practices. This is important, for it is exactly there where you will discover their real-life implications and the challenges that we have to face beyond the bravado.

    People who agree with President Duterte on his anti-EU stance cheer his boldness in sending a powerful message to the Europeans. The imagery is compelling. We are finally telling them we are a sovereign country, and we will no longer take their aid money if this will mean allowing them to intrude into our autonomous decision making processes as an independent country. This stance has been reiterated by the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, who upped the ante by extending the ban on all intrusive aid.

    It behooves us to understand that except for humanitarian aid, almost all grants and loans that we receive from foreign entities, whether bilaterally through states, or multilaterally through international financial institutions, and through private international funding agencies, have conditions. These vary from the more blatant intervention of requiring us to pass legislation or change our economic policies, to being tied to the procurement of their products and services.

    Intervention of donor parties may come subtly, where the location of selected projects coincide with the donor’s interests. Japan is known to fund infrastructure projects near areas which it identifies as beneficial for its investments. The United States focuses on Mindanao development, including infrastructures such as airports and seaports, as part of its anti-terrorism strategy.

    China offers its softer grants as part of its strategy to displace the US from the global sphere of influence. Moreover, it takes this passive-aggressive stance to soften our resistance to its encroachment into the West Philippine Sea. Hence, the impression that Chinese grants and loans are untied to any condition is simply the height of naiveté. And I am certain that the President himself doesn’t buy this line. In fact, I interpret his leaking the threat of China to go to warif we drill for oil within our EEZ as his unique way of telling China that we are not naively stupid.

    It is also important to point out that the image of a foreign donor barging in to impose on us their grant money or force us to take a loan with all their conditions is a convenient fiction. On the contrary, aid is an outcome of negotiations. In the case of the EU, we qualified for being recipients not only of grants but also of preferential trade treatment in the form of a waiver of tariffs for our exports because we have signed certain treaties and agreements.

    We receive foreign grants and apply for foreign loans because there is a need for them.

    Most development grants, including those coming from the EU, come in the form of institutional development assistance. This includes projects dealing with policy research and development, institutional design and development, and capacity building of service-delivering agencies and service-receiving communities. Research and development (R &D) in science and technology also belong to these kinds of expenses.

    Unfortunately, institutional development is often dismissed as less important compared to infrastructure projects, and is the least prioritized in the budget process. Our legislators consider institutional development not for its real value, but only in the context of being items that could fuel their reelection bids. They would rather fund bridges to nowhere than policy research and science R & D.

    This is a serious mistake considering that weak institutional design has turned infrastructures into white elephants, and billions of pesos have been spent on pump-priming activities that failed to strengthen people’s capacities.

    Thus, the need for the EU-kind of grants was created by our own neglect of the development activities they now address.

    What compounds the problem is when government agencies treat the outputs of these activities simply as recommendatory.

    Using funds loaned by Japan’s JICA, I designed institutional arrangements to harness multiple-stakeholder scenarios in three river basins in the country. Conscious that it is from a loan package, I endeavored to put my best effort on my consultancy work. However, my well-received recommendations remain stuck in bureaucratic inertia.

    Likewise, using a grant provided by the GIZ of Germany, my team and I developed a comprehensive land tenure policy on forest lands to simplify and harmonize all existing land access policies. It was a well-accepted proposal even by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Unfortunately, our policy proposal is gathering dust.

    Indeed, it is true that only consultants benefit from these kinds of grants and loans. But it is not the fault of the funders and the consultants.

    It is the fault of Congress and our government agencies.

    Thus, if we want to prove the irrelevance of foreign grants and loans, then we have to show that we seriously address the development needs that they serve. We cannot just simply brandish sovereignty without making it count for the people whose interests we serve.

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    6 Comments

    1. Well said and well written Mr. Contreras. What I can add is that sometimes in government, you have to learn to work with power centers if you want something done. Academic and research work may sound too much reading for politicians but getting to know their advocacies might help you convince them to be the champion for your recommendations. You cannot let your work stand on its own. Often, getting down to where the rubber meets the road could be useful particularly in the world of politics.

    2. Antonio, I may not agree with many other things you said elsewhere, but I thank you for sharing your experience in this article. It makes perfectly clear where and how well-intentioned ideas and plans cannot succeed. Your explanation of the betrayal of responsibilities in Congress seems absolutely logical and in conformity with most people’s general impression of what’s going on in Congress.

    3. Mr Contretras. A nice read and certainly sheds some light in the internal workings of PH “government projects that were funded by foreign money”. However, as any good-governing body knows, whether it be Congress, Project Board or a Committee, there should be no room for finger pointing. As much as I share your sentiments on bureaucracy, finger pointing leads to nowhere. A project team are all equally responsible for all its parts and the Board consisting of project sponsors and stakeholders held accountable for decisions. You might not get the budget allocation you want and frustrated that declining foreign aid further decreases already limited funds and further limiting the chances of the budget allocation you want to go to BUT, and I say this politely removing my Investor-hat and wearing my project manager-hat on, it can be read from your article that this is not your call. Venting by way of opinion article is also not a solution. I would have hoped to read solution options and deducing the best solution option to recommend. I hope to see a new PH where ALL its members works alongside together, even through difficult risk mitigation and challenging issue resolutions, respecting the decisions of the governing body, whether it’s DoF, Congress or a Project Board, in order to achieve the same vision and outcome for the country, per schedule and on budget. No matter how “limited” the perceived budget might be, projects will always have a limited sets of funds.. but it doesn’t make projects any less achievable just because a team of “experts” can’t sort themselves out in creating functional efficient offices. We always have a choice, either be part of the solution or contribute further to the problem. All the best of luck!

    4. The main point you miss is that the PH is not part of the EU. Not any part of the PH should be following the dictates of the EU.

      • I gather the EU condition upsetting D30 is about his observance of human rights. This is less about a EU dictation & more about basic morality. Specifically the duty of gov’t to observe human rights in treating its citizens. If you want to put it crudely , it’s EU effectively bribing D30 gov’t to recognize we Filipino citizens are human beings who are entitled to basic human rights.