MUTED in the cacophony of controversies across the country in recent weeks was the well-deserved Ramon Magsaysay Award bestowed upon Lilia de Lima. The Bicolana lawyer, who led the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) until her retirement in mid-2016, had drawn much-needed foreign investment into the country for more than two decades.
Late last month, de Lima was awarded Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize, along with five others, for “her unstinting, sustained leadership in building a credible and efficient PEZA, proving that the honest, competent and dedicated work of public servants can, indeed, redound to real economic benefits to millions of Filipinos.”
De Lima belongs to a rare breed of civil servants who was able to professionalize and reform her agency without sacrificing service quality.
Indeed, de Lima lasted for 21 years under four Presidents as PEZA director general, with satisfied foreign investors she brought into the country’s myriad ecozones not wanting her to leave.
She who began her career with the Department of Trade and Industry could have easily become Trade secretary, or a magistrate, or a hotshot corporate lawyer. But she eschewed ambition and stayed at PEZA, and under her stead, the agency became the only oasis of consistent leadership and investment policies in the notoriously inefficient Philippine bureaucracy.
In the process, de Lima was able to insulate PEZA, a crucial component of the country’s investment promotion strategy, from petty politics. PEZA became synonymous with “one-stop-shop.”
“Bucking tremendous pressures and threats, Director General de Lima single-mindedly pursued a program of reform: she determinedly halved the bloated 1,000-person bureaucracy she had inherited from a system of political patronage; she developed PEZA’s work culture into one marked by honesty, efficiency and—quite literally—one-stop, nonstop service,” de Lima’s citation read.
“Putting the right systems in place and leading by strict and consistent example, she gradually transformed a failed agency into a model of transparent, productive, and customer-friendly efficiency, one that the World Bank has cited for demonstrating “best practices” in ecozone management worldwide,” it added.
Lilia de Lima’s bid to entice foreign investors was limited only by the protectionist provisions of the 1987 Constitution, which bars foreign control of vital industries or businesses, as well as land. In fact, the Philippines became one of the region’s top investment destinations under her watch.
“Among the radical policies that made this possible,” the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said, “were a shift from government-financed to private sector-led ecozone development; streamlined 24/7 PEZA operations to reliably service global locators; investor-friendly regulations, purposeful interagency partnerships, and strengthened relations with local governments in the ecozones.”
Her accomplishments are unparalleled. Under de Lima, the number of PEZA economic zones increased by 2,000 percent, to 343 from just 16. The number of PEZA-registered businesses rose to 3,756 from 331. Investments hit P3 trillion and exports by ecozone manufacturers totaled $629 billion. The foreign investments she brought into the country generated a remarkable 6.3 million jobs.
De Lima leaves behind a legacy of honesty, professionalism and excellence. Her response to her accolade should be posted in all government offices: “Do your job with integrity and professionalism, and the bottom line will show it. It’s the best credential you can have and the only endorsement you will need.”