The credibility of planning in the Philippines

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Mike Wootton

Mike Wootton

In my own business life I like to think of myself as a planner. By this I mean being somebody who devises a strategy to be used in achieving some form of industrial development, identifying the interrelationships and dependencies of the various activities and tasks needed to complete the whole and working out how to ensure the economic viability of the scheme. It is more of an art than a science.

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The Philippines presents some major challenges to the planner and we can see the effect of that almost daily in the newspapers, where well publicized projects just don’t happen or take years longer than ever was initially intended, or somehow, as is the case with NAIA 3, just get so screwed up that they lose all relationship with their original intentions. In today’s Philippines, the accuracy of a development plan is almost directly related to the political power of the developer, some of whom have enough power even to get laws passed to facilitate whatever it is they are intending to do. Those without too much political power or those with power but who prefer to play a straight game [could there be any of these?]really struggle with putting any meaningful plans together—there are so many unknowns. I recently saw a quote that there were 150 different signatures needed in order to develop a power plant. Well, somebody must have counted them up but this is only in one particular case. Another power station may require 300 signatures for its development. How long does it take and what do you have to do to get the necessary signatures? I know from bitter personal experience it can take three to four years to get a single permit despite the fact that the advertised time for obtaining it is 60 days. And then there is the bidding—what huge complications that mandate introduces followed by the almost inevitable legal cases brought by losing bidders who just can’t handle losing.

Plans, of course, are made to change; they act as a baseline set of assumptions allowing the effects of changes to be readily assessed, but to jump from 60 days to, say, 3.5 years on just one dependency is such a big change that the rest of the plan becomes meaningless and puts at risk the whole development strategy—the original market need may have just disappeared or new technology has been introduced, which makes the original concept no longer viable.

If the developer is rich, powerful and well connected, then plans can be made with much greater certainty because if things don’t happen within the duration allowed in the plan then political strings can be pulled or facilitation payments made in order to keep things on track.

For ordinary mortals, because it is so difficult to plan with any reasonable degree of accuracy, it is left until “later” when the majority of unknowns have been resolved, and then of course the planning exercise is of limited value as an aid to doing things in an orderly manner. So planning becomes something which is not and cannot be taken too seriously. Look at the way groundbreakings are announced and held only to be announced and held again a year later, sometimes on three or four occasions before they can be followed almost immediately with a start of real construction activity.

Publicized plans motivate and raise expectations and if these expectations are, time and again, not met, then planning loses credibility and announcements of this or that happening are met with total skepticism and de-motivation rules. “It will most likely never happen anyway, so why get too excited about it? Just wait and see if it happens or not.” Look at the public-private partnership initiatives—does everybody still think that those are going to take off? I don’t think so, at least not within any certainty on timing. Bahala na . . . but what a missed opportunity to motivate.

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Pete Gabriel on

    There is definitely a big bureaucratic problem here. Can this be fix? Can this smart lawmakers look at this issue and streamline this process? Maybe this problem needs to be put on the lime light, make it a headline grabbing issue so this politicians will look at it. But then again they will just monkey it all up and nothing happens. Well looks like the Filipinos will again have to bear the brunt of this and keep on staying in a third world country, we are only to blame for this predicament that we are in.