Weighing in on development challenges and counter-flowing from the road to perdition

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ARLENE P. DONAIRE

AS someone who has worked in the development sphere since completing economics grad school, it is naturally compelling for me to look for the justification of government’s solutions to address the myriad challenges besetting the country. As a concerned citizen, I cannot help but be mindful whenever I hear or read of government’s initiatives, especially when they involve investments funded by either the national budget or externally through debt or private sector participation. I’m generally concerned about two aspects of public investments: first, the process done to evaluate the suitability and viability of projects and their relevance to the larger or longer-term scheme; and second, the thought given to examining the cost-effectiveness of the financing scheme.

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I tend to raise these questions not because I have an inherent mistrust in the system but simply because I have, throughout my entire professional track, interacted in an environment where critical thinking and exhaustive objective analysis precede major decisions. There is a fair understanding of course, that political dynamics play a key factor in government’s choice of projects, especially when quick successes must be demonstrated to prove the trustworthiness of the leadership’s intention to effect sustainable reforms. At the backend, however, it shouldn’t be forgotten that lasting and inclusive benefits could only come from well-laid development plans translated into optimal investment choices.

I know that I am too far down in the hierarchy of the bureaucracy that makes the decisions, to be heard. But this doesn’t stop me from exercising my right to critical thinking and contributing where I am allowed. In my profession and the circles that I interact with, there is always that open window and, like the downstream flow of water, I believe that at some point, what little nuggets of ideas I’m able to sow, will eventually reach a productive field and grow. If I had the venue to make known my concerns, even as an ordinary citizen, I would take the opportunity and would hope that every other Filipino would too, as part of our democratic right to self-expression. With social media providing the free portal for people to be involved, it is a wise move to just get your constructive inputs out there, in the public discourses of issues that matter to us as citizens and as a country.

Infrastructure challenge
One of the challenges that immediately come to mind when discussing constraints to our country’s development is the adequacy of infrastructure. These are the physical systems like transportation, communication, sewage, water and electric systems that require high-cost investments and are essential to the country’s economic growth. In past administrations, infrastructure usually topped the “hot list” also because of companion issues such as corruption, anti-competitive behavior by private sector players, public debt accumulation, and other negative connotations that may be lumped together under a general term—“irregularities,” all of which give a bad name to both the public and private sector players. Of course, left hanging in between is the citizenry, who are left short-changed everytime. There is that sarcastic signage in a long-running highway construction project that says: “the road to progress is still under construction,” which is a succinct picture of the irony in infrastructure development that unfolds each time a new leadership takes over. The comedy that gets replayed is one where previous plans are abandoned, policies are reversed, players are replaced, funds are decommissioned, and new initiatives are quickly installed to quell the public clamor for change, the very same change that never gets completed, always just “in progress.”

I support the current government’s BBB strategy—to “build, build, build” infrastructure using available public funds, if this what will accelerate the availability of much-needed public utilities and services. I would like to believe that this deliberate choice to veer away from the traditional build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme that had been adopted in the past, is predicated on correct project identification and selection processes and objective analysis proving that BBB is way better than BOT.

Reverberating traffic issue
In recent weeks, one issue that has reverberated and been elevated to a whole new level of public discourse, generating adverse, often outraged public reactions, is the traffic situation, foremost in Metro Manila and secondary in key urban cities like Cebu and Davao. Back in 2016, a report by Rappler on the Philippines’ sluggish progress in implementing a sustainable transport system was encapsulated by describing the state of Metro Manila’s traffic situation:

“Nearly 50 percent of (the country’s) 88 million people live in urban areas…In Metro Manila alone, … public transport accounts for 69 percent… Limited road network and an increasing number of private vehicles have exacerbated road congestion… and fuel consumption is contributing to bigger carbon dioxide emissions. … Rush hour or not, EDSA seems perpetually stuck in a state of congestion. Cars crawl along the 23.9-kilometer highway and easily spend at least an hour in non-moving traffic. Commuters spill out onto the streets, fighting for standing-room space in crowded buses. Overhead, one of the metro’s train lines chug along dilapidated rails, carrying twice its maximum capacity. It’s a good day for commuters if the train doesn’t suffer yet another technical glitch.”

In last year’s SONA, the President announced that his administration would be implementing, via the BBB strategy, numerous transportation projects to ease what he has now termed as “the road to perdition” problem that is EDSA, which is duplicated to a lesser, albeit equally disturbing degree, in other urban areas like Metros Cebu and Davao. I, together with a hopeful public anxious to experience the promised reforms, wait with bated breath for the brandished solutions—mass transit systems, new roads and bridges, traffic schemes, motor vehicle regulation—to become reality.

In yesterday’s SONA, the President reiterated: “We will make the next few years the “Golden Age of Infrastructure” in the Philippines to enhance our mobility and connectivity, and thereby spur development growth equitable in the country.”

I look forward to this golden age with anticipation and hope that, even when government is racing to create quick results, an underlying system that embodies principles of good governance—effectiveness, efficiency, responsiveness, transparency, accountability, and rule of law—will be upheld and not simply swept under the rug for the sake of expediency, popularity, and token relief to the systemic transportation challenge.

The author has worked as development planner, project manager, and policy specialist for over two decades. She completed her MA in economics at UP Diliman in 1988 and mid-career MPA as Edward Mason and Littauer Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School in 1999.

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