Thursday, March 10, 2011

A plumber, not an architect

Published in BusinessWorld on August 22, 2010

            A plumber, not an architect – that’s the impression I got listening to President Benigno Simeon Aquino III deliver his State of the Nation speech a few weeks ago.
            By that I mean P-Noy sounded like a plumber, enumerating the leaks in the house left by his predecessor and promising to fix them all.  There’s nothing wrong with fixing the leaks, but if the design of the house is faulty, the leaks will keep springing out and P-Noy has only so many fingers to plug them all.
            Besides, the Filipino people deserve more.  They don’t want just to be lucky, blessed by the miraculous candidacy and election of Cory Aquino’s son.  They want to be confident that the rules of the game have been changed and that they won’t be disappointed once again.  They want to face a bright future where the house has been redesigned and rebuilt.
            However, enumerating the leaks – exposing the sins of graft and corruption in the previous administration – has not enlightened us as to the root causes of our country’s ills and what P-Noy is going to do about them. 
            Sure, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is “evil” and the sins of the MWSS, NFA, and other government agencies happened under her watch, but what made her possible in the first place?  What can we do so our children won’t have to suffer a GMA 2 (God forbid!)?
            I was waiting to hear P-Noy promise “No more Garcis” and outlining the steps toward that goal, because the Garci problem was the root of GMA’s misrule.  It explains her highly political actions in order to buy support, from appointing corrupt people to coddling warlords like the Ampatuans.  It also explains the current political culture of impunity because if there’s cheating, our politicians can’t be held accountable through elections. 
            Hence, it was disappointing not to hear P-Noy say that electoral reforms is Job 1 in his administration.  It was also disappointing not to hear P-Noy promise to improve further the conduct of elections, such as fixing the inadequacies in the last computerized voting and counting.  In a way, the Filipino people were lucky this time, because the cheaters have not yet figured out how to game the system and P-Noy won by a landslide, but what about next time? 
            Even when P-Noy was pinpointing the leaks in the previous administration, I didn’t see any deep thinking about the root causes of those leaks, much more solutions to them.  Take, for example,  his expose about the excessive purchase of rice by the National Food Authority and its ballooning debts. 
            Of course, there will be much graft and corruption in the NFA because it has a monopoly on rice importation. With that monopoly comes the corruption and collusion with the rice cartel.
The NFA is also saddled with losses because its mandate is to “buy high and sell low.”  That mandate is supposed to benefit poor consumers, although in actual practice, the subsidized rice gets diverted and sold to the market at market prices by well-connected traders.  While the NFA’s other mandate is to beef food security, it ends up causing the opposite, because with the ever present threat of NFA flooding the market, the farmers don’t have an incentive to plant more. 
But did P-Noy say anything about abolishing the NFA’s monopoly or reorienting its mission?  No.  Knowing that the NFA is the favorite milking cow of politicians, I’m also not inspired by P-Noy’s appointment of a political operative like Lito Banayo, rather than a known reformer, to head that agency. 
Another instance of impulsive thinking is the suggestion that the government’s fiscal woes can be solved through unsolicited public-private partnerships in infrastructure.  It’s fine that the government listens to proposals from the private sector to build expressways or to relocate the Navy Headquarters at no cost to government, but it should be wary of unsolicited proposals because these are the source of unnecessary and overpriced projects.  The Aquino government should also avoid “joint venture” proposals because they are often schemes to avoid competitive bidding.
The abuses committed by the NFA, the MWSS, and the DPWH are really not that shocking in the history of Philippine politics.  What I wanted to hear from P-Noy is why it will be different this time.  Perhaps he should commit to professionalize the bureaucracy and reduce the number of political appointments? 
However, the lack of a vision and a clear program of reform are perhaps a testament to the birthing problems of the new administration and not a lack of desire to do well.  The sudden and unexpected candidacy of Noynoy for the presidency also meant that there was no time to craft a vision and a program of government.  P-Noy can therefore be forgiven if he sounds like a plumber, and not an architect.
However, the high expectations of the Filipino people also mean that he has little time.  He has to start doing the right things, and not just doing the things right. 

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