State of the nation’s governance

Two years after he became President, it is perhaps easier to define the core values to which Benigno S. Aquino III subscribes than to formulate the vision that orients the direction of his administration. The commitment to ethical governance is felt everywhere, permeating the exercise of executive power, but the general program that the government wishes to pursue remains elusive.

The daang matuwid (straight path) metaphor tells how public power is to be wielded, but it does not indicate what the priorities of government are. This gives the impression of a moralistic rather than a strategically oriented administration. But that would not be a fair assessment. For, indeed, quiet work is going on in many areas, though much of it has yet to ripen into substantive achievements.

To many Filipinos, knowing that the country is in the hands of an honest President is a blessing enough. They have seen how the nation’s most difficult problems are made worse by corruption at the top. And so they assume these will be solved once a clean leader is installed at the helm of government. The campaign line “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap (Without corruption, there will be no poverty)” eloquently captured this belief, which accounts for its success as a political slogan. It highlighted the urgency of ethical governance in a society routinely plundered by rotten officials. But, the understanding of the problem of poverty it communicates is simplistic.

It tends to gloss over the fact that the main cause of poverty is economic underdevelopment, not corruption. A backward economy with poor infrastructure will not breed industries that offer stable employment and livelihood to a growing population, no matter how honest the government may be. An ill-trained and poorly educated labor force, such as we have, will never be in any position to take the high-paying jobs in a highly competitive labor market.

In today’s global economy, the state’s capacity to steer the direction of economic growth is concededly limited. But it can do a lot to create the infrastructure needed for sustained growth—power plants, a rapid mass transport system, highways, ports, dams, etc. More important, it can draw a roadmap for the long-term development of human resource capability—one that focuses on the formation of a strong educational system, a reliable universal healthcare program, and a humane housing and resettlement policy aimed at ending the scourge of squatting that has been the fate of at least a third of our urban population.

Now is the time to call on that global goodwill that a reform-minded government earns as soon as it comes to power. But the P-Noy administration has to assure the nation and the world that it has a coherent strategy and timetable for tackling these key problems. Without a complementary sustainable livelihood program, the expanded Conditional Cash Transfer Program into which billions of pesos have been poured will do little to eliminate mass poverty. New initiatives are needed in education, health, housing, and agriculture.

The K to 12 program is definitely a step in the right direction, but its promise is vitiated by the basic problems of classroom lack, inadequately trained teachers, and insufficient teaching materials. The level of preparation required for this momentous shift cannot be underestimated. No less pressing is educational reform at the tertiary level, where schools that have no business offering college courses and certificates proliferated over the last two decades. Closing these diploma mills will be hard, but the government must show resolve if it wants to restore the standing of our graduates in the labor market.

There is a lot of good news to tell in the health sector that deserves public notice. Universal enrollment in PhilHealth is almost an accomplished fact, although much still has to be done to bring down the cost of medicines, hospital confinement, and surgical procedures. I am personally aware of the comprehensive health care program that has been put together by Health Secretary Enrique Ona under the leadership of Doctors Alberto Romualdez and Ernesto Domingo. This program builds on the social equity potential of PhilHealth, using as capital the new “sin taxes” that are expected to be generated as soon as the new law is approved.

It is in the low-cost housing sector that we have been missing some meaningful intervention. Whereas an oversupply in the middle and upper middle housing market looms in the horizon, no liveable homes are being built for the poor within the city. The call for spatial justice echoes in every coercive demolition of slum communities that is carried out, but there has yet to be a systematic response to this problem.  The poorest of our poor continue to inhabit river banks and steep mountain slopes, thus multiplying their vulnerability to drastic changes in weather patterns and other natural calamities.

All this is to call attention to the need to craft a program of inclusive development that is guided by clear priorities and targets. It is not to slight the substantive gains in governance that have been made, which staunch critics may often overlook—e.g., the professionalization of the boards and the elimination of excessive compensations in government corporations, the explicit avoidance of any undue exercise of presidential prerogative, the meticulous care taken in the preparation and disbursement of the national budget which effectively ended the dysfunctional practice of reenacting budgets, and many more.

The coming year is crucial; it will show whether a moral leader can also be a capable executive.

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