I was a local government employee in 1992
when Fidel Ramos became president, who lost no time organizing the Club of 20
(consisting of the 20 poorest provinces of the country), coordinated by one
Bitay Lacson, in pursuit of the then new administration’s vision for
Lacson hired consultants (led by Ed Morato,
who was then the acknowledged development management guru at the Asian
Institute of Management) that facilitated strategy formulation workshops for
the target local government units. My boss, Eastern Samar Governor Lutz Barbo,
who later became Senate Secretary (during the Senate Presidency of both Nene
and Koko Pimentel), was kind enough to send me to one of these workshops.
During the project identification part of
the workshops, a sub-group composed of lawyers and politicians (other
sub-groups included civil society organization (CSO) representatives, LGU staff,
etc.), presented a list that consisted solely of physical infrastructure
projects, such as buildings, airports, roads and bridges. CSO reps presented a
variety of financial and technical support programs for farmers and fishermen,
among other interventions aimed at directly benefitting the poor.
This anecdote becomes handy when one
recalls that between Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, none of the five
presidents that came in between them was a lawyer. Marcos and Duterte, both
lawyers, had prioritized capital-intensive physical infrastructures as part of
their development agenda. (One may add that both also applied short cuts in
getting government programs done, and for which they could end up being
questioned here in this world, where we live, and at the next, where the dead
are alive, for charges of human rights violations. But that is another story).
Astute politicians, apparently more so when
one is a lawyer, understand that everybody loves infrastructure projects. They
can flaunt them as solid proof of their accomplishments. And blessed are they
who flaunt and budots, for voters
Next, government planners recognize the
game-changing roles infra projects play in economic growth. They know how infrastructure
investments (now amounting to trillions of pesos) pump-prime the economy. Infra
projects lift the rich; they could even help the poor.
Like OFW remittances (constituting 10
percent of the Gross Domestic Product), infra investments make the economic
managers of government look good.
Finally, we must not forget the grafters
and their cronies. They love to lobby for infra too. I remember how Ping Lacson
delivered a privileged tsismis on the
Senate floor years ago, using wire-tapped conversation, which appeared to quote
a fellow Senator: “Sec, natalo ako sa
majong kagabi, bigyan mo ako ng project bukas,” or words to that effect.
Looking around, the Bataan Nuclear Power
Plant comes quick as one among countless examples. Hyped up by the Marcos
administration as its response to the oil crisis in 1973, the plant ended up being
mothballed by the Cory Aquino government due largely to untenable technical issues.
Taxpayers also ended up paying for it 5 times more than the initial projected cost,
from USD500M in 1974 to USD2.3B at its completion in 1985. In 2012, the Sandiganbayan ordered Westinghouse
(contractor of the plant)-broker Herminio Disini, whose wife was a cousin of
Imelda Marcos, to return USD50M to the government for what gangsters had come
to use the Pinoy slang bukol for.
A more recent example involves former
Makati City Mayor Junjun Binay, who has been perpetually barred by the Court of
Appeals from holding public office on account of a graft case where he, among
other respondents, was found to have committed irregularities in the
construction of the Makati Science High School Building, which had been
reported to be overpriced by 200 percent, from the gangrene-free cost of Php478
million to the bukol-metastasized dissipation
of Php1.3 billion.
Aside from corruption issues, infrastructure
projects need more than gut-feel justification (for example, desirability of projects
can be ranked according to their respective Social Internal Rate of Return ratios,
to borrow a terminology often used by economists) in the context of competing
government priorities where, as it happens, resources are few while things that
need to be done, here and now, are many. Infrastructures, of course, benefit
the rich more than the poor. Unlike health and education programs, or similar interventions
presented by CSOs in my 1992 story, most infrastructures benefit the poor only
indirectly (aside from workers hired to construct them).
Even Farm to Market Roads, whose rationale
is contextualized in the service of farmers, benefit the relatively rich (those
who own vehicles) more than the poor (those who move around by tsinelas). In the long run, what happens
out there is that the rich become richer while the poor become poorer (in
relation to the rest of society).
Am I saying government should drop its
plans to, say, connect major islands of the archipelago with mega-bridges? Yes
Yes, if it leaves government with little else
by which it can continue to support public health and education, or provide
direct subsidy to farmers, among other basic sectors of society. But no,
because even the poor, like the rich, love infra too, like they do for example with
San Juanico Bridge, a Marcos masterpiece that connects the islands of Samar and
Ingming Aberia is a development worker by training and profession. He writes to analyze social issues, promote values of the Catholic faith, dabble essays on a variety of other topics, or to simply argue for an advocacy.