(Published by The Manila Times on 12 June 2019)
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 Philippines 2000.
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 remember them.
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 and no.
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 Leyte.