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Time seen running out as red tape hampers ‘Build, Build, Build’

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte needs to move decisively in reducing bureaucratic hurdles to his signature “Build, Build, Build” program if he is to leave a substantial legacy of major building projects, analysts said.

“Only a handful” of projects reached the construction and implementation stage, according to Terry L. Ridon, convenor of infrastructure advocacy InfrawatchPH, said in an e-mail. “Most of which are even public-private partnerships (PPP) originated in previous administrations.”

In 2017, Mr. Duterte and his economic managers launched “Build, Build, Build” with an initial slate of 75 big-ticket projects intended to stimulate the economy and ultimately reduce poverty.

The list has since been upgraded to 104 big-ticket items, after three revisions to the list in four years.

More than halfway into the President’s term, however, “some had even been delayed, if not effectively shelved, due to changing policy directions of various agencies,” he said.

Mr. Ridon said one of the biggest stumbling blocks to completing the program was “red tape.”

“While we would not want shortcuts, particularly on social and environmental licenses, five years of permitting delay should give us pause on what really needs to be done to fast-track implementation,” he said.

Mr. Ridon said the government should “strictly implement timelines and enforce penalties for bureaucratic delay.”

“We have seen the streamlining of permits in (cellular) tower buildings. We should see the same in other infrastructure projects,” he said.

As the current government approaches its departure date in 2022, “emergency powers or any sort of measure that may seem to expand executive powers” will be difficult to legislate “due to public opinion looking forward to a peaceful transfer of power to a new administration,” Mr. Ridon said.

“The speed bump has been with the bureaucracy itself: the countless permits and regulatory setbacks have delayed most of our flagship projects.”

Mr. Duterte last year signed a law granting him special powers to fast-track the processing and issuance of government permits and licenses.

“Government needs to meet deadlines particularly because it faces the prospect of all these projects being shelved in the next administration, if funding priorities change from infrastructure to social services or coronavirus response,” Mr. Ridon said.

If construction does not commence within the next 16 months, the administration’s infrastructure program list “will remain a wishlist,” he said.

“There will certainly be another round of project review at that time, and infrastructure priorities may change.”

“There are institutional difficulties and other administrative hindrances that can derail big infra projects,” Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, chief economist at UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc., said in an e-mail.

Of the P4.13-trillion spending program for “Build, Build, Build,” more than half or P2.26 trillion will be supported by loans and grants from overseas, while a total of P1.69 trillion will be supported by public-private funding.

“I think it is clear what works. PPP is a certified best practice all over the world, especially in emerging or developing economies,” Mr. Asuncion said. “Get it done by the private sector to address a public good and both interests will be met.”

He said the PPP should have been “greatly amplified and further endorsed” under the current administration. “There is no stopping any administration from doing other means aside from what is being done that has clearly worked.”

“A better motivation to meet the deadline would be for the sake of aiding the economic recovery,” Mr. Asuncion said.

Mr. Asuncion, meanwhile, said one possible change to ensure infrastructure continuity is to allow presidents to stand for reelection in two five-year terms.

“I think that a good 10 years of one administration would be enough to get big infra projects implemented to the advantage of the populace. Six years of one term is simply counterproductive,” he said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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