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Effective presidency, high performance standards and values

The World Bank (WB) country director’s positive assessment of our economic progress under the presidency of Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III demonstrates that good governance does make a difference.

Motoo Konishi, WB country director for the Philippines during PNoy’s presidency has shared his reflections citing some measurable accomplishments of the PNoy administration. On all the quantitative measures — GNP growth, poverty and unemployment reduction, inflation control, effective and efficient use of government funds, and growth in revenue collection and savings due to lack of corruption and the positive investment climate — the PNoy government broke many records dating back to decades of national governance. The PNoy government passed Sin taxes which enabled it to increase funding to health, education, and social welfare. Through PhilHealth, it pushed universal health care coverage. For the first time in a long time, we reached investment grade credit rating. Konishi says this has actually enabled the present government to avail of multilateral bank loans for COVID-19 relief.

At the end of his term, despite building over 100,000 classrooms, expanding the reach of electricity to outlying areas, and building new highways and barangay roads, doubling the well-managed cash transfer program for the poor, and hiring 20,000 new teachers, PNoy’s government left trillions of pesos in the National Treasury.

President Benigno Aquino III was the first president to finally sign a bill providing for responsible parenthood. He had seen malnourished children in large rural families who were stunted and clearly unhealthy, and in many cases, learning-handicapped. He did not allow adamant objections from institutional Catholic Church officials to weaken his determination to sign the bill into law.

PNoy also authorized his people to file and win a case at the UN Arbitral Court in The Hague against China on its illegitimate claims over what we now call the West Philippine Sea. This victory has been dismissed by Rodrigo Duterte who seems to be constantly on the side of China.

The current government has a good excuse for not delivering on the quantifiables, because we and the rest of the world are plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, it will be hard to come up with positive numbers on the development concerns that matter. There seems to be a lack of discipline on how the people’s money is used since it seems to depend largely on the President’s personal priorities at any given time. On the president’s orders, uniformed personnel’s salaries have been increased so that they are now paid better than our teachers and nurses. This also means large increases in uniformed personnel’s retirement pensions which we may not be able to afford. Meanwhile, our students who participated in international tests have fallen to the bottom of the pit on reading, math, and sciences. President Duterte seems to consider fighting drug addiction (with police work rather than rehabilitation) more important than investing in the capacity of our children to live productive and congenial lives. It seems that budgets for textbooks have even been reduced from their already inadequate levels.

How did President Benigno Aquino III do it? From being known as a “basket case” the Philippines was being touted internationally as a rising star of Asia. Our GNP growth at one time even topped that of China, which was a growth superstar!

First, PNoy attracted many outstanding professionals with the right values and patriotism into his Cabinet. When his college classmate begged off from his job offers, he reminded Jose Rene Almendras of the Ateneo oath to be “a man for others.” Almendras finally agreed to leave the lucrative private sector to become Energy Secretary, then Cabinet Secretary, then Foreign Affairs Secretary. He ended up staying through the full presidential term instead of his planned two years. PNoy’s Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Public Works Secretary Babes Singson, both of whom performed extraordinarily and delivered measurable development impact, spoke in glowing terms about their former boss. They cited his consistently hard work, strictness and attention to details, and consistent performance standards expressed in the question: “Is this the best use of the people’s money?” Secretary Singson reduced cost of public works projects by 25-30% by preventing corruption. Finance Secretary Purisima, with help of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, increased tax collections by unprecedented numbers.

I cannot understand why many plaudits for the late President PNoy open with the phrase “He was not perfect, but…” No President is perfect, in fact no human being is perfect, why the apologetic qualifier when it comes to PNoy?

PNoy traveled with his team on commercial flights even on official trips overseas, picking flight schedules that cost the least. In New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting, PNoy and his Cabinet ate food cart fast food, rather than dine in high-end restaurants. He always kept a careful watch over how the people’s money was used. The current President, who obviously controls both legislative houses, has unprecedented discretionary funding in the Office of the President’s budget which does not have to be accounted for!

The World Bank’s Motoo Konishi in closing his statement says: “We were inspired to work for a President and a Cabinet truly pushing to eliminate poverty and bring a brighter future for its citizens. And we all know that this is because of the President’s unwavering devotion to the Filipino people, to improving their lives, and to retake the position of the Philippines as a nation to be proud of and a nation that will succeed and excel in Asia.”

We will soon have the opportunity to reverse the downward spiral that we seem to be plunging our country and people into under the present administration which has become a government of man, and not of laws. We are led by a demagogue whose main skill is manipulating the minds of the less informed and educated masses who happen to comprise the majority of voters. Because of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist power, we now have a legislature that is a mere rubber stamp; and, the last bastion of justice, a Supreme Court that is difficult to trust.

We pray that in remembering the good that President Benigno Aquino III was able to do for our country, we can be inspired enough to have the determination to bring in a new government that is devoted to the welfare of our people. Every little bit will count. An extension of the kind of government we have today for another six years might become irreversible and disastrous for our people. We need a massive commitment from civil society and patriotic politicians with the right values to ensure that we do not end up once more as the pathetic basket case of Asia.

It would be really nice to again be able to hold our heads high because we have leaders who are decent, responsible and trustworthy. We need to return to Daang Matuwid (the straight path).


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.

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