Arroyo to Aquino: It’s the economy, student!

Pampanga Rep Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Pampanga Rep Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

(Editor’s note: This is the full version of former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s essay released on January 12, 2012 criticizing current President Benigno Aquino III, her student at the Ateneo de Manila University. Arroyo holds a doctorate degree in economy from the UP School of Economics and is currently detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center on election sabotage charges.)

I wrote this article on and off in my spare time during my house recuperation, re-hospitalization and hospital detention from October to December 2011.

The economy I turned over

Countless studies have shown that rapid increases in average incomes reduce poverty. Policy research, notes economist Stephan Klasen, has shown that “poverty reduction will be fastest in countries where average income growth is highest.”

When I stepped down from the Presidency in June 2010, I was able to turn over to the next Administration a new Philippines with a 7.9% growth rate. That growth rate capped 38 quarters of uninterrupted economic growth despite escalating global oil and food prices, two world recessions, Central and West Asian wars, mega-storms and virulent global epidemics. Our country had just weathered with flying colors the worst planet-wide economic downturn since
the Great Depression of 1930. As two-thirds of the world’s economies contracted, we were one of the few that managed positive growth.

If you look around you in our cities as you drive by the office towers that have changed the skyline, if you look around you in our provinces as you drive over the roads, bridges and RORO ports where we made massive investments, that is the face of change that occurred during my administration.

By the time I left the Presidency, nearly 9 out of 10 Filipinos had access to health insurance, more than 100,000 new classrooms had been built, 9 million jobs had been created.

We built roads and bridges, ports and airports, irrigation and education facilities where they were sorely needed. To millions of the poor, we provided free or subsidized rice, discounted fuel and electricity, or conditional cash transfers and we advanced land reform for farmers and indigenous communities.

No amount of black propaganda can erase the tangible improvements enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of families liberated from want during my decade at the helm of the nation. But these accomplishments have simply been part of the continuum of history. The gains I achieved were built on the efforts of previous leaders. Each successive government must build on the successes and progress of the previous ones: advance the programs that work, leave behind those that
don’t.

I am confident that I left this nation much stronger than when I came into office. When I stepped down, I called on everyone to unite behind our new leaders. I was optimistic and I was hopeful about our future.

However, the evidence is mounting that my optimism was misplaced. Our growth in the 3rd quarter of 2011 was only 3.2%, well below all the forecasts that had already been successively downgraded. The momentum inherited by President Aquino from my administration is slowing down, and despite his initial brief honeymoon period, he has simply not replaced my legacy with new ideas and actions of his own.

The politics of division

In the last year and a half, I have noted with sadness the increasing vacuum of leadership, vision, energy and execution in managing our economic affairs. The gains achieved by previous administrations – mine included – are being squandered in an obsessive pursuit of political warfare meant to blacken the past and conceal the dark corners of the present dispensation.

Rather than building on our nation’s achievements, this regime has extolled itself as the sole harbinger of all that is good. And the Filipino people are paying for this obsession–in slumping growth, under-achieving government, escalating crime and conflict, and the excesses of a presidential clique that enjoys fancy cars and gun culture.

Vilification covering up the vacuum of vision is the latest manifestation of the weak state that our generation of Filipinos has inherited. The symptoms of this weak state are a large gap between rich and poor — a gap that has been exploited for political ends — and a political system based on patronage and, ultimately, corruption to support that patronage. Recently, politics has seen the use of black propaganda and character assassination as tools of the trade. The operative word in all of this is “politics” – too much politics.

I know that the President has to be a politician, like everybody else in our elected leadership, whether Administration or Opposition, and we must all co-exist within this system. But what really matters is what kind of politics we espouse, not how much. The enemy to beat is ourselves: when we spread division rather than unity; when we put ego above country and sensationalism above rationality; when we make everyday politics replace long-term vision in
our country’s hour of need.

Everyday we draw nearer to what may be our country’s hour of greatest need, because an increasingly ominous global environment is aggravating our self-inflicted weakness. The leadership’s palpable deficiencies in vision and execution are hurting our economy at a time when the rest of the world faces the ever more real threat of a double-dip recession, one that we may have escaped the first time during my term, but might not be able to avoid again.

Our dream of growth

In order to avoid such a grim outcome, we must pursue the economic growth of our country as the permanent solution to our age-old problems of poverty and even corruption. Every postwar Administration to my recollection has sought to advance the economic growth of our country as a matter of highest priority. Only by enlarging the economic pie can there be more and bigger slices for everyone to enjoy.

It is in poverty that we find the material roots of the problem of corruption – because the political system based on patronage–and ultimately, corruption to support patronage–is made possible only by the large gap between the rich and the poor. This will persist until and unless we enlarge the economic pie. Unfortunately, the present Administration has chosen to turn the problem upside down, anchoring their entire development strategy on one simplistic slogan:
“Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” If there is no corruption, there is no poverty—this is a proposition that also tells us that the undeniable persistence of poverty to this day therefore means the continuation of corruption under this Administration.

The Economist commented earlier that: “…The President’s approach to fighting corruption…is to punish the sins of the past rather than try to prevent crime in the future. Mr. Aquino has proposed few reforms to the system.”

Meanwhile, most analysts are downgrading their growth forecasts for this year and the next. The Dutch bank ING cited the government’s “under-spending in the name of good governance” as the reason for lowering its growth forecasts.

Now more than ever, as the rest of the world faces renewed threats of financial and even sovereign defaults as well as economic recession, it is high time for us to return to the commitment to growth that has been the primary objective of every administration in the past.

Returning to this mainstream commitment to growth enables the country to tap the opportunities of the 21st century. In line with this, during my time we promoted fast-growing industries where high-value jobs are most plentiful.

One of them is information and communication technology or ICT, particularly the outsourcing of knowledge and business processes. My Administration developed the call center industry almost from scratch: in June 2010 there were half a million call center and BPO workers, from less than 5,000 when I took office. It was mainly for them that we built our fifth, virtual super-region: the so-called “cyber corridor”, the nationwide backbone for our call centers and BPO industry which rely on constant advances in IT and the essentially zero cost of additional bandwidth.

These youthful digital pioneers deserve government’s continuing support – by upgrading instead of downgrading and politicizing CICT, the government agency that oversees our digital infrastructure; by continuing to fund related voc-tech training programs; by wooing instead of alienating foreign companies seeking to set up shop here. As countries like China and Korea rapidly make their own way up the value-added ladder of outsourcing, we must work harder to stay ahead of them.

We created appealing employment opportunities by focusing on the development of priority sectors, such as BPO. We need to create more wealth and keep people working here at home.

That is why I remained so stubbornly focused on the economy. Many times during my tenure I expressed how much I longed for the day when going abroad for a job is a career option, not the only choice, for a Filipino worker. My economic plans were designed to allow the Philippines to break out of the boom and bust cycle of an economy dependent on global markets for agricultural commodities, and pursue consistent and sustainable growth anchored on a large domestic market and the resiliency of Filipino workers at home and abroad.

My successor flattered me by parroting what I said, but tried to frustrate me by distorting what I did. Instead of acknowledging his debt to his predecessor, he accused me of doing the opposite of what I had achieved, by describing my government as “…[one] that treats its people as an export commodity and a means to earn foreign exchange”. Then he promised to install what I had already established and which he appears bent on dismantling: “… a government that creates
jobs at home, so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity; and when its citizens do choose to become OFWs, their welfare and protection will still be the government’s priority.”

Indeed, it’s so easy to claim achievements that have already been accomplished by others, and take credit for what is there when the one who did the work has gone. Just make sure she is forgotten, or, if remembered, vilified.

The President’s words were brave indeed—and yet his government has consistently failed to back them up: by failing to rescue our countrymen from China’s death row, or promptly evacuate them from national disaster in Japan, or comprehensively secure them from political unrest in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. Now we are facing a new challenge of “Saudiization”, as the government of our largest OFW market, Saudi Arabia, sets out to implement a massive
program of replacing OFW’s with its own nationals, starting next year.

Will this government have the will and the skill to properly navigate such uncertain waters? Protecting our overseas workers will urgently require contingency planning and continuous backdoor diplomacy with their host governments, while creating alternative jobs at home for them will require—again—the kind of commitment to economic expansion that I cannot over-emphasize.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure strengthens our competitiveness and enables us to attract new levels of job-creating foreign direct investment. Infrastructure investment not only drives economic growth, but also creates a more efficient, competitive economy, by improving productivity and lowering the costs of doing business.

I am alarmed that the pace of infrastructure build-out has slowed dramatically under this Administration, with some projects even being cancelled outright for no good reason—such as the earlier-noted flood control projects in Central Luzon—and our country being sued by investors. At a time when we should be wooing their money, we are inviting litigation from them instead. This kind of flip-flopping may help explain the tepid investor response to the Administration’s flagship public-private partnership (PPP) program, where only one project has been awarded after all of eighteen months.

I was heartened to hear the President announce recently his willingness to resume government infrastructure spending next year. However, one cannot help but notice the timing, so close to the upcoming 2013 election campaign.

Land productivity

In my first State of the Nation Address in 2001, I said that the first component of our national agenda should be an economic philosophy of free enterprise appropriate to the twenty-first century, while the second should be a modernized agricultural sector founded on social equity.

Within a couple of months after taking office in January 2001, I personally conducted Cabinet meetings to implement the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1995, which had never been implemented for lack of funds. After several discussions with selected department secretaries as well as heads of government banks, we uncovered budget items and available credit to channel more than P20 billion a year to provide fertilizers, irrigation and infrastructure, extension services, more loans, dryers and other post-harvest facilities, and seeds and other genetic materials to our farmers and fisherfolk. This was perhaps the biggest reason for the decline in poverty that was posted during my first few years in office.

The current Administration originally fixated on the single goal of achieving self-sufficiency in rice by 2013. I too wanted to achieve rice self-sufficiency, but I knew the odds were tough. Since the Spanish period we’ve been importing rice. While we may know how to grow rice well, topography doesn’t always cooperate. Nature did not gift us with a mighty Mekong River like Thailand and Vietnam, with their vast and naturally fertile river delta plains. Nature instead put our islands ahead of our neighbors in the path of typhoons from the Pacific. So historically we’ve had to import 10% of our rice, and so I took care to keep our goals for agriculture wide-ranging and diversified.

Recently the Administration seems to have retreated from the original objective of rice self-sufficiency by 2013. In its place, do they have an alternative vision in mind for our all-important agricultural sector?

The real challenge in this century is broader. The real task at hand is to make the finite land that we have planted to agriculture ever more productive, through agricultural modernization founded on social equity.

Higher productivity from farm lands is critical for our development. By making more food available at lower prices especially to our poor, we are effectively bringing down the required level of real wages in our country—already among the highest in the world, according to UP Professor Manny Esguerra—and helping to make our manufacturing industries globally competitive again.

As for social equity, being the daughter of the late President Diosdado Macapagal, the father of land reform in our country, I am gratified by the evaluation of one of my favorite Economics teachers, UP Professor Gonzalo Jurado: “The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, to the extent that it is a land distribution program, can now be described as having almost completely succeeded in attaining its goal. [CARP] should now be a developmental program aiming explicitly to raise farm productivity…so that the country as a whole will benefit from the tenurial rearrangement.”

And of course it is the landowners who must set the example of compliance with the law in order to allow the rest of us to move forward—such as the Arroyos in my husband’s family, who voluntarily submitted long ago to land reform even without an order from the Supreme Court to do the right thing.

Our children

For Filipinos, family is everything and the future of our children is sacred. That is why I invested so much time and effort in rejuvenating our education system. I met with teachers and other educators to get a first-hand look at the improvements that we need to make. I listened to what these fine public servants had to say, and in response to their advice, I increased the country’s total budget for education by nearly four times: from P 6.6 Billion in 2000 to P 24.3 Billion in 2010 when I stepped down. Those funds went into the following critical areas of educational spending:

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