The President’s speech

Image credit: Eaglenews.ph
Image credit: Eaglenews.ph

In his new year’s address, President Aquino spoke of the urgency to complete his administration’s good governance agenda alluding to the remainder of his term as the “last two minutes”.

Several challenges faced this year were mentioned including the PDAF scandal, severe weather events and the continuing task of providing employment for our people. Achievements to date were the prosecution of cases against corrupt officials implicated in the PDAF scam, signing of the annex to the framework agreement to end conflict in the South, resilient growth in the face of a regional slowdown, and the granting of investment grade status to the Philippines.

The president mentioned the ongoing tasks needing completion before the end of his term, which are eradicating corruption, solving the skills mismatch in labour markets and providing enough employment opportunities, and bringing about a final peace settlement in Mindanao.

Unfortunately, in seeking to play up the positive achievements under his administration, the president may have undermined his own credibility. The president intoned, “because of good governance, we are destroying the last bastions of corruption, and at the same time, creating more opportunities for our countrymen.”

The last bastions of corruption? As evidence of this, the president cited our improvement in Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perception Index moving 29 places up from 134th to 105th place out of 177 countries in the ranking. Actually, TI’s 2013 report shows us at equal 94th place along with countries like Djibouti, India, Suriname and Ecuador (see below).


Of course one can argue that the methodology used by TI necessarily makes it vulnerable to criticism based as it is on perceptions of the country, which can be influenced by the “halo effect”. The real proof of the pudding is  in the actual experience of investors when they try to do business in the country. And here a better yardstick comes from the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators.

Although the World Bank’s findings show the country’s Control of Corruption score in 2012 recovered from its recent lows, it was still at 33 with 100 being the highest possible. This puts us slightly below what we attained in 2005. I doubt that anyone would regard that as a banner year for beating corruption. It doesn’t suggest that we have limited corruption past the historical mean if you look back at the WB’s time series. We are way below our highest score of 55 attained back in 1998.

WB CoC

As far as providing jobs, the president said, “Through the cooperation of DOLE, TESDA, DepEd, CHED, and the private sector, we are finding solutions to the job-skills mismatch. Therefore, it is not surprising that the unemployment rate decreased this year.” This statement can be questioned. While the unemployment rate recorded for October 2013 was 6.5 per cent, lower than the 6.8 per cent in the same month of 2012, the average for 2013 was 7.1 per cent compared to 7.0 per cent in 2012. Also, it is worth noting that the October estimates excluded the province of Leyte.

It is standard practice in dealing with employment figures to use full year averages to smoothen out the volatility of results. While average total employment rose 0.8 per cent to 37.9 million in 2013 up from 37.6 million in 2012, the number of unemployed people also rose by 2.5 per cent to 2.9 million from 2.8 million during this period. This does not suggest that employment conditions improved much in the last year.

It is likewise hard to know what to make of the administrative statistics the president cites with respect to TESDA’s performance. He compares a study performed by the Department of Budget and Management showing that only 28.5 per cent of graduates between 2006 and 2008 found employment after training to a study performed by TESDA in 2012 that showed that this had increased to 62.4 per cent.

We are not told whether the methodologies used by the two agencies in deriving these results were consistent with each other. Was the length of time the same for both studies (the former was for three years, what about the latter)? How long since graduating were the former pupils surveyed in each study? How were respondents sampled? The seemingly vague language used in the president’s statement does not really help clarify the issue.

The seeming lack of rigour in subjecting the president’s statements to analytical scrutiny opens up his message to criticism. If the premise of his argument appears faulty, then the conclusions and policy direction he derives from them could be discredited as well.

For me, the cherry picking of statistics that favours his arguments simply undermines the very thesis that good governance reforms are in fact working to improve things and are close to their culmination. In our pursuit of the straight path, there ought to be no hint of deception or bias in our analysis of the situation. To be fair, I don’t think it is their intention to deceive us. Perhaps it is a case of the spin meisters not seeking help from technical analysts in proofreading the speech.

Finally, what was sorely lacking in the president’s narrative was a cogent strategy and clear policy direction for the remainder of his term. The president again seemed to resort to rhetorical flourishes, rather than spelling out his roadmap. He has left it to commentators to fill in the blanks for him. This is not what we would expect from a president at this stage of his term. Worryingly, the president’s speech has left us with more questions than answers.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

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  • ross

    Critics and pundits alike “make their living” on the fact that there are always two sides to the story. The President speech was not meant to outline a cogent strategy and clear policy direction for the remainder of his term but simply to bring good news to a new year. That it was entirely spoken in Filipino made this intention clear.

    But of course, there’s nothing good about good news as far as criticism is concern. Research and analytical prowess is often redundant when critiquing good news. Often good news is self-evident while bad news requires deeper prodding. Credit to academic experts and pundits, for without them, bad news may have a hard time justifying its existence.

    • Bert

      Very well said, Rose, and subtly done, too. You have a way of going at the jugular without seemingly attacking the other guy, :).

      • Bert

        Sorry, Ross pala. My bad.

      • Emmanuel Doy Santos

        What he has subtly done is to say that governance does not need to be evidence based and that reality is what we say it is. Critical analysis based on fact is “redundant” when it comes to good news? Sorry, does that apply even when the “news” being broadcast is distorted or factually incorrect?

    • Emmanuel Doy Santos

      Just because spin doctors can craft a nice speech with a positive narrative, it does not mean that it is necessarily factual. Without taking a critical view to such pronouncements, we may end up living in a fact-free zone or in dreamland. The worst part of it is when the government starts believing in its own spin because it hasn’t paid heed to empirical evidence or because no one has pointed out its failings.

      When the president starts by framing his speech around his last two minutes, then you know what he wants to do is set the tone for the remainder of his term through at least some high level statements that set his forward policy agenda. To resort to rhetorical flourishes is simply vacuous. He may as well be singing Christmas carols.

      • ross

        When one interprets the story and the other disputes it, and when the dispute goes back and forth, both presenting empirical evidences, slick graphs, statiscal analysis, authoritative references, witness experts, and so on, all of a sudden like a “sleight of hand”, the dispute becomes a story in itself.
        While the side story is not the intended result of the process, nevertheless, the intoxicating appeal of a such “magical trick” renders pundits and critics occasionally unable to resist.

        Thus, every time an opportunity arises to put on an exibition, fancy and flashy props appear. Of course, the danger with time insensitive “magic” is it can bore and alienate the audience. When that happens, not only that the direction of the spectacle alters but the “magic performance” turns excitement to cynism and apathy. Unless sobriety and sensitivity triump, the audience remains spellbound and inept to abandon the arena. Their fate is sealed as a co-equal participant in what could be described as a dyfunctional circus.

        • Emmanuel Doy Santos

          Ross, I am not a pundit. I advise Ministers in Australia on how to interpret statistics and represent them in their public statements, ok? These errors by PNoy are so basic, that if they were committed here, he would have immediately been challenged by the opposition, market analysts and the like.

          Appalling as it was, what is even more shocking was how he was able to get away with it with hardly anyone noticing. Such is the state of the opposition and business reporting in general in the country, that such rookie mistakes are given a free pass.

          What’s more is that there are people like you who think that this critical role should be abandoned or made irrelevant.

          • ross

            Its must be admitted that one does not need to be an advicer to ministers of an advance country, Australia, no less, to point out errors of the Head of State of a developing country such as the Phillipines. However, holding a title of an adviser to a government minister and possessing impressive academic accolades, gives one a unique credibility and expertise on the opinions or criticisms he/she renders.

            Truly, it is puzzling that in this day and age where there’s no shortage of consciencious experts, a governement can make basic mistakes and still gets away with it. Perhaps it is possible that expert opinion that applies to one country may be unusable in another. Perhaps while a developed nation can run and maintain like a well oiled machine, certain developing nation has more cultural issues than technical.

            Perhaps the President speech is design more to appeal to the cultural side of the nation: good news for the people after all it is new year, than mimics a Speech from the Throne or SONA outlining term plans. It may appear that the speech is cherry picking but it can also be about context and timing.

            After all, like what the President said, it’s the “last two minutes”. Of course. in basketball this duration means that the urgency for both teams to hold or take the lead becomes critical. Maybe a special “play” can be orchestrated in the last two minutes, but for the most part the fundamental game plan made at the beginning remains.