foreign policy

The Power of One

Assessing PNoy’s freshman year: the good, the bad and the ugly

In numerology, the number 1 bears singular importance. The first, the start, the origin of anything bears significance and meaning in the sense that it opens up possibilities, it sets the scene, and it leads the way. The level of anticipation and anxiety is always highest at the start.

The mistakes and lessons, the first impressions and achievements all have lingering effects. So it is with the first year of PNoy’s administration: the learning curve, the birthing pains and the wall of public expectation he has had to scale was close to insurmountable.

Comparisons and contrasts

In assessing his first year, the problem of finding an appropriate yardstick has been highlighted before. For those that attempt it by way of contrast, PNoy has done a remarkable job in his first year simply by not being Mrs Arroyo. Some similarities can be drawn with his mother in that she too had to sort out a lot of problems left behind by Mr Marcos and high expectations on the part of the people.

Others like me have drawn some parallels between PNoy and Estrada in the way the president went about managing factions within his cabinet. Some have questioned the president’s work ethic. ‘Do nothing’ was a constant line of attack presented by his detractors.

The question here is, had PNoy not succeeded Mrs Arroyo, how would his first year have been measured? Corollary to this is, had PNoy not been an Aquino, how would we perceive or rate him? The nation treats PNoy almost like an older brother or ‘kuya’. His being the son of ‘Tita’ or Auntie Cory makes an objective assessment difficult because of kindred ties and the ‘halo’ effect.

Factoring out the ‘noise’

Then there is the problem of events outside the evaluatee’s control, or the noise factor. The worsening global economy emanating from the Eurozone, Japan and MENA as well as from the US, have been used to explain the weakening foreign investor confidence in the Philippines.

As Ben Diokno rightly points out, our relative performance to some of our ASEAN neighbors allows us to factor out the ‘noise’ in that our peers in the region all have experienced the same global slowdown, but as the first quarter data shows, they were able to increase their levels of foreign direct investments, while we saw ours shrink.

We need to bear this in mind whenever we hear officials justifying the slowdown in our economy by citing global affairs or cyclical factors like the elections of 2010. We might be maintaining growth in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense, we might fall behind our neighbors in the region. We therefore need to determine whether this poor performance relative to them is due to some of the things the administration is doing or failing to do.

Progress made

Having said that, I would first like to focus on the positive things I believe the administration has done. This would include both its tangible and intangible achievements. I will start with the tangibles.

The introduction of universal kindergarten in public schools which studies show provide long-term learning benefits, the reduction of hunger most recently attributable to the conditional cash transfers program which is really designed to address intergenerational poverty and not fix the unemployment problem in the near term, and the reform of government corporations and debt management which have led to meaningful savings for the government are all worth a positive rating.

With regard to intangibles, the confidence engendered by the government which has led to private domestic firms releasing pent-up demand for capital goods and the greater trust or faith in government leaders are two things that this administration can be congratulated for. If the government can continue to make inroads in these areas it will have done a tremendous service to the Filipino people.

Needs improvement

On the needs improvement column, I would have to cite firstly the government’s handling of its legislative agenda. Both the scope and the pace at which it has been pursuing this have serious flaws. The absence of the FOI and RH bill among its priority measures for instance was a major failing. The fact that it took nine months for it to hammer out its agenda led to meager legislative trophies in the first year.

Secondly, our response to China’s emerging role in the region as a superpower to counterbalance the US our traditional ally has been all over the place. First, we sided with China unnecessarily in not attending the Nobel Prize conferment ceremonies for one of its leading dissidents. Then, in handling the Spratlys issue, we engaged in sabre rattling by sending out a navy vessel into disputed territory, again unnecessarily. A more considered and strategic foreign policy is required.

Thirdly, in prosecuting cases against Mrs Arroyo and her allies, many will assail the efforts of PNoy as unsatisfactory or timid, as several church and citizen’s groups have done. Personally, I would not consider this too much of a problem, but I know that many have that expectation. So what I cite as a failure by this government is its inability to manage such high expectations. More importantly, I would like to see greater safeguards and economic measures put in place to ensure that the Ombudsman and Solicitor General’s office are well resourced to perform their functions.

Sharper focus required

Finally, I would like to cite areas that deserve sharper focus by this administration. These are things that the administration needs to prioritize if it is to make a lasting impact. The first has to do with its development strategies contained in the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016. As I have stated in a three part series, entitled the National Development Program, there are serious gaps in the Plan that need to be addressed.

Secondly, in its first year, the government has shown serious shortcomings in its budget plans and execution. Having had a head start by way of Congress’s early approval of their budget, the government should have done better at releasing its funds for infrastructure projects. The practice of forced savings due to off-target collections also has to be addressed. This cannot continue as per the ratings agencies reports if the nation is to keep to its growth trajectory.

Thirdly, in generating much needed employment, this government has to start thinking ‘outside the box’ if it is to keep up with the growing workforce. PPP’s or public-private partnerships are an existing tool already wielded by preceding governments. For it to have a successful employment program, the administration will have to develop a robust industrial policy. To do that it needs to reshape the economic bureaucracy as I have pointed out here.

Looking back, moving forward

A periodic performance appraisal is always necessary for any government to benchmark itself against the undertaking it has given to the people, to celebrate successes and take stock of where it needs to improve or devote more attention to.

The first year of any government is always the hardest. Unexpected roadblocks and landmines often litter its path. The ability of any regime to survive its first year relatively unscathed or even stronger than before usually is a good indicator of the caliber of its leaders.

We will have to say that the government despite all the sound and fury has survived relatively intact. The remaining five years will contain many twists and turns. Hopefully, the correct lessons from its first year will help inform these remaining years. For this reason, it is important for citizens to remain as engaged as they have been during this first year as we here at Propinoy are determined to be.

Of Wedding Feasts and Famines

In the media-driven frenzy of royal-watching, the wedding between Kate and Wills harks back to a time when the pomp and pageantry of the monarchy provided a diversion from the daily struggles of their subjects. In England, as late as the 1930s, poor families struggled with the problem of hunger. Yet as George Orwell wrote,

The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots.

The May/June 2011 online version of the magazine Foreign Policy is devoted to the problems associated with food price inflation and the impact this would have on poverty and hunger. The development aid community has flagged this as a potential cause for dragging many in the middle to low income countries into poverty.

Calls have been issued to address this pressing problem. But in a piece written by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the general consensus regarding the issue is challenged. What if the experts are wrong, they ask.What if the problem of hunger is not caused by the lack of affordable food? Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has famously pointed to the fact that famines have only occurred in recent times in countries that lacked democratic institutions of accountability. Poor governance rather than a lack of food supply creates extreme hunger.

In India where Sen is from, despite the rise in per capita income, per capita caloric intake has declined. The piece points out that

(t)he change is not driven by declining incomes; by all accounts, Indians are making more money than ever before. Nor is it because of rising food prices — between the early 1980s and 2005, food prices declined relative to the prices of other things, both in rural and urban India. Although food prices have increased again since 2005, Indians began eating less precisely when the price of food was going down.

What if the problem of hunger is not driven by a lack of affordable food, but the fact that the poor demand a different variety of food? They use one example to bear this out:

Using price data from the Philippines, we calculated the cost of the cheapest diet sufficient to give 2,400 calories. It would cost only about 21 cents a day, very affordable even for the very poor (the worldwide poverty line is set at roughly a dollar per day). The catch is, it would involve eating only bananas and eggs, something no one would like to do day in, day out. But so long as people are prepared to eat bananas and eggs when they need to, we should find very few people stuck in poverty because they do not get enough to eat.

To provide more evidence of this, they cite a study conducted in two regions of China where researchers offered randomly selected poor households a large subsidy on the price of basic staples believing this would result in greater consumption of food. Instead they found that:

(o)verall, the caloric intake of those who received the subsidy did not increase (and may even have decreased), despite the fact that their purchasing power had increased. Nor did the nutritional content improve in any other sense. The likely reason is that because the rice and wheat noodles were cheap but not particularly tasty, feeling richer might actually have made them consume less of those staples.

They go on to point out the possible reasons why the poor might be eating less. Better water and sanitation for instance may lead to a lower incidence of nutrition depleting diseases. Women in rural villages which now have access to water no longer need to spend a good deal of effort fetching water to and from rivers. Aside from that is the penchant of the poor to spend on non-essentials like vices and other forms of entertainment (televisions, DVDs, mobile phones, movies, etc).

Many programs aimed at boosting protein and iodized salt intake have been met with a dismal response from poor households. It seems that when it comes to deciding what to spend their income on, they seem to have other priorities.

This article originally appeared in The Cusp (the author’s blog).

The deportation debacle and Philippines-Taiwan-China relations

It appears that Philippines whether she likes it or not would always pass through the sensitive and sometimes dangerous ways of forging diplomatic, political, economic, and military ties with China while maintaining economic and cultural ties with Taiwan. Can the Philippines do this while asserting its national interest? It would be tough but yes the Philippines can. Read more

'We do not want to further annoy China'

And with that unofficial, but candid remark, the government of the Philippines inadvertently let slip the basis for its decision to follow China in declining to send an official representative to the Nobel Prize awards ceremony in which one of the People’s Republic’s more prominent dissidents Lu Xiaobo is being recognized in absentia. He is currently imprisoned for publishing a manifesto calling for an end to one-party rule by the Communist Party of China.

As the geopolitical center of gravity in this century starts drifting eastwards, the Philippines like all developing nations in the Asia Pacific finds itself having to reconfigure its strategic relationship with its former colonial master, the United States. As the “sleeping giant” that is China awakes, it is beginning to assert its influence mainly through economic means, particularly with nations who have been alienated or sanctioned by the US and the West (i.e. the Cubas and Irans of the world).

Relations with Beijing had been strained previously with the cancellation of the National Broadband Network project that was awarded to the ZTE Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, and the Luneta hostage taking incidents in which Hong Kong nationals became casualties as a result of a botched rescue operation.

Already, tourism in the country has suffered through a large number of cancellations from the mainland. Unfortunately in siding with China, the Philippines has grouped itself with a number of “flawed democracies” whose path to development does not proceed along the classic Western narrative.

It also puts into doubt the strategy of engagement the West has employed in which trade liberalization with China encourages political liberalization. It now appears that the reverse is happening. By becoming increasingly dependent on China for trade and commerce, countries like the Philippines which once walked in lock step with the US in promoting human rights within ASEAN, are now gravitating towards the Beijing consensus of economic progress without political development.

The dropping of our international human rights credentials diplomatically may have led to the Philippine government taking a more positive step in the domestic scene with the recently released statement by PNoy instructing the Department of Justice to drop formal complaints against the group of health workers known as the Morong 43 who were suspected of aiding communist guerrillas.

In both instances, PNoy was criticized for not treating the issues with the sensitivity of a son whose father suffered under similar circumstances of repression under the Martial Law regime. It now appears that charity begins at home.

But what the events of the past week reveal is that policy is being developed on the fly. Does the Philippines still have a comprehensive policy on human rights that is consistent both at international domestic settings? In the past our stance on the issue put us in league with the US. The only time we compromised was to support the US during the Cold War or with its war on terror. This time around, it is China that is pulling the strings.

For as long as the nation remains dependent on one superpower or another for its economic welfare, it is perhaps too unrealistic for us to expect its foreign policy to be truly considered and independent of external domination or influence.