Duterte’s ambitious $160-billion program

BABE’S EYE VIEW By Babe Romualdez

The much-awaited economic program of the Duterte administration was launched last Tuesday at the Conrad hotel in MOA. Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez invited us to the preview of  “Dutertenomics Forum” attended by select guests, and some members of the media (see “This Week on PeopleAsia” at the Allure section of PhilSTAR today).

The forum basically showed in detail the administration’s development plans and the ambitious infrastructure program that will be rolled out in the next six years – all anchored on the president’s 10-point socioeconomic agenda that seeks to speed up inclusive growth and transform the economy into one that is also pro-poor.

Early on, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno already told me that government is not supposed to be in the business of “savings” – referring to the Aquino administration’s propensity for “underspending” and how they took so long to implement critical infrastructure projects.

According to the Department of Budget and Management, the Aquino government underspent P1 trillion of Congressional appropriations – resulting in lost opportunities to build, or improve on, vital infrastructure especially in the transport sector. It was clear the Aquino administration was overly cautious about being accused of corruption, hence the “teka-teka” attitude, so that they ended up doing very little in addressing the critical infrastructure needs of the country.

Just imagine the huge losses in terms of jobs, and the missed opportunities that new roads, bridges, airports, railways and other transportation systems could have provided to push the economy to a higher growth trajectory, Secretary Diokno told us.

This time however, the political will of the current administration is coming into play. President Duterte clearly wants things done – but he also wants everything to be transparent, untainted by suspicions of graft and corruption. That’s why early on, he wanted to put up a transparency portal where the public can freely access information about contracts, monitor how the funds are used, know who the suppliers or contractors are, and get updates regarding the status of projects with photos to indicate real-time progress.

Judging from the presentations during the forum, the economic blueprint – with its massive and very ambitious $160-billion infrastructure plan over the next six years – looks very promising. Some people though are a bit skeptical on how the plans will be accomplished considering past experiences with critical projects that were delayed by bureaucratic red tape, TROs and corruption allegations. But as Secretary Dominguez told us, “We aim for the moon – and if we hit the stars, then we’re in good shape.” Besides, he is thoroughly convinced that the projects that have been laid out are achievable.

The Duterte government’s mantra of “Build! Build! Build!” is certainly fitting, with 64 big-ticket infrastructure projects in the pipeline. Some P3.6 trillion is also being set aside for the three-year rolling infrastructure program (TRIP) covering 2018-2010 for several sectors that include transportation, energy, information communications technology, social infrastructure and waste management, among many others.

But one of the most anticipated is the P227 billion Mega Manila subway project between the Philippines and the government of Japan. The 25-kilometer underground mass transportation system – the first in the country – will connect Quezon City, Mandaluyong, Pasig and Taguig up to NAIA in Pasay. Expected for completion by 2024, the subway will reduce travel time from Quezon City to Taguig to only 30 minutes – substantially easing the nightmarish traffic congestion that Metro Manila residents suffer from almost daily. 

The fact is, railroad systems spurred the progress and development of countries like the US. The passage of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 paved the way for the construction of transcontinental railroads that made the movement of goods (and people) over long distances faster and more efficient. These railway systems connected cities, opened up economic and business opportunities, and stimulated the growth of communities.

China’s investment on infrastructure for the last three decades is largely acknowledged as the driver of its economic boom. Many economists agree that the Chinese government’s infrastructure spending spree boosted economic growth. Even countries in East Africa like Kenya are heavily into transport infrastructure to boost growth, with a 480-kilometer standard-gauge railway project that would link Nairobi with Mombasa port.

As we have been saying in past columns, we cannot continue with this catch-up mode when it comes to infrastructure – something that investors have been complaining about. In The Geography of Transport Systems by Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom, the authors saw a correlation between the quantity/quality of transport infrastructure and a country’s level of economic development. “High-density transport infrastructure and highly connected networks are commonly associated with high levels of development. When transport systems are efficient, they provide economic and social opportunities and benefits…” the authors said. 

Another Dutertenomics forum (by invitation only) is being organized this week for the country's top businessmen and selected members of the foreign media to generate more discussion about this ambitious program. While the president is focused on the anti-illegal drugs campaign, his “bright boys” in the Cabinet are balancing this with a major socio-economic program that will give any proud Filipino the goose bumps.

Hopefully, we can look forward to the next decade with optimism as the Duterte administration ushers in a “golden age of infrastructure.” I can tell you that if Secretary Sonny Dominguez and his economic team pull off the Dutertenomics agenda, with substantial portions of the massive infrastructure projects completed or rolled out by 2022 – then even the elite will admit that Rodrigo Duterte may yet turn out to be the best president this country ever had in recent history.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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