‘Pissing in the wind’
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2019 - 12:00am

The idiom above is a classic description of futility. Over the past couple of years, readers of this column will have been familiar with two advocacies that I have passionately pursued. The first is on preparing for natural disasters, particularly earthquakes – that scientific evidence says the risk of occurrence is inevitable.

The second is on our approach in preparing the country to benefit from the digital economy of which we are already lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors. In both cases, I have not only just talked, but walked the talk to bring my message to government. In fact this column is probably the least effective of what I have done, given its limited readership. It does, however, give me a public forum to vent my spleen with the hope that others are so moved. I have in the past organized conferences, created public private forums, lobbied and cajoled government to act, and used my business network to create awareness and draw their support - to push these advocacies.

To be fair, government has responded – not just to me, but a chorus of voices - but at such glacial speed that these responses risk becoming irrelevant. Disasters can occur anytime and with more frequency. Population built up and with it the infrastructure to support has heightened the probability of greater human casualties and damage to infrastructure. Digital technology is becoming more and more embedded in humanity’s daily existence and lives – in work, health care, commerce, industry, farming, governance – such that the speed of adoption will dictate which countries will become more prosperous than others. Right now, the government is pinning its hope on a third telco and drafting a digital economy blueprint, while the rest of ASEAN are implementing theirs.

Disaster resilience

It is human nature to pay little heed to plan for something that one cannot actually see happening at the moment. The lack of immediate peril paired with other competing priorities has been met with understandable indifference. For the general public and for property builders, dire warnings for the “big one” are even perceived as scaremongering.

But there is a lot of scientific evidence out there to predict the probability of disasters and the potential outcome. Disaster preparedness begins with an acceptance of risks of occurrence – even if it has not yet been experienced. There is a great body of knowledge borne from research and experience that can be harnessed to make our communities resilient to disasters through preparedness and proper response. To expose this knowledge to the public was the goal of the series of disaster resilience conferences that I have organized over the years. The most recent one was last April’s conference on “Megacities at Risk: Engineering Resilience to Seismic Hazards” which brought together the Asia-Pacific’s regions foremost experts who came out with their recommendation on how to transform scientific knowledge to action. With all these resources at hand it would be foolish and downright dereliction for those in authorities – at all levels of government down to community managers – not to put in place plans to minimize damage and loss of human life, and avoid the inevitable chaos that follows a major disaster. Like I said, there has been a measure of government response, but more particularly at the local government level. The private sector has led efforts to facilitate public private sector collaboration with the creation of the National Resilience Council (NRC). The NRC has been working with LGUs in Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo City, Iriga, Naga, and Zamboanga City. There are, however, 1,489 municipalities and nearly 42,000 barangays in the country. It needs a national body to coordinate the various resources of government to achieve nationwide resilience to disasters.

This is where we have so far not succeeded in bringing us over the line. It has almost been two years since President Duterte enjoined “both houses of Congress to expeditiously craft a law establishing a new authority or department that is responsive to the prevailing 21st century conditions, and empowered to best deliver an enhanced disaster resiliency and quick disaster response” during his State of the Nation Address on July 24, 2017. Both the Senate and the House have filed various bills answering the President’s clamor, but so far none has yet been agreed upon to be enacted into law.

Digital economy blueprint

We do not have the same institutional issue with regards to our country’s preparedness for the digital economy. There is a Department of Information Communications Technology (DICT). Again, this agency was in response to long term lobbying to create a central agency to navigate us through the digital economy. Its precursor was the Center for Information Communications Technology (CICT). It is, however, saddled with two issues that prevent it from functioning effectively. One is that it is currently without a full time secretary since the last one resigned less than one year in office. The second is that it is structurally impaired from fulfilling the requisite for a task that requires a whole of society approach to digital economy preparedness.

In my previous column, I put forward the qualifications of the next DICT head as provided by law and the necessary attributes as required by his mandate. I said then that the DICT head should be reasonably familiar with ICT matters, not so much technically but more about its future directions and where it can be deployed in the Philippine context to improve its global competitiveness and impact people’s lives in an inclusive manner.

As for its structure, I said that being of equal status to other line departments presents the challenge of implementing a holistic approach that digital society readiness requires. Each of the ASEAN economies have developed their own digital readiness blueprint – the Philippines included - although in varying levels of comprehensiveness and quality. Currently, experts rank Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as the leading three in terms of ASEAN digital development index. Their approach has been multi sectoral. This is why I have advocated a multi-stakeholder commission – the private sector and civil society included – chaired by NEDA, with the DICT as its coordinator to develop our digital society readiness blueprint.

To conclude, on both issues we have seen movement, but do not yet have the institutional capability to get us over the line in terms of managing our achieving nationwide disaster resiliency and digital economy readiness with no resolution in sight.

DIGITAL ECONOMY EARTHQUAKES
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