Good intentions, bad executions
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Depending on what story you have read, the President has ordered a stop to rice importation, or Sec. Carlos Dominguez is saying there is no ban on rice importation. One thing is clear… government is confused on what to do.

Agricultural economists and economic policy makers are sure the free importation under the Rice Tariffication Law is a much-needed industry reform. But the domestic rice cartel is deeply entrenched and it is easy for this group to undermine the law’s implementation.

 Policy makers knew that farmers will initially take a hit. Farmgate prices had been predicted to plummet, which is why RTL has special provisions to help farmers survive the initial impact.

The long-term objective is to make rice farming able to sustain a farmer and his family. By making the farmers more productive through better seeds and planting methods, being a rice farmer need not consign anyone to hopeless poverty.

That sounds simple and reasonable. But the good intentions of policy makers go against the interests of vested interests in the rice business. Bureaucrats should have prepared to wage battle with the rice cartel. But the bureaucracy was unprepared or unwilling to implement RTL the way it should be implemented.

So, we have a mess. The farmers ended up the victims of a well-intentioned law. The rice cartel made sure the farmers will be so enraged that the President will have little choice but to surrender and give up on reforming the rice industry.

Luckily, Sec. Sonny Dominguez is made of sterner stuff and is not easily bullied by the cartel. Sec. Sonny is insisting there is no turning back on RTL. He has organized a strike force of agents from the BIR, Customs and the PNP to raid warehouses and flush out hoarded rice.

Sec. Sonny has also probably convinced the President because the President apologized and sought the understanding of farmers as he assured government help is coming.

The bureaucracy supposed to implement RTL had been suspect from the start. Many of the folks at NFA have long standing relationships with the cartel.

On the other hand, the bureaucrats at the agriculture department seem to be only interested in the money that can be made by overpricing agriculture machinery that do not work. The special report of Ted Failon on this is very revealing.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar is honest and hardworking, but the oldtimers in his department know he won’t be there for long like all past secretaries. They may pretend to be cooperating, but in reality remain focused on how they can use agriculture budgets for personal gain.

That’s why when asked why the agriculture department isn’t getting more budget support, Rep. Joey Salceda candidly said “because we don’t want more of the people’s money stolen.”

Rep. Joey correctly pointed out that the agriculture budget had been raided by corrupt officials through various administrations. Remember the fertilizer scam during the Arroyo years and the Napoles scams during PNoy’s watch.

Corruption and incompetence are also why Ben Diokno’s dream of a golden age of infrastructure through Build Build Build is not happening. Diokno and the rest of the economic team, Ernie Pernia, Sec. Sonny and even Art Tugade, have the best intentions. But a skills deficit plagues the bureaucracy supposed to implement their program.

When I raised this problem with Diokno early in the Duterte term, he was confident they have addressed implementation problems.

Ben talked of CCTV cameras installed in work sites that would livestream goings-on 24/7. There was supposed to be a website where anyone can click on a geo-tagged map of the country and see what’s going on in real time in project sites.

I wished Ben well, but remained skeptical. The bureaucracy simply doesn’t have the absorptive capacity to handle all those projects at the same time. Their engineers and technical staff are also not updated on latest technologies that could speed up implementation.

Three years after, the same problems that bogged down past administrations bogged down the current one in the roll-out of ambitious infrastructure projects. In the end, Sec. Ernie Pernia admitted they have fallen behind. They have dropped some projects and included new ones, PPPs, in the pipeline.

That’s why I thought it was wrong for them to sideline PPP projects. Even Fitch Solutions thinks we are ahead of our peers in Asean in terms of the most comprehensive PPP frameworks.

Duterte’s economic managers claim PPPs took too long to process, reason enough for sidelining the private sector in infrastructure development. But ironically, that’s mostly because NEDA, DOF and the implementing agencies take too long to process proposals.

Not only do PPPs provide for their own financing, the proponents are able to buy the latest technology and skills necessary in carrying out the projects. This takes care of the technical gap existing in the bureaucracy.

Another case of good intentions, but bad implementation is Universal Health Care. The law had been passed, but was dead on arrival at the health department because of inadequate funding.

PhilHealth, the agency most involved in carrying out UHC, also doesn’t seem to have the capability, nor the integrity required. PhilHealth suffers low credibility among health care providers. Many have threatened to cut their links with PhilHealth.

Sayang. Our policymakers are pretty good in devising reform measures. For example, some Asean countries looked at our investment incentives law as their model… but got better results because they implemented well.

Same with PPP. Asean delegations visit the PPP Center to learn from us. But we just talk about it. Puro satsat.

We never had a shortage of good intentions. But we have fumbled and continue to fumble in execution. We simply cannot execute projects well enough or timely enough.

Good intentions are great. But let us make sure we can execute well. Otherwise, it is all saliva… always has been.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

CARLOS DOMINGUEZ
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