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Reality check on infra projects

With roughly a year to go in the Duterte administration, its much-ballyhooed “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program got a reality check.

According to presidential adviser on flagship programs and projects Vivencio Dizon, out of 119 projects in that program, 11 have been completed while 29 are expected to be finished by the end of 2022, or six months after President Duterte bows out of office.

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Dizon said the 51 projects that were in various stages of preparation would be finished by 2023 and beyond. He expressed hope the next administration would implement those projects.

Recall that shortly after the administration came to power in 2016, its economic managers said the next six years would be the country’s “golden age of infrastructure.” That declaration drew widespread admiration.

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With a sense of hubris, they stated those projects would be funded from internally generated revenues and foreign loans and grants, in particular, from China.

The public-private-partnership (PPP) program that worked well in the past administration was set aside because it was allegedly prone to corruption and susceptible to delay due to court action by losing bidders.

Three years later, when the tax reform bills that were supposed to raise additional funds failed to get timely congressional support and the promised loans and grants from China did not materialize, the economic managers rediscovered the merits of the PPP program and invited the private sector to bid on some pending infrastructure projects.

On hindsight, the number of completed projects could have been higher had the administration retained the PPP program.

Note that during the years preceding the pandemic, the domestic banking industry was very liquid and well-provisioned. There was ample funding available for lending to business conglomerates and other parties that could have participated in the administration’s infrastructure program through the PPP scheme.

Those investments would have created thousands of employment opportunities and other related economic activities that, in the process, would have contributed to the country’s gross national product.

Besides, from the political standpoint, the projects completed under PPP would be looked at by the public as the administration’s accomplishments.

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As expected, when things go wrong in the bureaucracy, the buck is passed elsewhere. The lockdown imposed by the government to arrest the spread of COVID-19 and the diversion of funds to contain it have been blamed for the delay in the completion of several projects.

If the next president happens to be a protégé or close ally of Mr. Duterte, there is a strong possibility the majority of the uncompleted infra projects would be implemented.

But that may not happen if the incoming president does not share Mr. Duterte’s governance style or has a different view on how the infrastructure requirements of the country should be addressed.

Looking back, it seems every administration that gets into power wants to, in a manner of speaking, reinvent the wheel on infrastructure projects and shape them in accordance with its vision.

Take a look, for example, at the “roll-on, roll-off ships” (Ro-Ro) project of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that immensely improved our seaports and made possible the speedy movement of people and products between our islands.

When President Benigno Aquino III succeeded her, he reduced funding on that project and made the improvement of airports and highways as his administration’s priority.

With the Duterte administration, suspicion of corruption in the construction and operation of those Ro-Ro projects was cited as the reason for the change in policy.

For an archipelagic country like the Philippines, an efficient system of seaborne transportation of people and products would undoubtedly be a boon to the economy.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the time, money and effort the National Economic and Development Authority spent on the remaining projects would not go to waste under a new administration. INQ

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