Bernardo M. Villegas
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Lessons from the GMA Administration

          In the remaining months of the Administration of President B. S. Aquino III, there will be enough opportunities for him and his officials to write about the many positive legacies he will leave for future generations.  I think it is only fair that we pause for a while and look back at the previous Administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to identify the contributions that it made to the long-term progress of the Philippine economy.  There can be important lessons that the next Administration that will be in place in 2016 to 2022 can learn from those ten years of the presidency of President GMA, whatever the judgements will be concerning the accusations against her filed by the present Government.

          I am glad that the former President was able to write as early as December 30, 2011 what she considered her major achievements in an essay entitled, “It’s the Economy, Student!”  As an independent and apolitical economist, I can attest to her words:  “No amount of black propaganda can erase the tangible improvements enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of families liberated from want during my decade at the helm of the nation.  But these accomplishments have simply been part of the continuum of history.  The gains I achieved were built on the successes and progress of the previous ones:  advance the programs that work, leave behind those that don’t.”  I hope that the next Administration, if the opposition should win, will not repeat the cycle of black propaganda against the immediately preceding leadership.  Especially in the area of governance reforms, there are more than enough solid accomplishments of President Aquino on which the next Administration can build to continue ridding both the public and private sectors of graft and corruption.

          “Every postwar Administration to my recollection has sought to advance the economic growth of our country as a matter of highest priority.  Only by enlarging the economic pie can there be more and bigger slices for everyone to enjoy.”  President GMA capped her presidency by turning over to the Aquino Administration a new Philippines with a 7.9 percent growth rate.  This was no mean feat because it was during the last three to four years of her government when the whole world was devastated by the Great Recession.  Thanks to prudent fiscal policy, inflation was tamed and growth was maximized through an aggressive infrastructure program that endowed the country with the Philippine Nautical Highway that has partly contributed to the phenomenon of 40 million domestic tourists crossing from one island of the Archipelago to another, significantly stimulating consumer spending in regions outside of Metro Manila.  The increased connectivity among the major islands also contributed in no small measure to bringing down the prices of agricultural products through lower transport costs. 

          No one can deny that it was during the government of President GMA that the BPO-IT industry took off.  She was not engaged in an empty boast when she wrote in 2011:  “My Administration developed the call center industry almost from scratch:  in June 2010 there were half a million call center  and BPO workers, from less than 5,000 when I took office.  It was mainly for them that we built our fifth, virtual super-region: the so-called “cyber corridor”, the nationwide backbone for our call centers and BPO industry which rely on constant advances in IT and the essentially zero cost of additional bandwidth.”  I hope this reference to the pioneering years of the BPO-IT industry will give the next Administration a stronger resolve to finally establish a separate Department of Information and Communication Technology that will be  a strong partner of the private sector to leap frog into the Knowledge Process Outsourcing industry as voice-oriented BPO enterprises enter the sunset stage of development.

          The next Administration can learn more from the GMA era about agricultural modernization.  I am afraid that the leadership of the agricultural sector under President Aquino left a lot to be desired.  The following commentary of President GMA on the efforts of the present Government to achieve self-sufficiency in rice should give food for thought to the next President:  “The current Administration original fixated on the single goal of achieving self-sufficiency in rice by 2013.  I too wanted to achieve rice self-sufficiency, but I knew the odds were tough.  Since the Spanish period we’ve been importing rice.  While we may know how to grow rice well, topography doesn’t always cooperate.  Nature did not gift us with a mighty Mekong River like Thailand and Vietnam, with their vast and naturally fertile river delta plains.  Nature instead put our islands ahead of our neighbors in the path of typhoons from the Pacific.  So historically we’ve had to import 10% of our rice, and so I took care to keep our goals for agriculture  wide-ranging and diversified.”    The next Secretary of Agriculture should help the private sector to diversify into palm oil, cacao, coffee, and other higher-value crops by leading the efforts to restructure the agrarian reform program towards greater consolidation of land through such schemes as the nucleus estate system and other forms of co-operative approaches that put together small holders with large agribusiness investors. These diversification programs are especially needed in coconut regions, where the highest incidence of poverty can be found.

          Finally, the next Administration can learn significant lessons from the GMA Administration about “hands-on execution.”  Without being hypercritical of the management style of President Aquino, we should appreciate the significance of the following comments of former President Arroyo:  “There is no room for absenteeism, or for coming to work late and leaving early.  There is simply not enough that can be done if the Cabinet meets only four times in an entire year.”  This hands-on approach is especially critical in the implementation of infrastructure projects, both through the appropriate government agencies or through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme.”  I cannot over emphasize the need for the next President to be first and foremost an “Infrastructure President.”  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.