Bernardo M. Villegas
Articles  >> more topics
A Visionary and a Dreamer (Part I)

           There is a biblical saying that the young see visions while the old dream dreams.  Gloria Steele, the outgoing USAID Mission Director for the Philippines and the Pacific Islands is far from being old.  Nevertheless, together with the very clear vision that she had set for Philippine society from the very start of her assignment in the Philippines in 2011, she is leaving the Philippines in August 2015 with very realistic dreams of “ending extreme poverty in the Philippines through urban-led growth.”  Having worked with some of her favorite projects called COMPETE and INVEST,  I can easily visualize her dreams:  port cities like Batangas City, Iloilo City and Cagayan de Oro as strategic centers of urban and rural growth radiating their economic dynamism to provinces in Southern Luzon, Western Visayas and Northern Mindanao, respectively.  Thanks to the interventions implemented by USAID under her watch, these urban centers can generate annual rates of  regional economic growth as high as 10 to 12 percent, replicating the experiences of urbanizing Asian countries like China, India, Thailand and Vietnam. 

          As she wrote in an article co-authored with John Avila, Daniel Miller and Gerald Britain, conventional approaches to development planning have failed in the Philippines to meet the challenges of rapid urbanization—particularly the poverty, exclusion, informality and vulnerability produced in its wake.  Thanks to her rich professional background as an agricultural economist in Africa, senior deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Global Health and Bureau of Science and Technology overseeing applied research on key rural development issues, such as land tenure, access to agricultural credit, food security and natural resource development, she was able to conceptualize and implement the very innovative Cities Development Initiative (CDI).  It was really thinking out of the box.  The usual prescription for attacking mass poverty is to focus on building infrastructures, such as farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems and post-harvest facilities in the countryside.   Not necessarily so, said Gloria Steele, who served as a management consultant to the Philippines’ Secretary of Agriculture and received a master’s in agricultural economics from Kansas State University. 

            A very pragmatic manager, Gloria Steele was not swayed by her biases towards agricultural and rural development.  She looked at harsh reality:  despite a continuous long-term focus on rural-led growth, rural poverty, at 39.4 percent, remains significantly higher than the national average of 26.5 percent and more than three times higher than the percentage in urban areas.  Moreover, agricultural productivity remained depressed, and the agricultural growth that did happen was not accompanied by increases in labor productivity.  That led her to conclude that what was needed was an urban-focused Cities Development Initiative (CDI) that can lead to more inclusive growth by decapitating imperial Manila and establishing alternative metropolitan and “rurban”  strategic centers as far away as possible from the National Capital Region.  Together with her co-workers at the USAID, she conceptualized the Partnership for Growth (PFG) that was launched in November 2011 through which the United States and the Philippines have been working  together to  accelerate and sustain broad-based and inclusive economic growth.  (To be continued)