by  Ana Catalina Paje

THE DUTERTE administration has claimed significant economic development. But in 2019, its policies nevertheless led to a number of crises involving, among others, basic commodities and social services affecting millions of Filipinos, most especially the poor. 

DuterteNomics banked heavily on government spending to usher in the “Golden Age of Infrastructure” through the administration’s Build, Build, Build Infrastructure Plan. But in October 2019, Sec. Ernesto Pernia, Director General of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), downgraded the goals previously set for the infrastructure program and presented a more realistic assessment of its implementation.

Dutertenomics Forum at Fairmont Makati, August 10, 2017. From Left to Right:  Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) President Vince Dizon, Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director-General Ernesto Pernia, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, and Transportation Undersecretary Cesar Chavez. | Photo from PCOO website, Photo by Alfred Frias

Media reported his briefing on October 25. Reviewing the economic viability of the government’s plans, Pernia said that the government was shelving some big ticket projects. He also revealed that “at least half” of the projects would be completed by the time President Rodrigo Duterte steps down in 2022.

While the big boast about Build, Build, Build has been trumpeted by the media; the pull back on the number of projects the administrations thinks can be achieved did not receive the same kind of attention.

The pattern in the coverage was the same when the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) launched the Duterte Legacy campaign which drummed up the administration’s midterm accomplishments in January 2020. Print media were quick to publicize the propaganda event with articles describing the photo exhibit set up in the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) and faithfully reporting the numbers on hunger reduction, employment gains, the arrest of drug personalities and the construction of seaports and airports that the PCOO exhibit hyped up.

But in an interview with ONE News’ “The Chiefs,” Pernia himself refuted the claims of the government’s lead communication arm and said that PCOO “did not consult with me.” By saying this, the NEDA chief also showed up the media for taking in so much information about government’s claims without checking with other, perhaps more credible, sources.

Inflation Strikes 

Concerns over inflation had risen in 2018 when the administration implemented the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act. This law was initially thought to be a progressive measure because it restructured personal income tax rates. But its application raised the cost for the poorer sectors of the population of basic goods and commodities. With the inflation rate stabilizing in 2019, the administration took credit for the drop from the steep surge in prices during the previous year.

In an interview in July 2019 which was picked up by media reports, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said, “…Don’t you think it’s about time for you to give a little praise to the economic managers, to the lawmakers, and to this President — who together have done something to reduce and slay the soaring inflation rate?”

The inflation rate did fall  in 2019, but media reports should have tracked the continuing effect of price increases from 2018, instead of just relying on quotes from public officials. As economist JC Punongbayan explained in his Rappler Thought Leaders column, the base effect relates to inflation in the corresponding period of the previous year. The comparison will show that even if inflation drops, it will not change the effect of the earlier price hikes.

Rice crisis

Dampul, Sta. Rita Pampangga. | Photo by Lito Ocampo

The price of rice became a burning issue in most households, with the passage of the Rice Liberalization Act, which some quarters saw as a step in the right direction. But the implementation of the rice tariffication law in March 2019 added to the economic woes not only of consumers of the basic staple, but also of the country’s agricultural sector.

The price of palay (unhusked rice) plummeted to a record-low PHP7-12/kg. and the selling price of milled rice stayed at  PHP 38-44/kg., a condition that questioned the prospects of rice sufficiency and the viability of farming as a source of livelihood. Not only did the tax policy fail to bring down the cost of rice, rice tariffication was implemented without providing the support systems which would have enabled local farmers to improve competitiveness and raise productivity.

Reports on government’s aid to farmers were relegated to the inside pages, with most of them landing in the business section. While there were efforts to discuss these initiatives, the media did not explain the problem: the lack of information about the Rice Competitive Enhancement Fund (RCEF), the lack of implementing guidelines, and the slow disbursement of the fund.

Most reports merely relied on the statements of public officials, with little attempt to check the truth in the conflicting claims of farmers’ groups, consumers and government officials. This limited lens focus failed to show the complexity of the issues that include poor governance, livelihood woes, lack of food security and problems with economic sustainability.

Water Crisis

Due in part to last year’s dry spell, the water level of Angat Dam fell below the critical level of 160 meters, causing the worst water crisis to hit Metro Manila in a decade. The service interruption affected about ten thousand households and caused immense inconvenience, especially for hospitals and other establishments involved in delivering basic social services. The shortage lasted for months, highlighting not just issues in infrastructural development, but also problems in governance.

During its peak in March 2019, most reports were unable to explain the cause of the shortage and the reason for the seeming lack of contingency plans. Merely echoing statements from officials, the media left the public clueless about who to believe. There was no analysis to clarify accountability. On March 20, the president threatened to terminate the government’s contracts with both Metro Manila water concessionaires — Manila Water and Maynilad — amidst the crisis.

Although not as severe as that experienced in March, the shortage in the metro continued well into the year, with some consumers experiencing service interruptions until December 2019.

The continuing crisis provided a platform for the president to further lash out against the concessionaires. On December 5, the president threatened to file a plunder case against both concessionaires for their allegedly “onerous” agreements with the government.

Angat Dam and Dyke | Photo by Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) website.

Most reports played up his populist rhetoric, hyping his profile as the people’s champion against greed-driven corporate giants engaged in water distribution. News that focused on this clash of interests missed important context from more than two decades ago. It was the inability of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) to provide  adequate water services that caused the administration of Fidel Ramos to privatize the distribution system in the nineties; and again, the failure of MWSS to later invest in infrastructure to assure adequate water supplies and efficient distribution. 

CMFR cheered Rappler’s effort to look back on the risks and complications of the water crisis in the 1990s. Rappler recalled that in 1997, President Fidel V. Ramos signed into law the National Water Crisis Act (RA 8041) and turned to the privatization of the water service due to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties confronting the MWSS.

Coverage must capture this significant context and point out that while there are terms that need renegotiating, the government cannot simply revoke the contract that is backed by law, and trash the companies which were brought in by the government when they were needed. And the companies are after all charged only with distributing whatever supply is available, while government is supposed to be engaged in developing other sources of water.

Transportation Crisis 

After boasting that he would solve Metro Manila’s traffic mess, President Duterte’s administration has so far failed to jump-start any major initiative to improve the transport situation nor to move forward and implement the modernization of the mass transport system. Neither has there been any attempt to have all the agencies involved to work out some kind of plan to address traffic woes.

For example, the ease of access to car loans is directly responsible for the addition of more vehicles in the streets not only of  Metro Manila but of every urban hub in the provinces. Government’s decision to open up the online gambling business to China’s Philippine Offshore Gaming Operator (POGO) companies has done its part in adding to the traffic problem, by among others, most probably enabling Chinese workers to add to the volume of vehicles already in the streets.  Meanwhile, the restriction in the use of EDSA for the passage of provincial buses has also added to the woes of  the commuting public without necessarily decreasing traffic density.

EDSA traffic | Photo by Lito Ocampo

The continued reliance of those who can afford to buy private vehicles has also contributed to the traffic to airports and other destinations for holiday travel. Meanwhile, the Build, Build, Build mentality has not incorporated consideration of the implications on transportation policy. No one seems to have thought of interrogating the premise: In a country with a population density as high as the Philippines, infrastructure development without consideration for the enhancement of mobility for the masses will take you back to traffic problem s again and again.

Coverage of this issue was dependent on the availability of official sources, and there were not too many outside voices from the companies aspiring or offering to develop this or that airport, seaport or highway. The coverage  suggested that so much building had begun to improve traffic. But in truth, there is little so far that it will accomplish this. Media have not called attention to the slow starts or delays in the projects to build railways and the extension of the existing MRT-LRT systems. 

“Ako naman, eh kung mahal ang galunggong, eh ‘di huwag kumain ng galunggong, di ba?…Bakit ba gustong- gusto niyo ‘yong galunggong kung mahal ang galunggong? Eh lalong nae-encourage yong price increase, bakit ‘di kayo kumain ng gulay?”

Sen. Cynthia Villar on the increase in the price of galunggong (blue mackerel scad).