In 2009, Philippine Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas II made what he called the toughest decision of his life. On the heels of Philippine democracy icon and former President Corazon Aquino’s death, Roxas, the leader of the country’s influential Liberal Party, abandoned his presidential ambitions to run for vice president and allowed a younger senator, Benigno Aquino III — more popularly known as Noynoy — to run for the highest office in the Philippines.
Many doubted Aquino’s rapid and reluctant rise to the presidency. Mild-mannered and lacking accomplishment during his years as a congressman and senator, upon being elected there was deep suspicion that he lacked the resolve and backbone to manage the uncompromising world of Philippine government and politics.
Six years later, as Aquino steps down and national elections approach, his legacy is already under scrutiny. His friend and fellow Liberal Party member Roxas is running for president, but struggling to appeal to voters due to his lackluster performance as interior secretary and links to the political elite. He is being overshadowed by a peculiar cast of presidential aspirants. A firebrand mayor from Mindanao best known for supporting the execution of suspected criminals. A first-term senator nearly disqualified from running due to her now-renounced American citizenship. The sitting vice president and former Makati mayor under indictment on corruption charges. A veteran senator sharing her ticket with a former dictator’s son.
All the vying candidates, at one time or another, have painted a picture of an incompetent and ineffective Aquino administration, even though there has been little distinction between Aquino’s policies and their own proposals.
“We will applaud if we make the right decision or we will weep in the end if we make a mistake,” Aquino recently said at a campaign rally for Roxas, reflecting widespread feelings over the significance of this upcoming election.
Aquino has not had the easiest presidency. Some turmoil was of his own making. Some comes with the territory. His term was battered by what at times seemed a never ending string of socio-political crises — a monumental corruption case where members of Congress were stealing discretionary funds programmed for local development projects, one of the most powerful typhoons in history that ripped through the Visayas region increasing the country’s poverty rate by 30 percent overnight, and a bungled counterterrorism operation that left 44 police officers dead and spoiled a peace deal with the largest Muslim separatist group in Mindanao.
There is plenty of fair-minded criticism over the administration’s handling of these high-profile incidents and others. But from a fundamental development perspective, that is doing what a Philippine president can in six years to establish a foundation for accountable government and inclusive growth, it is difficult to argue the Aquino administration hasn’t done its job.
In a country where impunity is the norm, Aquino, who ran on an anti-corruption platform underpinned by the slogan “daang matuwid” (straight path), has had to decide which cases to prosecute and which officials go to jail. He started with his predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and moved on to impeach Arroyo’s hand-picked chief justice of the Supreme Court. The early efforts drained political capital, but demonstrated a seriousness to tackle corruption and enforce a new agenda.
Aquino appointed credible professionals to his cabinet and other high government positions. He moved to strengthen the country’s anti-corruption institutions, particularly the Office of the Ombudsman and Sandiganbayan anti-graft court, resulting in more prosecuted cases against public officials. He picked other battles carefully, for instance, trying with mixed results to root out corruption and cut red tape in notoriously crooked government agencies, such as the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
The president’s early posture and actions attracted the attention of international ratings and surveys most of which have improved during his term. The positive international exposure shifted perceptions of the investment climate. Foreign investors gave the country another look. Multilateral and bilateral aid donors doubled down on their financial support and engagement. Powerful family-owned conglomerates and local Philippine banks, with cash to spend having been insulated from the global economic recession, made major investments into the economy.
Consequently, the Philippine economy has grown by over 6 percent each of the last three years and the Metro Manila region has boomed. Along with Vietnam, the World Bank indicates the country has the strongest growth prospects in Southeast Asia. Despite critiques that the government has not spent money fast enough, in the last six years under Aquino, it has almost doubled revenues and expenditures, balanced the budget and passed a sin tax law to augment government coffers.
Inequality and poverty remain pervasive, but Aquino responded by nearly tripling social spending on social protection, education and health and directing much of this spending to the bottom 40 percent of the population.
The government implemented a national database of poor families, called Listahanan, that helps identify those in need of social protection. With assistance from international donors, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, Aquino’s administration dramatically expanded the country’s conditional cash transfer program — which provides cash incentives for families if they seek health care and enter kids into school — from 700,000 to 4.6 million households, making it the world’s second largest CCT program behind Brazil’s.
Aquino also extended universal health coverage, fought to change basic education from 10 to 12 years, and took on the country’s powerful Catholic Church to pass a reproductive health law. A “Bottom Up Budgeting” program has facilitated participation of local civil society organizations and local government units in the national budgeting process.
“All quality of life indicators are trending better,” according to Mahar Mangahas, founder and head of the polling group Social Weather Stations. “Many Filipinos aren’t conscious about governance factors, but this is not a coincidence.”
The group has found that economic and social well-being and satisfaction with governance have “radically improved.” Hunger and self-rated poverty are down. Satisfaction with the national administration on fighting inflation, corruption and crime are all up. Nine of every 10 adults are very or fairly satisfied with life.
“This administration has doggedly and consciously focused on pro-poor policies,” said former World Bank Country Director for the Philippines Motoo Konishi who served in-country during the majority of the Aquino administration and traces the country’s success to “incredibly well-managed economic fundamentals.”
Still, infrastructure development has not come fast enough for citizens of Metro Manila and other second-tier cities hammered by paralyzing traffic. Cars continue to pour into the country’s ports. Poor urban planning, rampant population growth, a rising middle class, unregistered and unregulated vehicles, few viable public transport systems, and a blatant shortage of roads has meant daily gridlock on Metro Manila’s streets.
Economists peg current economic losses from heavy traffic at $65 million per day and predict they could rise to $130 million daily by 2030. If the country is to meet its tourism potential and attract foreign investment to help lift the economy, it needs new and far more reliable airports, highways, railways and other transport infrastructure.
Aquino’s answer to the infrastructure challenge has been public-private partnership. With foreign assistance, his government established a PPP center that has provided technical assistance to award 12 infrastructure projects totaling $4.8 billion and tee up 50 others for future implementation. A Department of Education social infrastructure PPP has built over 9,000 classrooms. One major difference between this administration and previous ones, according to donors, is that the majority of these projects were proactively designed and generated by the government. Critics contend it has simply taken too long to get them off the ground. For many technical experts, slower bidding and procurement processes prove the system is working.
Japan has pledged $2 billion in official development assistance for infrastructure development projects, representing the country’s single-biggest ODA loan package to any development partner. In the last year, ADB has increased its Philippine portfolio from $700 million to $1 billion. “Look, our view is that the government has got to own it and this Philippine government has totally stepped up,” according to ADB Country Director for the Philippines Richard Bolt, explaining the rationale behind the substantial increase.
The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp., which is wrapping up a five-year $434 million aid package with the Philippines, is vetting the Philippines for a second compact that could be a major boon for the country’s development. MCC only invests in countries committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investments in their citizens so the decision to pursue another compact will certainly be influenced by the next administration.
“What started out as some concern with the country's direction in 2009 and 2010 before MCC signed its first compact with the Philippines, turned into an incredible amount of progress, results and outcomes,” asserted Matt Bohn, former MCC resident country director for the Philippines. “Under the Aquino administration, the Filipino people have put down some of the most important roots in good governance, economic growth, and poverty reduction in the country's history.”
In the Asian Century, the Philippines finds itself at a pivotal moment. The new president, whoever it may be, will have to navigate geopolitical tensions with China, reassemble a fractured peace deal in the south, confront the ongoing threat of terrorism and potential rise of Islamic State group, mitigate the impacts of El Nino, climate change and natural disasters, reduce unemployment and underemployment, and maintain a globally competitive economy. There’s a lot at stake, evidenced by the public passions these national elections have stirred.
Aquino has not been a perfect president. In a personality-driven political system, his demeanor and style didn’t always impress. He wasn’t a particularly proactive or forceful reformist. There’s much more work to be done in critical sectors, including agriculture and jobs. But in addition to his tangible development contributions, perhaps he’ll be best remembered for imparting some decency and integrity to an office that desperately needed it and a people that deserved it.
As Filipinos vote again in 2016 and rightfully appeal for more and faster change, they will begin a new presidential journey at a far different place; along a much straighter path.
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