Philippines’ infrastructure problems take center stage as Marcos takes charge | Business and economy

Manila, Philippines – As a young engineer in the early 1980s, Edgardo Perea worked on a project that he hoped would bring a reliable supply of clean drinking water to households in Metro Manila. Forty years later, he is still waiting.

Perea worked at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, a government agency, as part of a team that carried out preliminary work on a dam that he and his colleagues hoped would take advantage of the region’s vast freshwater resources.

“All the feasibility studies have been done, only the implementation was missing,” Perea told Al Jazeera.

But politics got in the way. In 1986, the people power revolution in the Philippines led to the removal of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Under the new government, many projects that had been approved under the previous regime stalled or were canceled altogether.

Perea has reflected a lot on his experiences these days as his country prepares for another transfer of power, while many old problems persist. As well as being deeply personal, they are emblematic of the struggles to improve infrastructure in the Philippines, an archipelago of around 110 million people, where many people still live without basic amenities. In an added layer of irony, the new president is the son of the leader who was expelled 40 years ago.

New President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, commonly known by the nickname Bongbong, will take office on June 30. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, made infrastructure a key policy in an initiative he called Build, Build, Build. Duterte promised the program would create jobs and improve the quality of life for many Filipinos for whom severe traffic jams and other inconveniences are a reality.

Rodrigo Duterte, outgoing President of the Philippines, has described uneven infrastructure as the “Achilles heel” of the Philippines’ economic development [File: Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)

Duterte, who described uneven infrastructure as the “Achilles heel” of the Philippines’ economic development, pledged to allocate between 8 trillion and 9 trillion Philippine pesos to the program which he said would usher in an “age of ‘infrastructure gold’, adding bridges and railways as it expands. a major airport north of Manila.

Filipino voters and political analysts are unsure how Marcos Jr will govern. Throughout his election campaign, he invoked nostalgia for what some Filipinos, rightly or not, consider a happy period under his father’s rule. But he was short on political details, leaving unanswered whether he will continue Duterte’s infrastructure campaign as he prepares to begin his term.

Duterte called on the new president to continue Build, Build, Build and the Asian Development Bank pledged to continue supporting the initiative even with the change of administration.

The program has a mixed track record, with some analysts saying it has brought useful improvements to underserved parts of the country, while others argue it falls far short of achieving its goals.

Ronald U Mendoza, dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, said Filipino politicians use public infrastructure to show voters that they have “brought home the bacon”, although the opportunity term of such projects is questionable.

“During an infrastructure boom – not just Marcos’ but also Duterte’s – the effect on various parts of the country is stimulating and job-creating…Therefore, it is very much welcomed by citizens and quite palpable and visible,” Mendoza told Al Jazeera.

“It’s easy to be nostalgic for an infrastructure boom when you fail to appreciate the crisis and the hardships associated with bad decisions and corruption during the spending part of this debt-fueled experience. If there is bad governance and bad decisions, then the party has to end at some point.

Faulty execution

Execution of the ambitious initiative has also been flawed, according to Jan Carlo B Punongbayan, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.

“Well, even though his intention was, Build, Build, Build unfortunately didn’t live up to expectations,” Punongbayan told Al Jazeera. “Poorly thought out spending plans have resulted in repeated changes to the initiative’s master project list. Only part of the promised projects have been implemented.

The Marcos dynasty also has a reputation for corruption. Observers of Philippine politics fear that such corruption could cloud the next administration.

“Marcos Jr comes from a notorious kleptocratic family that thrived during the years of martial law through crony capitalism,” Punongbayan said. “Therefore, he is not expected to do much work to stop corruption and in fact he could very well make it worse.”

The Philippines ranks poorly in global corruption assessments, ranking 117 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest ranking. Part of the Filipino electorate seems to have accepted the stubborn presence of corruption in government and business.

Although Duterte took office posing as a swaggering foreigner who would end corruption, the same elite retained control of Philippine affairs, analysts say.

“Duterte never really intended to eradicate old power networks, and I think there’s a degree of resignation now,” said Josh Kurlantzick, senior Southeast Asia researcher. Is at the Council on Foreign Relations, at Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the basic needs of a large part of the population are not being met. According to the Fund for Sustainable Development Goals, “a substantial number” of people suffer from lack of water and access to basic sanitation, putting them at risk of waterborne diseases.

A report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF found that only 47% of Filipinos had access to safely managed drinking water in 2020, a slight improvement from 46% in 2015. many Filipinos leave the countryside to seek jobs in major cities, especially in Metro Manila, causing severe traffic congestion that results in exorbitant travel times and delays in transporting goods to outlets.

Manila traffic jam
The Philippines’ poor infrastructure has led to chronic traffic congestion and other social ills [File: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg]

Perea, the former water engineer, recalls having to go through a process of getting signatures from government officials in various departments before a project could go ahead.

“That’s where corruption sets in,” he said.

Stung by the failure of the water project he was working on, Perea quickly became disillusioned with public infrastructure politics.

“I saw how the system really worked… When the project stopped, I criticized everything. I said too much and had to swallow my words,” he said. “Some older colleagues pulled me aside and told me that you can’t fight the system by continually hating it. You have to play the game, get to the top, then you can make changes.

Instead, Perea resigned. After unsuccessful efforts to join private engineering companies, he ran a few small businesses, including a martial arts academy.

He finally chose, in the late 1980s, a less confrontational form of business – a bookstore in a bustling commercial area near the elevated Guadalupe Station in Manila. He named the bookstore JERVS, a combination of his five children’s first initials, and found peace running his own shop.

In those pre-internet days, when reading was a more common form of entertainment, Perea found a profitable model of renting novels and magazines. He ran the bookstore until the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Philippine government implemented strict lockdown measures that froze much of the country’s street business.

Edgardo Perea
Edgardo Perea knows the difficulties of the Philippines in building high quality infrastructure [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]

During these years, and throughout the pause imposed by the pandemic, Perea has had time to reflect on the political history of his country, including the current moment when the son of a dictator overthrown by a revolution popular is about to move into the presidential palace.

He does not consider himself a supporter of Marcos but hopes that the new government will continue to invest in infrastructure as the Duterte administration has done. He also understands how the dynasty won over voters in a country where many governments have failed to address the same old issues.

“The 60s and 70s seem like a golden era for people who lived through the war and everything that came before it,” he said.

“These urban legends survive through the generations, and sometimes they are exaggerated.”

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