Super-size patronage

Coronel-Ferrer is an associate professor of political science, University of the Philippines, Diliman.  This article was published in Yellow Pad column, August 14, 2006 edition of BusinessWorld, p. A6.

The plans for the five “mega-regions”—the North Luzon Agribusiness Quadrangle, the Metro Luzon Urban Beltway, Central Philippines, Mindanao and the virtual Cyber Corridor—are being hailed as a great leap forward to autonomy of provinces from imperial Manila. Why not? The capital infusion would spur and disperse growth in different regions. Besides, we all want an expanded metro rail system and better highways. The proposed infrastructure in fact consists of much-delayed projects.

If the grouping really makes good sense not only technocratically, but also because of cultural, historical and geographic features that will truly allow the four geographic regions to cohere, then it can lay the foundation for a future federal system.

But, to say that mega plans are about bringing back “the power to the people and the provinces” is deceptive.

To begin with, the plans were drawn at the top. The motivations behind them did not spring from the needs and perspectives of those from the regions. They were conceived with other short-term political interests in minds. They supposedly maximize the comparative advantage of one region over another. But are the projects the priority needs of specific provinces, cities and municipalities who now happen to be part of one region instead of another? What many parts of these municipalities still lack are school buildings and basic utilities like piped potable water.

Those already in the periphery also appear condemned to stay there. Metro Luzon, as already reported, will get almost 69 percent of the fund. We find Bicol and the adjacent Eastern Visayas provinces, which are among the country’s poorest, clustered under Central Philippines. The regional center will be in the richer provinces of Cebu and Negros, the same provinces that will get most of the projects such as the ethanol and geothermal plants.

Assuming the central government is able to raise the estimated P372 billions that would be needed for the infrastructure buildup, will the local governments now have the capacity to set the pace and direction of the implementation? Nothing in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) indicated that the political and fiscal dependency of local governments from Malaca?ang would be lessened.

The plans will only pull the knots of servility tighter to the central government leadership. Malaca?ang will continue to define the priorities, set the budget allocation, and if only so inclined, give the nod and release the funds. One can imagine how the availability of funds and approval of contracts would be contingent on political support or other gains.

The four planned geographic regions are evidently not going to be politically or even administratively autonomous units. The coordinating bodies that will be put up will expectedly be dominated by national agencies and political appointees serving as presidential advisers. Everything will have to pass through the black boxes of the  Presidential Management Staff, the Executive Secretary, the Department of Budget and the president before it sees the light. All would depend on Malaca?ang’s good graces.

The four regions (not counting the cyber region) will only be slightly more important than the current regional groupings in so far as they have been promised big funds for the next three years. On the other hand, under the planned scheme, special autonomous regions like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the Cordillera Administrative Region are being made redundant even before they have achieved real autonomy from central government.

Political thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau gave the interesting paradox about being bound to a social contract in order to be free. The super regions scheme provides no such paradox of a central government leadership that liberates its regions and local governments from itself. What the scheme will achieve is rather straightforward: control the purse strings and exact loyalty to the chief in Malaca?ang.  With elections taking place soon, the projects will be hobbled by exchange deals of mutual political support between and among national and local politicians, and compromises at the expense of the plan itself.

The only difference the mega-region scheme has created is the scale. Super-size the project, and you get super-size patronage.

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