It wasn’t exactly the best time to discuss Facebook.

After all, it was the launch of a book about how Philippine institutions, harnessed properly, could effect meaningful change in a country famously desperate for reform.

But on August 4, the date of the book launch, Berthold Leimbach, the Philippine resident representative of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), brought the matter up in any case.

“We only have a limited time on earth,” he said at the Sining Kamalig art gallery in Gateway Mall in Quezon City, surrounded by a few reporters. “Why waste all that time on Facebook?”

No one attempted to answer his question.

Of the group, Leimbach and a business section editor were the only ones who refused to get on the social media bandwagon. None of them had Facebook nor Twitter accounts while the others were only too addicted to status updates, 140 characters long or otherwise.

When dead air proved too much to bear, Leimbach changed the topic.

He talked about exchange rates — not exactly that popular nor understandable as Facebook, Plurk, and Twitter.

Strangely enough, the discussion became animated all of a sudden.

Exchange rates remain a double-edged sword, especially in an export-oriented economy such as the Philippines.

A strong peso makes imports — raw materials, capital equipment, and petroleum — cheaper but it cuts demand for exports since these are rendered more expensive.

Contrariwise, a weak peso is said to be “more competitive” because it makes exports more affordable, even as it hikes up import commodity prices, including fuel. In turn, higher petroleum costs leads to increased transport fares, which also fuel inflation.

And since the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ mandate includes, among others, price stability, its officials aren’t too inclined to tweak the peso’s value to make it more competitive.

Leimbach disagrees.

“You should read the piece about exchange rates in this book,” he said.

He was referring to Philippine Institutions: Growth and Prosperity for All, which was published by the Action for Economic Reform, a policy advocacy non-government organization, in cooperation with the FES.

In a speech delivered during the launch, Leimbach said that the book intends to “raise all old questions but this time in a new scope.”

Since the Philippines recently elected a new president, he said that “now is the chance to reiterate an old message: that good governance is not only desirable but necessary.”

That reminder is reflected in the 13 essays collected in the book, which is edited by Filomeno Sta. Ana, AER’s coordinator.

From food security to fiscal policy, Filipino migration to abuse of presidential powers, the pieces cover the length and breadth of issues that touch on a single aspect: the role and importance of institutions in promoting long term economic growth.

In a piece entitled “Why the Philippines is a Laggard in East Asia,” Ateneo de Manila economics professor Joseph Lim emphasizes “the task of undertaking serious studies on institutional, legal, and political strictures of their government and their roles in providing economic incentives and formulating industrial policies.”

“Addressing market failures work best when government failures are minimized,” he said.

For their part, Gilbert Llanto, senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute of Development Studies, and Eduardo Gonzales, University of the Philippines professor of public policy, posed a challenge to create synergies that will lead to “creative destruction” of governance vulnerabilities.

In “Regulatory Policy Reforms and Institutional Weaknesses: Closing the Gap,” the two contributors said that “when various stakeholders in society connect, to constitute a countervailing force by an educated and enlightened citizenry allied with civil society, they break out of their own institutional boundaries, motivating others to ‘mimic’ successful moves, and creating a virtuous circle of reforms.”

As a result of these many suggestions, Vicky Quimbo, an information staff director of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), was prompted to say that the book “puts meat in [the government’s] strategic directions.”

The book will also help in strengthening “a weak republic,” said Quimbo, who represented NEDA Director General Cayetano Paderanga who was unable to attend.

Another reactor, UP Sociology Department’s Maria Cynthia Rose Bautista, said that the 300-page volume underscores “pluralist, context-specific” advocacies, showing that there is no “one-size-fits-all model of liberalization.”

Similarly, newspaper columnist Calixto Chikiamco lauded the book’s publication.

It contributed to the discussion of the role of institutions, a topic that is missing in the study of economics, he said.

“A good development plan without institutional framework will fail,” he said. “You cannot divorce political reforms from economic reforms.”

The book’s writers couldn’t agree more.

This piece was posted originally in GMAnews.TV .