A nation in crisis?

Published December 11, 2019, 12:17 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat

GOVERNANCE MATTERS
By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT

Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

JEJOMAR C. BINAY

Recently I wrote about a water crisis facing Metro Manila. This is on top of the traffic crisis that we have been enduring for more than three years with no visible relief in sight.

Then last week the DILG secretary declares that Metro Manila is facing a garbage crisis. We are, literally, swimming in trash from the heavily polluted Manila Bay. At almost the same time, we read about the results of the 2018 Global Climate Risk Index which places the Philippines as the second most vulnerable country when it comes to adverse climate conditions, second only to Japan. This is in all respects a climate crisis.

Another troubling story, although education officials say they had expected it, was the release by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of the results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a world-wide student assessment conducted every three years to measure the ability of 15-year-old students “to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.” Among 79 participating countries, the Philippines ranked last in reading. We ranked second to  last in science and mathematics. For most observers, this shows that our educational system, public education to be specific, is in crisis.

As expected, these “crisis” reports elicited the customary knee-jerk responses from several government officials. Business establishments in the Manila Bay area, as well as local government units,  were warned of punitive actions. In the case of the PISA results, there were calls for the scrapping of the K-12 program. On EDSA’s traffic, we were told to grin and bear it.

I know that I am repeating myself, but let me state the obvious: the host of problems that have now reached crisis proportions, particularly in Metro Manila, did not emerge overnight. Most of these problems have been identified as far back as the 1990s. Plans were, in fact, drawn up.  Had these plans been implemented early on and with a sense of urgency and considerable competence, we might not be talking about these things today.

Our authorities have tended to view emerging problems as minor irritants. There is no long view. And when the minor problem becomes a full-blown crisis, they frantically search for palliative solutions. And instead of owning up, they use the “peanut butter defense.” They spread the blame.

Blame is often ascribed to previous administrations, which may not sound credible if the one tossing the blame has been in power for more than three years. Blame-tossing does not solve anything. It breeds animosity and discord when the goal should be to invite allies and partners in addressing the problem.

Of course, the issue of competence — or the lack of it — is also a factor, a by-product of the practice of appointing political allies to key government positions. In most cases, political appointees see their tenures as short-term engagements in exchange for previous political favors. Unless the appointee is a proven management expert, knows the sector, or is willing to take risks for the public interest, most political appointees tend to sit on their hands while chaos reigns in their area of concern. The logical approach is to retain senior officials of the previous administration who have proven their competence. But this does not square with our political culture.

As I have said countless times, government has a predisposition for rushed responses. This way of working needs to  change. Governance should not be on a day-to-day, piecemeal basis. Citizens need to see and feel their government working for them and addressing their needs, not only during times of crisis.

Likewise, every change in administration is usually followed by new plans and programs – discarding even the good programs of the predecessors.  This also needs to stop if we want to ensure the country’s long-term economic viability, inclusiveness, and social equity.

A succession of governments seem to be testing the Filipinos’ capacity for patience. But will it have to take a full-blown crisis of confidence in government before the authorities wake up?

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