President Benigno Aquino III: Interview

President Benigno Aquino III President Benigno Aquino III

Interview: President Benigno Aquino III

How can the Philippines institutionalise ongoing reforms and good governance efforts beyond 2015?

BENIGNO AQUINO III: From the moment we stepped into office, our goal was to change the face of the Philippine government and show our countrymen what it is like to have a government that truly works for them. This is, after all, the key to ensuring the permanence of our efforts, and is why, from day one, our administration has worked to enact and accelerate reform. One can already see the profound effect of our efforts in every sector.

The Department of Public Works and Highways, for instance, has long been known as a hotbed of corruption and crooked contracts. Today, under the leadership of Secretary Rogelio Singson, it has become one of the best-performing agencies in government. Secretary Singson’s strategy was simple: the five “R”s. They implement the right projects, built by the right people, for the right quality and the right price, to be finished right on time, if not earlier. Through this, they have been successful in rehabilitating and expanding our critical infrastructure in a manner that is both quick and efficient, all while saving the government P39bn ($877m) as of October 2014.

One can also look at how we undertook large-scale reform of our Bureau of Customs, another agency that was reputed to be among the most corrupt. We formed offices tasked with optimising and modernising Customs policies. We gave the agency a clean start by appointing a new commissioner, six new deputy commissioners and 40 other individuals to enact our reforms for the agency. We sent all employees back to where they were supposed to work, removing inefficient and suspicious practices, such as security guards and warehousemen acting as cashiers or examiners. Results were almost instantaneous. From January to November of 2014, collections have increased by 16% compared to the same period in 2013.

We have also taken measures to spend taxpayers’ money more wisely. We have implemented a zero-based budgeting system, which ensures that all state projects will have a tangible benefit for the Filipino people. For the 2014 National Budget, we used what we call a “performance-informed budget”, which presents information on state agencies’ targets and performance commitments alongside the budget numbers.

The quickest way to ensure the permanence of reform is to change the people’s mindset and expectations. These initiatives, among countless other programmes, are meant to make it impossible for those wishing to revive the old system to succeed. We have raised the standard of public service and will continue doing so to guarantee the continued progress of our country.

What has been the effect of the conditional cash transfer programme in alleviating poverty, and what other schemes might best bridge the income gap?

AQUINO: The cash transfer programme addresses poverty in both the short and long term. It allows us to give those in the margins additional resources to get by. More importantly, it is a massive long-term investment in our country’s greatest resource: our people.

Let us recall the primary conditions for receiving cash grants: to qualify, households have to send their children to school, have pregnant women get regular check-ups and have their children vaccinated. In the long term, this will create a populace that is both healthier and better equipped to take advantage of the increasing number of job opportunities in the Philippines.

In 2014, we expanded the programme to include households with children up to 18 years of age. Having a high school education has an enormous impact on the income of our beneficiaries. For instance, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, in partnership with international organisations, has conducted studies revealing that high school graduates earn 40% more than elementary undergraduates.

Of course, to truly equip our people with the wherewithal to lift themselves out of poverty, we must make sure the services they receive are up to par. Focusing on these sectors is therefore essential to eliminating poverty. This is exactly what our administration has done. These projects are driven by our belief that the most important investments the Philippine government will ever make are in the Filipino people. Through our good governance efforts, we have gained the resources we need to give our countrymen the chance to hone and practice their innate skills and talents, which will ultimately allow them to lift themselves out of poverty and provide better lives for their families.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, what are the main challenges and opportunities involved in raising disaster preparedness and restoring normality?

AQUINO: Perhaps the greatest challenge, as well as the greatest opportunity, in our post-Haiyan rehabilitation efforts is confronting and adjusting to the “new normal”. We have noticed, in the past few years, a startling trend: that these typhoons are becoming more frequent and more powerful. This is a phenomenon observed not just in our country but all over the world.

This is why we have looked upon rehabilitation as an opportunity to “build back better”. Houses, communities and infrastructure in the affected areas are being built and positioned with the new normal in mind. We are looking at every possible solution. For instance, we have found a way of bending galvanised iron sheets over the eaves to make them more resistant to strong winds. Japan has also shared how to construct buildings that can serve as natural water catchments.

On a broader scale, we are mainstreaming disaster resilience into our country’s regional and national development plans to minimise the damage when disaster does strike. We have continued our proactive approach to reducing the risks posed by natural calamities. As soon as we stepped into office, we began enhancing our scientific capabilities, allowing for earlier and more accurate weather forecasting, thus helping both government and the people to prepare for disasters.

Our government’s response to Typhoon Hagupit was proof of our rapidly improving approach to disaster risk reduction. Before the storm made landfall, those in the affected areas were made aware of the incoming storm. More than 146,000 families in those areas underwent pre-emptive evacuation. More than 318,000 family food packs were also stockpiled before the storm hit. Our preparations and our response were recognised by the UN Development Programme and the UN Humanitarian Country Team. Due to our preparations, and to the cooperation of our people, we were able to minimise the damage from the typhoon.

Given ASEAN economic integration, how can the Philippines leverage its position as an investment destination? What reforms would accelerate this?

AQUINO: We welcome ASEAN integration. It is an economic milestone that will enhance the growth of investments, trade and tourism among member states, and will be highly beneficial to the peoples of ASEAN. Of course, its also means heightened competition within the various industries in the region, and this is a challenge we are poised to meet.

For small and medium-sized enterprises, for instance, we are implementing various programmes to provide them with more access to finance – e.g., the ASENSO Programme under the Go Negosyo Act of 2013 – which will improve their productivity and efficiency. We are helping prepare Philippine businesses for integration by conducting awareness seminars to help them understand how they can avail themselves of preferential tariffs and relevant market information.

It helps that our administration, over the past four years, has created a more open and investor-friendly business environment. We are eagerly looking into possible areas of cooperation with ASEAN, such as the establishment of a regional credit agency, the harmonisation of rules and standards, the creation of a global tax identification number and the strengthening of the region’s resilience to natural disasters. These benefits of integration have the potential to reverberate throughout our region and the global community.

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