Tuesday, October 24, 2017
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No more excuses

opinion / Columnists
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No Free Lunch

No more excuses

We win some, lose some. We just can’t have everything, it seems. What we recently gained with our recent recovery of Category 1 status from the US Federal Aviation Administration on assuring improved passenger safety, we’ve lost on ensuring passenger comfort. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be tagged the worst international air terminal in the world, Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport has been in the news lately for reported difficulties with its airconditioning system—at the hottest time of the year at that. Public apologies from Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and President Aquino himself give little consolation. We’ve probably been losing thousands of potential tourist return visits by the day, not to mention repelling potential investors, out of the sheer ordeal of going through our now badly congested airports.

It’s not as if we couldn’t have foreseen all this. Domestic tourism and air travel had already accelerated since a few years back. It’s been a while that Asia has been widely seen to be the most rapidly growing market for air travel. And ever since the US and European civil aviation authorities downgraded our aviation safety ratings in 2008, we had been aiming to gain our former status back. In short, there’s no reason to be caught flat-footed by the much-increased air passenger traffic we now see. We could and should have anticipated and prepared for all this. Somehow, we didn’t.

The situation at the airport is far from unique. Our recent history is replete with examples of government failures to provide even the most basic of needs, or timely responses to pressing problems (much less address them before they even arise). And when taken to task, officials never run out of excuses. The traditional ones include: (1) “We don’t have enough budget,” (2) “It’s not my responsibility,” (3) “We can’t act until prior problems are solved first,” (4) “Some sectors will be hurt,” and the classic (5) “It’s a political demolition job.”

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Time was lack of budget had been the constant limiting factor, providing a convenient and forgivable excuse for government shortcomings. But from what I’m seeing and hearing lately, “absorptive capacity,” not lack of money, is in fact the binding constraint. Having apparently plugged erstwhile massive leakages in public funds, government now operates with newfound “fiscal space” (translation: more leeway to spend). Timely and effective solutions to our obvious needs are held back no longer by lack of funds, but by government inadequacies in planning and project development. The long (and still ongoing) delay in getting most of the much-vaunted public-private partnership infrastructure program to actual execution is a classic illustration.

For other problems, solutions have been elusive because no one seems to take clear accountability. It’s always someone else’s job. Take Metro Manila traffic. Who do we look to for solutions? The Department of Transportation and Communications? The Department of Public Works and Highways? The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority? Individual city governments? All of the above? And if it’s indeed all of the above (most problems require interagency collaboration, after all), who takes overall coordinative responsibility, hence accountability? For as long as no clear individual or agency is ultimately accountable for solving a problem, solutions will be lost amid unending finger-pointing—and that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen all these years.

On still other issues, authorities wouldn’t move on the argument that they can’t. That is, until and unless certain prior requisites are put in place.

We can’t open our skies, we’re told, because our airport facilities can’t handle further increases in international passenger traffic, or we don’t have enough hotels and related amenities to meet escalated demands. But I’ve heard this argument from top officials since at least seven years ago. Did government move to fix the prior needs all this time? Why are we still hearing the same excuses now? (See paragraph two above.) It goes back to lack of foresight and anticipatory planning, coupled with lack of an accountable person or entity to act decisively (see immediately above.)

I’ve repeatedly questioned why no effort has been made to connect the mass rail transit systems in Metro Manila to our air or passenger ship terminals. Elsewhere, such seamless interconnection of various modes of transport seems second nature. The explanation I got was that taxi operators (in the case of airports) and tricycle operators (in the case of seaports) would get hurt. And by some strange logic, authorities decided in their favor, against the interests of the wider public who end up silently enduring the consequences. Policymaking ought to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number—not for the noisy or influential (and we know why) few.

And then there are those who are quick to dismiss anyone who calls them to task for failures, shortcomings or malpractices as being “politically motivated” or engaged in a “demolition job”—never mind the evidence, and whether they’re guilty or not. If that won’t work, they’d take refuge in the other excuses above. But such excuses all ring hollow to educated ears by now. There are no more acceptable excuses for inaction or wrongful deeds. With barely two years left for a leadership that (still) enjoys wide trust from the public, people would like to see this political capital not go to waste, but used to push difficult fundamental changes that will ultimately translate to a better life for all Filipinos.

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E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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