Without any forewarning, Ernesto Pernia announced last Friday that he was resigning as secretary of socioeconomic planning and head of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda), a post he had held from the beginning of the Duterte administration in 2016.
The timing could not have been worse, as the Philippines continues to grapple with the double-whammy economic and health crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and needs its entire brain trust on deck. But Pernia, in interviews after his departure, said he found himself with no other choice but to leave “due partly to personal reasons and partly to differences in development philosophy with a few of my fellow Cabinet members.”
Though couched in politesse, Pernia’s words unmistakably hint at simmering tensions in the Palace over fundamental lapses in leadership and policymaking, made more acute now that the Philippines is being battered by unprecedented disruptions.
The lifelong academic and economist, who was the lead economist of the Asian Development Bank before he was appointed Neda chief in 2016, essentially revealed the lack of proper and effective coordination within the government to tie different policy directions together as part of the often-cited “whole of nation” approach needed to address the crisis. “When the orchestra is not well-orchestrated, then you have a little problem,” the 76-year-old Pernia told CNN Philippines on Saturday in his first interview after his resignation.
Explaining further the next day on ANC, he cited the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act, which meant that the whole of society “should be collaborating, should be cooperating, should be working together to heal as one.” But, Pernia stressed, “before you can heal as one, you have to act as one.”
Pernia lamented, for example, how the private sector, which he lauded for responding in a big way to the call for donations and support, is working one way while the government barrels off in another direction, resulting in a strained supply chain, unnecessary red tape and the slow response to the loud cries for help. “If there’s better coordination, the impact is much larger,” he pointed out.
A major bone of contention in the days leading up to the Neda chief’s resignation was how or whether the government should let parts of the economy restart after the end of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine on April 30.
Pernia argued strongly for the gradual reopening of the economy under a modified ECQ as an effective way to save both lives and livelihoods. Indeed, his technical working group in the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases was drafting plans for a post-COVID-19 scenario, but Pernia said he felt he was the “dissonant voice” among the policymakers, so he thought he “should just quit.”
“I am used to not just saying yes, having being in academia and international organizations, I always spoke my mind,” Pernia explained on ANC. “I go to a lot of meetings and I expect meetings to be collegial, meaning that everybody’s voice should be heard and decisions should be made on the basis of the voices of not just of one person, but of everybody in the meeting, for perspective. I am okay with most Cabinet members; it is just certain members I have disagreements with.”
Pernia did not name the colleagues he had disagreements with, but insiders were quick to point to Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, who heads the Duterte economic team and whose close personal friendship with President Duterte means he has the President’s ear.
Pernia’s record bears out his independent mindset — a difficult stance under a strongman regime. In 2018, when the Duterte administration was poised to endorse to Congress a draft federal charter, Pernia threw cold water on it by warning that a shift to federalism would “wreak havoc” on the country’s fiscal situation and that the Philippines will “certainly experience a downgrading in our ratings.”
He was in favor of public-private partnerships for projects such as airports, seaports, and railways, even as Malacañang eschewed PPP in favor of the state-led “Build, build, build” model championed by Dominguez, which has since been modified to allow greater private sector presence as funding sources became more constrained.
Pernia likewise gave the nation a reality check when he said that Japan was actually beating China in providing financial assistance to the Duterte administration’s centerpiece infrastructure program, in direct contrast to the official narrative highlighting Beijing’s benevolent hand.
Finance Undersecretary Karl Kendrick Chua, immediately named as successor to Pernia, would do well to heed the parting advice of his one-time research mentor at the University of the Philippines: “Have an independent mind and not just agree to everything.”
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.