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Editorial

‘Build back better’

/ 12:42 AM June 24, 2014

The Aquino administration is set to submit to Congress next month its national budget proposal for 2015. At P2.6 trillion, it is 15-percent higher than last year’s P2.26 trillion. According to Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, the proposal could have been submitted much earlier if not for this thing called “build back better.” Obviously, he was referring to the reconstruction of areas devastated last year by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) and other calamities. “We have to induce resiliency in a way, for vulnerable areas to adjust their designs so that they can take on Yolanda-like eventualities, and that means an increase in their costs of change in design,” Abad explained.

The spending will be mostly in infrastructure, which is targeted to receive P587 billion, a substantial increase from this year’s P400 billion. The government is planning to increase this to P800 billion in 2016, the last year of the Aquino presidency. The aim is to boost the infrastructure budget from 3 percent of the economy (as measured by the gross domestic product or GDP) to 4.2 percent in 2015 and to 5 percent by 2016, a level that economists believe is comfortable enough to meet the requirements of a growing economy.

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“Build back better” is an Aquino slogan crafted in the 2014 budget after the country experienced one tragedy after another in the latter part of 2013: the MNLF siege in Zamboanga City, the earthquake in Bohol and the devastation of  Yolanda  in the Visayas. The calamities triggered an inflow of funding mainly for rehabilitation and reconstruction. In fact, in the 2014 national budget, Congress appropriated bigger allocations for calamities (P13 billion), rehabilitation and reconstruction program (P20 billion), and reconstruction projects under the government’s unprogrammed fund (P80 billion). Congress also passed a P14.6-billion supplemental budget and extended the validity of the rehabilitation and reconstruction funds under the 2013 budget to this year.

Under President Aquino’s “build back better” campaign, devastated communities must be rebuilt to a much better state than they were in before the calamities to avoid the vicious cycle of destruction and reconstruction: Permanent and resilient housing would have to be built in safer zones, and infrastructure would have to be made climate-proof.

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However, a recent briefing by the International Red Cross indicated that people in areas ruined by Yolanda were going back to their destroyed properties. Early this month, nearly seven months after tsunami-like waves caused by Yolanda swept away homes and lives, Philippine Red Cross chair Richard Gordon reported that some families in disaster-stricken Tacloban City were back in a danger zone. In a recent visit to Tacloban City, he said, he saw newly rebuilt houses on the coast of Barangay 69, supposedly a designated no-build zone under the government’s “build back better” program. Gordon noted, in particular, that makeshift houses were back in the section of the city where Yolanda’s deadly storm surge pushed ships to shore.

Earlier, there was also the complaint of rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson about “uncooperative” Cabinet secretaries frustrating efforts to speed up the rebuilding process. The slow pace of rehabilitation could be one reason why affected residents are going back to the no-build areas.

We are not new to the wastage of taxpayer money earmarked for infrastructure, going back to previous regimes. We have heard too often of overpriced and substandard highways, airports, school buildings, and many other “exploited” projects.

President Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” campaign to stamp out corruption may have instilled fear among many government personnel. However, it has also delayed the approval and funding of many vital infrastructure projects. “Build back better” should not go the way of “Daang Matuwid,” which has caused a lot of undue delays.

“Build back better” should focus not only on damaged schools in areas devastated by Yolanda, but also on thousands of other substandard schools that could be destroyed by even the weakest of typhoons. “Build back better” should turn out roads that don’t need to be repaired after every rainy season, and drainage systems that don’t get clogged up even when it rains hard. “Build back better” should mean building back everything better this time.

“Build back better” ought to be not just another slogan.

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