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Dondon’s wit and wisdom

LIKE COUNTLESS others, I will miss my dear friend Cayetano (Dondon) Paderanga Jr. It was he who brought me into government many years ago, and he would often claim credit (or blame) for that. It was in May 1990 when he practically tricked me into joining him at the National Economic and Development Authority, initially as one of his assistant directors general (ADG) when he led the agency in the final years of the Cory Aquino presidency.

“Over my dead body will you get me into government,” I had declared to him months earlier, when he first brought up the idea (words that I was to eat later). I told him I was happy where I was. As chair of the economics department at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, I was with a group of “hotshot young economists,” as some people described us then—new PhD economists who were actively being tapped to advise the dynamic new “People Power” government.

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When we UPLB economists had set up a research program on rural economy issues, we invited Dondon to write a piece on rural-urban migration. That’s how I first met him, around 1986. He was himself one of the young “hotshots” at the UP School of Economics in Diliman, having earned his economics doctorate from Stanford University not much earlier. When my youngest daughter was born in 1987, he gladly agreed to stand as ninong in her baptism, for which he traveled all the way from Diliman for his provinciano friend in Los Baños.

Two and a half years later, he would be asking me to make that same trip in reverse, from my home in Los Baños to the Neda office in Pasig—every day. I had already given him my final negative response, but he simply would not accept it. He was relentless. He sent his deputy, Pons Intal, and later ADG Carol Guina, both my personal friends, all the way to Los Baños, each to personally try and convince me to change my mind. On her visit, Carol asked for a copy of my CV, which I gave her with the firm message for Dondon that my giving it should not be taken to mean I was accepting his invitation. Some time later, I received a telegram from Joy Quintos, Dondon’s chief of staff, asking me to come for my oath-taking, as President Cory Aquino had already signed my appointment as Neda ADG. Dondon later phoned to tell me, in his characteristic naughty tone: “If you still refuse, you’ll have to say no to President Cory Aquino herself.” He had an uncanny sense of humor that Pons described as “dry wit.”

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He turned out to be a joy to work with, and a worthy mentor on what it meant to be in the public service. Very systematic about his leadership of the country’s premier economic agency, he held weekly management committee meetings that included all staff directors and heads of Neda-attached agencies. On top of that, he also had weekly “generals’ meetings” with his eight (subsequently six) top officials with “general” in their titles—three deputy directors general and five (later reduced to three) assistant directors general. He was a listening, genuinely consultative leader, yet firm in his decisions that were always grounded in clear principles. Holding no political ambitions, he anchored his decisions on sound economics, never populist, considerations.

Even so, experience had taught him to be pragmatic. Being the young idealistic economist that I was, I recall him telling me in one private conversation how in government, we often have to take one step backward to be able to take two steps forward. That analogy was to remain in my memory henceforth, as it didn’t take long for me to see the wisdom in this observation as one navigates policymaking circles in government, especially when technocrats must work with elective politicians. Politicians are focused on their voters, who in most cases are confined to a district or local area. Even other executive leaders focus on their respective constituencies—for the agriculture secretary, it’s farmers; for the trade and industry secretary, business; for the labor secretary, workers; for the central bank governor, bankers, and so on. But we at Neda, like the president, serve the entire Filipino people, and our standard for decision-making must be the greatest good for the greatest number.

Dondon took this mission to heart, perhaps to a fault. The single incident I remember him most for was when he walked into my office one evening in 1991 with great anguish in his face. He asked me, as his senior deputy at Neda by then, to prepare to succeed him, as he felt obliged to resign his post. The economy had been doing badly, missing growth targets under the Medium Term Philippine Development Plan, reeling under double-digit inflation, and he felt he had lost all credibility to stay on the job. I argued that he was unfairly taking personal responsibility for it all, when the economy had been buffeted by great shocks, including repeated coup attempts, the Baguio earthquake, the Mt. Pinatubo eruption and more—none of which could have been anticipated. That conversation showed me how very solemnly he had taken on his responsibility as socioeconomic planning secretary as a personal yoke. I managed to convince him to stay on. (As fate would have it, I ended up succeeding him anyway after Cory’s term ended, without my expecting or aspiring after it.) He was to take on that yoke yet a second time, taking a toll on his physical health. And so here he is again, leaving all too soon—but this time, none of us can prevail on him to stay.

The country has lost a great man in my friend Dondon Paderanga, who has made his own indelible mark in our country’s economic history. May his spirit be with us forever.

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[email protected]

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TAGS: Dondon Paderanga Jr, National Economic and Development Authority, NEDA, opinion
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