By Malou Mangahas
and Karol Ilagan
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism .
(First of five parts)
IN THE TWO years since he assumed office and promised to usher in a “golden age of infrastructure,” President Rodrigo Duterte has put money where his mouth is. Boasting that, by his term’s end in 2022, multiple roads, bridges, ports, and airports will rise across the nation, his Build, Build, Build program now has a potential bill upwards of PhP8.4 trillion that will come from public funds, private monies, and loans.
By a Cabinet secretary’s account, Duterte is simply unstoppable when he wants to get something done. First christened “Dutertenomics,” the mammoth Build, Build, Build program currently has tens of thousands of civil-works contracts bidded out, apart from multiple multibillion-peso big infrastructure projects partly funded by official development assistance (ODA) or loans from China, Japan, and other bilateral partners.
This dwarfs the infrastructure frenzy under one of Duterte’s predecessors, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is said to have had an “edifice complex” so bad that roads and bridges were being built at a speed that would make it possible for her to inaugurate one or two in her visits to the provinces week on week.
As a result, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) during the Arroyo administration bidded out 27,535 civil-works contracts in eight years, from 2000 to 2008. But this has turned out to be just 60 percent of the Duterte administration’s total projects bidded out, which come to 44,000 in all, according to DPWH Secretary Mark A. Villar, in a mere 24 months, from July 2016 to July 2018.
If Villar’s number is correct, that total redounds to an average of 1,833 DPWH projects awarded monthly, or 60 projects daily. Apart from roads and bridges, DPWH is also building schools, flood-control systems, and water systems, while other agencies are constructing irrigation, power systems, as well as ports, airports, and other civil-works projects.
Like Arroyo – now the Speaker of the House — Duterte has proclaimed his massive infrastructure program as an anti-poverty antidote. He wants, he has said, to build infrastructure and bolster industries so he can create jobs and curb poverty by nearly half, or from 21.6 percent in 2015 to between 13 and 15 percent in 2022.
In addition, like Arroyo and all presidents before him, Duterte has promised that his projects and administration would be rid of corruption. “I assure you,” he had said at the launch of his socio-economic agenda in 2016, “this will be a clean government.”
But contractors, current and former officials, procurement experts, and affected citizens interviewed by PCIJ have separately offered guarded to cynical prognoses about Build, Build, Build. Indeed, most say that the program could be falling or crashing down due to its own massive weight, and is now yielding not progressive but regressive results after two years of Duterte.
Not surprisingly, they also say that corruption remains a formidable feature in many of the projects that are supposedly aimed to improve the lives of people.
“Year 1 marks the launch, the testing period, for Build, Build, Build,” said an executive of a big contractor. “Year 2 is when it unravels and encounters problems.. By Year 3, the chokepoint, it would be difficult to save it.” Next year, 2019, the program and the Duterte administration will turn three.
But DPWH Secretary Villar offers a rosy picture still. “I wouldn’t say that it’s hitting any snags,” he told PCIJ in an interview. “It’s not without any challenges. It’s not without the challenge, but my statement about the Build, Build, Build is we’re on track and it is improving and the support is there.”
DPWH, the government’s engineering and construction arm and an implementor of major projects under Build, Build, Build, receives the biggest infrastructure allotment as well as the second biggest budget annually among the departments. This year, DPWH was allotted PhP637.9 billion, reflecting a 40-percent increase from its PhP454..7 billion budget in 2017.
But while Villar seems unperturbed by “snags” in Build, Build, Build, observers and insiders alike say that these are significant enough to hinder the program’s progress.
For one, they affirm in separate interviews, some local, legislative, and public works officials colluding with favored but unqualified contractors are “syndicated” circles of corruption that continue to stalk many of the projects.
Greed and need
In fact, as early as February 2017, contractors had noted in meetings with public officials that “implementing agencies, especially in remote regions, continue to become victims of local government officials and in some isolated cases even national government officials who influence the award of projects to favored sub-par contractors.”
“There is a need,” the contractors had thus said, “to craft measures to insulate and isolate infrastructure projects from political intervention which has become syndicated.”
A senior official with expertise and insight into the problems meanwhile observed, “Greed is driving project contracting, the projects are falling below accomplishment targets, most projects are bloated.”
(To be continued)