President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s vow to “keep the momentum” of his predecessor’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) was bolstered last March after he greenlighted 194 infrastructure flagship projects (IFPs) for his centerpiece Build Better More (BBM). Among these, 123 are from his administration and 71 are carried over from programs past.
The move lends itself to the state’s longstanding fixation on infrastructure as safe conduct towards an “equitable, prosperous, and resilient Philippines,” as Marcos puts it. Historically, this fixation manifested in his father’s New Society agenda and then President Fidel Ramos’s Philippines 2000—both heavy on epochal infrastructure projects. And it manifests at present in Marcos’s bid to hoist infrastructure spending to 12 percent of the GDP–far from Duterte’s peak of 5.9 percent–citing infrastructure as the “basic element” of a country’s progress.
Yet, BBM risks caving under the weight of past mistakes. Marcos’s nostalgia for the same infrastructure binges that did not strengthen local production is only as jarring as it is telling. It is clear that Marcos Jr.’s development philosophy inherits from his predecessors the delusion that big infrastructure by itself betokens a developed Philippines.
A quick look into his plan shows that transportation infrastructure comes out on top, with 119 IFPs dedicated to railways, expressways, airports, and more. Yet, righteous as intentions seem, mobility groups criticized Marcos’s transport plans.
AltMobility PH, for one, disputed the president’s skirting around basic transport solutions like walkable sidewalks and decent bike lanes. “The focus on infrastructure … signals lack of grasp of issues facing the public transport sector,” their director Ira Cruz said.
While 14 IFPs are devoted to agriculture—like farm-to-market roads, irrigation projects, and modernization plans—none of these are in tune with what farmers actually need to boost production.
A dearth of postharvest facilities stunts the output of farm produce, yet no IFPs are allotted for large packing houses or rice processing plants. And despite the absolution of farmers’ debts by virtue of the New Agrarian Emancipation Act, there are still no IFPs set to put up agricultural extension centers that could offer farmers the know-how to maximize their land’s use.
Vexing as they are, these phenomena are not new. The development ideologies of past presidents, such as Duterte with his BBB, have all abandoned sectoral pleas for the glitz and glamor of big infrastructure, in the name of accelerating foreign investor confidence. Big ticket projects, along with policies that further open the country to foreign interests such as Duterte's amendment of the Public Service Act, are all attuned to the development paradigm of international bodies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. However, their frameworks have long proven to be deleterious to the country’s development.
Despite catering to foreign interests, Duterte’s first year as president from 2016 to 2017 yielded a 21 percent slump in foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows. FDIs continued to dip until 2021 when it soared by 175 percent, but inflows would nonetheless plummet again by 76.2 percent from 2021 to 2022.
BBB never realized its promise of making the Philippines an investment idyll, instead making the country incur a hefty P1.6 trillion in repayment obligations. Now, 79 of the 194 IFPs under BBM will be funded through loans from other countries or international creditors under official development assistance—a replica of BBB’s skewed business model.
And yet there lies a victor in the destruction that BBM stands to wreak. The program’s most pressing danger is a potential reprise of the role of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) in national development. As early as 2017, there had been reports of DPWH allowing inept contractors to bag million-peso projects and allowing local officials to harvest spillover pay-offs from such. In 2020, the Commission on Audit reported P432 million in unnecessary costs from DPWH-led projects, most of which were under BBB.
Marcos has crafted no clear checks and balances to safeguard his BBM from exploitation. In October 2020, DPWH introduced a task force against graft and corruption, but even now, all signs point to an obstinate DPWH. Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong alleged just two weeks ago that politicians continue to bring home kickbacks amounting to 50 percent of the costs of public works projects.
Big infrastructure is Marcos’s guilty pleasure. It is a convenient bread and circuses with which he can shoot down allegations of stagnant growth, and deploy shock and awe tactics to his observers. As the second State of the Nation Address approaches, Marcos remains unfazed. He must simply pick from his 194 IFPs to show the populace his administration has a body on its belt.
These 194 IFPs are his sentimental device to show that he is, indeed, worthy of the name of his father, from whom the very nostalgia of a “golden age of infrastructure” originates. ●
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