Poorly planned, poorly executed
By Solita Collas-Monsod
IF it had happened, say, during the watch of then NEDA Director General Romulo Neri, when NEDA had reached the nadir of its reputation, speculation would have been rife about the role of partisan politics in the situation. But it is happening under a NEDA headed by Arsi Balisacan, who not only is extremely competent but is not known for any political savvy or partisan leanings, so I am ready to give it the benefit of the doubt.
By “it,” I am referring to the delay in the release of the NEDA review on the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO), as ordered by PNoy last December. The Reader will recall that after opponents of APECO marched for 17 days to cover a 350-kilometer distance from Aurora to Manila, PNoy, after meeting with them, ordered NEDA to conduct an independent review of the project, to be accomplished in seven days.
Of course there was no way that NEDA could accomplish that task — if only because the creation of APECO was enacted into law without the benefit of any feasibility study (none could be produced, anyway) that would at least provide some starting point for the review. Moreover, NEDA had had no involvement whatever in the formulation of the project. Both of which circumstances already raise very grave doubts about the propriety or even the advisability of approving such a project.
In any case, after the end of seven days, NEDA submitted a report to the President, and asked for two more months (it became 2-3 months) so it could do a proper job of it. And the President granted the request.
That was on Dec. 17, 2012. The two-month mark occurred on Feb. 17, 2013, and March 17 marked the end of the three-month period. It is now April 11 — four months after PNoy first ordered the independent review. And nothing has been submitted.
Now one of the reasons I greatly admire NEDA (except for the unfortunate periods when it was headed by Neri and then by Ralph Recto, neither of whom are economists, with Recto having the added burden of being a politician) is because of its professional staff. And even though that number has unfortunately been dwindling (pirated by the private sector and international agencies), no way would a 2-3 month period for conducting a review have been asked for if that wasn’t a reasonable period, as determined by the staff.
In preparing for this column, I asked Director General/Secretary Balisacan why the delay. And the answer was prompt: it was still being “finalized.” Another question: estimated time of completion? Another answer: within two weeks from yesterday, yesterday being April 10. That means at the latest April 24.
I shouldn’t have pressed, but I did anyway. Third question: What bogged the study down? In another words, if March 17 was the outer limit of the review period, what caused the additional five weeks delay? No answer.
Again, as I implied earlier, if it were not Arsi Balisacan at the helm of NEDA, thoughts of partisan political motives for the delay would be dancing in my head. After all, it would be very convenient to postpone news that might redound to the disadvantage of administration stalwarts until after the election. But that would be un-Arsi like. And un-NEDA like, as a result. So I am withholding judgment.
But that doesn’t mean that I am not going to go over that report with a fine-tooth comb. Although I will be very surprised — shocked, more like — if the NEDA review were to give its imprimatur to APECO. Balisacan’s reputed closeness to Senator Angara should not be a factor (I myself am considered very close to the senator and worked with him when he was UP president, but that has nothing to do with the issue).
I say this because after having read all the documents on the issue I could lay my hands on, including complete transcripts of the Senate committee hearings on APECO, plus hearing arguments on both sides. Let me share with the Reader some of my more salient findings.
• A bill to create a special economic zone for Aurora was vetoed by President Ramos way back in 1997 or 1998 — this information courtesy of Ciel Habito, who was Ramos’s NEDA chief and who obviously was asked for his opinion.
• RA 9490, which created ASEZA and approved by Gloria Arroyo on July 29, 2007, was only for an area of 496 hectares. This, without any feasibility study backing up the project.
• Less than three years later, RA 10083, amending RA 9490, was passed. But it was not really an amendment, it was a sea change, because the area covered increased by more than 25-fold — from 496 hectares to almost 13,000 hectares. What’s more, in many respects, APECO was placed beyond the powers of the national government and local government units. Again, no feasibility study was ever produced to justify such changes.
• RA 10083 provisions violate at least four laws: the Local Government Code, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act, and the CARPER law, trampling on the rights of the local governments of the areas covered, as well as the rights of fisherfolk, farmers, and indigenous people in the area. Which was why the APECO march took place.
• It is noteworthy that RA 10083 was not signed into law by President Arroyo, but rather allowed to lapse into law — a Pontius Pilate act that does not absolve her of the blame for allowing the creation of the APECO.
• The implementation of APECO has resulted in any number of very costly mistakes, including the wrong use of land, the wrong choice of projects. Up to this point, almost six years after it was first approved, there is a dearth of investors. And justifiably so: anyone looking at a map of the area will see that Aurora is in a geographically very poor position to serve Central Luzon as compared to the other economic zones and free ports already located there.
In sum, it certainly looks like APECO was poorly planned and even more poorly executed — from the development point of view, that is.