By Iris Cecilia C. Gonzlaes
Much has been said about the Philippines and its myriad problems. Once in a while, there are successful attempts to explain why the country is where it is now.
Walden Bello’s latest book, co-authored with three other colleagues, is one of those books that provide a straightforward, convincing and analytical explanation of the country’s state.
A sociology professor at the University of the Philippines and head of the Thailand-based Focus on the Global South research group, Mr. Bello has written many books on the country’s sociopolitical and economic landscape. His latest project tells why despite the country’s rich natural resources and educated economic managers, the economy is still in the doldrums.
Readers have to be forewarned, however, that the book tends to be in academic, mainly because of the complexity of the topic. Its excessive use of abbreviations, figures and statistics, could be a nuisance at some points.
Nevertheless, it is interesting material and still a relatively easy read considering the complexity of the topic and the loads of information. The book starts with a discussion of many of the roots of the country’s problems such as the labor export policy of the 1970s and the debt problem of the ’80s. An interesting part is the section on debt, which has become of a major impediment to economic growth. The book supports early observations by economists and analysts that the focus on debt repayment during the administration of Corazon Aquino proved to be a wrong move.
Economists have said that Ms. Aquino could have sought a feasible debt-restructuring program with the country’s creditors and sought better terms for loan payments. In retrospect, some economics said the move would have been possible because creditors would have given the new government more concessions then, considering that it had just restored democracy after 20 years of military rule.
Brazil, the book noted, imposed drastic debt service in 1987 and experienced very little genuine retaliation from creditors.
The Philippines, on the other hand, made debt repayment its top agenda, resulting in a financial hemorrhage in the succeeding years, Mr. Bello writes. Aside from debt problems, the book also attributed economy stagnation to the failure of the agrarian reform program.
Discussions on other issues follow and the result is a cohesive analytical piece that is based on loads of materials including newspaper articles, research papers, government data and published books.
The book has seven chapters, dissecting each major problem of the country such as agrarian reform, trade liberalization, debt, corruption, and privatization. External factors which up to now affect the country’s growth path are not spared discussion. One chapter, for instance, tackles at length the Asian Financial Crisis and how the government handled it. Readers will better understand the real score behind the scenario painted by then president Fidel V. Ramos and his cohorts, on economic growth. Observers have said that the tiger economy which Mr. Ramos had boasted of, was superficial. The book provides details why this was so.
“To his successors Ramos bequeathed the worst of all worlds: an economy that combined traditional, unresolved structural problems, the overhang of opportunistic, corruption-ridden protectionism, and the tragic consequences of unthinking liberalization,” Mr. Bello writes.
It delves into problems common among developing countries such as privatization and corruption. The portion on privatization in the country is informative and educational. It cites specific examples, traces their respective histories and provides clear explanations of what happened to such projects.
It discusses in length the woes of the power sector, particularly the National Power Corp. The good thing about the book is that it is not a rhetorical piece. It offers possible solutions. For instance, the book suggests that the “Philippine state must be given greater autonomy vis-a-vis the elite.”
This is never easy, if there is ever an attempt on the part of elected leaders to actually try it. Still, the authors believe that for the government to succeed, “It must be able to discipline the interests that have constantly hijacked it for particularistic ends.”
This is a task which is nearly impossible in a land ruled by the corrupt and the powerful elite. Another proposed solution, an old argument, is to focus on internal market as the driver of development. Whether or not these suggestions, if implemented properly, would actually solve the country’s problems, is anybody’s guess.
And as history has proven, the Philippines is much more complex than books would describe it. And workable and realistic answers to the problems are far greater than what solutions books, such as this one, can offer. Everything is not as simple as it seems.