Last week I saw a video circulating on Facebook of a bicycle shop owner giving a teary-eyed street vendor his dream bicycle after noticing that the man had been coming into the shop week after week just to ask about it. Last month, I read about a public-private sector initiative called Taskforce T3 that’s working with hospital groups to increase the country’s much needed COVID-19 testing capacity. A few months ago, there was also Project Ugnayan, a partnership of the country’s biggest businesses that raised over P1.7 billion to give grocery vouchers to millions of poor Filipino families affected by the lockdown. At the beginning of the lockdown, several public utility companies, like Meralco, also announced that they would continue to provide their services while also extending payment deadlines to help affected users.
These stories remind us that there are a lot of businesses out there, both big and small, that aren’t just about making a profit, but that are also committed to being truly socially responsible. It is companies like these that have the spirit of social responsibility that can serve as reliable partners of the government in responding to the pandemic and beyond. This is something important for the government to keep in mind now that it looks to jumpstart the nation’s economy with a renewed focus on Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), an arrangement that involves government and businesses working together and sharing the risks of completing a project or providing a service.
If you recall, President Rodrigo Duterte had originally moved away from the PPP program at the beginning of his term, deciding instead to fund infrastructure development through the national budget and loans from countries like China and Japan. However, due to the economic impact of the pandemic, the administration seems to have reconsidered its position and has increased the number of PPP-funded projects to beef-up its PH PROGRESO recovery program.
Unsurprisingly, the newfound openness of the government towards PPPs was welcomed by the participants of a recent roundtable discussion organized by Stratbase-ADR Institute. Speaking at the event, Prof. Dindo Manhit, President of Stratbase ADR Institute said, “By harnessing the private sector’s support to invest in public infrastructure across the country, our government can appropriately revise and sustain the BBB (Build, Build, Build) program with due consideration to public health, education and social services.”
Rep. Edgard Mary Sarmiento, who was there to share his insight as Chairperson of the House Committee on Transportation, said he believed in the power of the private sector to boost the Philippine economy and cited recent PPP projects such as the Cavite Barge Terminal of ICTSI, the LRT line 1 extension of Ayala and Metro Pacific, and CALAX of MPIC Tollways as examples of private companies working “hand in hand” with the Transportation and Public Works departments to deliver better infrastructure to the people.
Senator Grace Poe, who also participated in the roundtable discussion, spoke about the financial advantages of PPP projects and how these projects can free up government funds to spend on health care and poverty alleviation projects. However, Senator Poe also pointed out the need for good governance and a competitive and stable regulatory environment that respects the sanctity of contracts and rule of law to foster public-private collaboration.
She also had comments directed squarely at the private sector, appealing to them to take on the responsibility of behaving in a socially responsible manner when entering into PPPs with the government as the reluctance or openness of government towards PPP may depend on it.
This is why, now that the government is creating new policies to usher in economic growth in our new normal, it must ensure that a stable and competitive policy environment is created. This policy environment will be key in attracting the right kind of investors.
After all, it is not always easy to do the right thing. For example, the move of public utilities to continue providing services during the three-month lockdown without collecting any fees was indeed a socially responsible thing for them to do. In the case of Meralco, they’ve even decided to stagger the payment of unpaid dues during the lockdown into four equal monthly instalments to ease the burden on consumers. Despite its efforts, however, companies like Meralco, will likely still be criticized moving forward, simply because people just aren’t used to getting two bills from the same utility in a single month.
Doing the right thing is not always easy. This is why it is important to attract the right kind of investors and for the government to only partner with socially responsible organizations, ones that are out to serve not only their shareholders but the Filipino people as well.
Paco A. Pangalangan is the Executive Director of Stratbase ADR Institute.