The past five and a half years have been a volatile time for the private sector, not just in surviving the pandemic-triggered economic crisis but in terms of its relationship with the government. No less than the chief executive of the country has alternately acknowledged its contribution to nation building, sought its help, worked on numerous projects with it, but also derided it with alienating rhetoric, and presented no clear blueprint for public-private cooperation over the long term.
At best, this was an opportunity wasted.
Now that we are in the process of choosing our leaders for the next six years, and now that the daunting task of economic recovery amid the pandemic is upon us, we should include one important criteria in our scorecard: Capacity and willingness to engage and work with the private sector.
In the past, we at Stratbase identified eight strategic initiatives where the private sector can help create a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery. These are: 1.) Addressing inequality and ensuring livelihood by creating jobs; 2.) Reducing the digital divide through digital acceleration; 3.) Addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; 4.) Strengthening the health system; 5.) Pushing for public-private collaboration driven by public interest; 6.) Focusing on and advocating stakeholder capitalism; 7.) Creating access to opportunity, quality education and social protection for all; and, 8.) Demanding transparency and accountability in governance by encouraging an entrepreneurial state and smart local governments.
The potential of a genuine, strategic, and sustained partnership is also not lost on the ordinary Filipino. We commissioned surveys by the top two polling companies and their findings on how citizens regarded the private sector mirror each other.
In October 2021, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that at least eight in 10 Filipinos believed that the growth of the Philippine economy would be accelerated if the government collaborated more actively with the private sector. Respondents to the same survey also said that the private sector can help boost the economy by creating jobs (65%), expanding livelihood opportunities (57%), and helping lift the lives of Filipinos out of poverty (46%).
Two months later, Pulse Asia Research also conducted a survey that revealed Filipinos thought the private sector can help create jobs (58%), lift Filipinos out of poverty (57%) and expand livelihood opportunities (52%).
In fact, 81% of the respondents agreed that the government should engage the private sector to invest in public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airports to save government funds for COVID-19 response.
We do not need to look any farther than the context of COVID-19. In 2020, when the lockdowns first brought a shock to the people, business groups pitched in to provide much-needed help, complementing government’s ayuda drive. The following year, when the vaccines were finally available, again corporations stepped up to the plate by having their own vaccination drives for workers and their families. Many companies also helped improve the delivery of online education, especially to children in poor communities and the provinces.
Much, much more can be done, not only in the context of the pandemic response, but in economic recovery and, eventually, sustainable economic development.
INVESTING IN TECH, INVESTING IN PEOPLE
Our experience with COVID-19 showed us that technology is crucial not only as it applies to our jobs — work-from-home arrangements, for example, that still allow access to company documents, collaboration with colleagues, and remote meetings — but also in our everyday, personal lives. Many of us discovered the convenience of online banking or delivery apps that allowed us some semblance of normalcy and productivity even when we were locked down at home. Our children learned their lessons through online platforms.
Unfortunately, the ability to do this is not shared by all Filipinos. The worker’s or the student’s experience in Metro Manila is starkly different from the experience of someone in the provinces.
It is here where the private sector, through investments in digital technology, can greatly help. And the public knows this, too. In the October SWS survey, 89% of respondents agreed that “the benefits of digital technology such as strong cell phone signals, fast e-banking and social media can greatly help create jobs and businesses.”
Of course, building the digital infrastructure is the responsibility of the government, primarily. But with the multitude of problems that our public officials are facing, the government needs help — help that is available and very capable.
Investments in technology — which include infrastructure and the upskilling of people — contemplate the future; they generate exponential benefits not only for today’s Filipinos but the next generation. There is a golden opportunity to realize this, if only through a more strategic plan to involve the private sector in all areas of development.
SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
We need a leader that acknowledges and comprehends the potential of a true partnership between the public and private sectors, and acts from that appreciation. Imagine if PPP were not just some clever acronym but a guiding principle that governs each stakeholder’s role in the process. Imagine a scenario where everybody knows the destination, what their role is based on their expertise, mandate, and resources. Imagine the principles of corporate governance at work in government transactions. Imagine inching closer to the goal — together.
This election, we can change the course of our country for the better. Let us not squander that opportunity.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.