Everyone including the US Embassy in Manila has by now dusted off their dictionaries of adjectives to describe the agenda President de facto Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced during her inauguration speech last June 30.

Mrs. Arroyo’s allies, specially those eying appointments to government posts in exchange for their support during the campaign, were naturally beside themselves in their enthusiasm, and couldn’t praise the agenda enough. On the other hand, her opponents couldn’t seem to find the right words, dismissing the agenda outright as a rehash of her past promises.

Nevertheless, the word “ambitious” did pass the lips of both Arroyo partisans as well as opponents and rivals. The first used the word to imply grandness of design and vision; the second to suggest its futility, ambition being one of those rare words that depending upon the context in which it’s used can praise as well as condemn.

Apparently not one to maintain a discreet silence about the country’s domestic affairs, the head of the United States delegation to the Arroyo inauguration used the same word to describe Mrs. Arroyo’s plans. Anthony Principi of the US State Department said the Arroyo agenda “is a very ambitious 10-point outline for improving the lives of the Filipino people,” and added that he believed Mrs. Arroyo “has the will. We are confident that the goals will be achieved.

Not to be outdone—and in one more display of intervention that’s beginning to look like a deliberate effort to show the world who’s really boss in these parts—US Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone told Arroyo that “her speech should be followed up, specially the reconciliation (part). We ourselves look forward to working with the opposition of (sic) this country.”

The rest of us, Filipinos who are neither politicians nor agents of the US empire, can only hope for a miracle by the year 2010.

The miracle would be the realization of Mrs. Arroyo’s pledge to (1) create six to 10 million jobs; (2) provide quality education; (3) develop agri-business; (4) provide loans for the development of small enterprises (5) balance the budget by 2009; (6) interconnect the whole country through a transportation and digital network; (7) provide every barangay electricity and water; (8) end armed conflict; (9) decongest metro Manila by creating growth sectors in other regions; and (10) computerize elections.

Some think the agenda “ambitious” in the sense that Mrs. Arroyo is overreaching, because of the absence of the funding requirements these plans will require. The means to achieve them—efficient tax collection, among others– are indeed outside the agenda, which also promises to balance the budget by 2009 while the government implements Mrs. Arroyo’s goals.

Providing quality education at the elementary and secondary levels, for example, will require vast expenditures for the construction and maintenance of school buildings and the hiring of more teachers, to retain whom will in turn require raising teacher salaries. This is not to mention the funding required to provide computers for every classroom. On the other hand, creating growth sectors outside metro Manila presumes not only a robust economy to begin with, but also government capacity to jump-start such growth.

If she didn’t say how she would fund all these, Mrs. Arroyo didn’t say how she would end armed conflict either, except through peace negotiations, the main focus of which has been to waylay the armed groups that represent social and political movements (the National Democratic Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) into surrendering to the government.

While such groups have indeed surrendered to governments in other parts of the world (for example in Nicaragua and El Salvador), peace so achieved is likely to be temporary. It’s a thesis so old in this country one would expect governments to know it by now: that the only guarantee of social peace is the elimination of the roots of social conflict, of which rebellions have been the armed expression in this country for 300 years.

Instead of proceeding from this premise, the Arroyo government looks at armed rebellion as a cause of the country’s failure to develop rather than as its result—a view shared by the military, the business community, and the landlords who preside over one of the worst tenancy systems on the planet. As a result, rebellion is regarded as a perverse effort to derail development and to sow disorder and anarchy rather than as a response to the social, economic and political evils that keep the vast majority of Filipinos poor.

The specific focus of, from the point of view of the Philippine ruling elite, the most problematic rebellions in this country are, for the NDF, the demand for social change via the eradication of land tenancy and industrialization. For the MILF it is recognition of the Moro people’s distinct identity through self-rule. Both agree on the need for the country to flesh out its proclaimed independence by developing relations with other countries on the basis of non-intervention and mutual benefit.

There is no hint in the Arroyo agenda of any awareness that social peace can be achieved by addressing these demands, just as there is no pledge in the same agenda that corruption will be among Mrs. Arroyo’s central concerns.

The Transparency International Corruption Index for 2003 puts the Philippines at a low 92nd place among 120 countries in terms of the levels of perceived corruption among foreign businessmen. The Philippines received an average rating of 2.5 (based on a low rating of 1.6 and a high of 3.6) out of a possible 10, earning it the company of such fourth-world countries as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia.

Filipinos, however, do not need TI to tell them about government corruption in the Philippines, which has been the subject of numerous studies, and whose existence has been widely documented by both media reports and academic research.

Curbing corruption can keep billions in government coffers in the next six years (one of the more conservative estimates of the cost of government corruption is P50 billion over the last ten years). But there is no focus in the agenda on ending corruption either as an end in itself, or, more importantly, as a means of helping fund Mrs. Arroyo’s agenda.

What makes the agenda seem overly-ambitious is precisely the absence in it of the means to achieve it—which could incidentally also include finding some way out of the fact that, as poor as this country is and as strained as its resources are, it has to allot 37 percent of its national budget every year to debt servicing. And yet that 37 percent—representing money for the construction of hundreds of classrooms and the provision of medical care to millions of poor Filipinos—can certainly contribute to the success of Mrs. Arroyo’s agenda.

Addressing the root causes of the armed conflicts that have persisted in this country for over 300 years; confronting the corruption that has metastasized throughout government; developing a foreign policy that will allow this country to deal with other countries on the basis of mutual benefit and respect; and even thinking the unthinkable in terms of the mandatory allocation of billions for debt servicing. All will require a level of political will that if exercised would not only help realize Mrs. Arroyo’s proclaimed goals, but could more importantly result in a Philippines at peace with itself and the well-being and security of the majority.

Mrs. Arroyo, however, has either not thought about these options at all, or has not the will to put them in her agenda much less pursue them if they have indeed occurred to her or her managers.

There is a third possibility. Mrs. Arroyo could be biding her time and waiting for a better, more opportune occasion to put them at the top of her list for the next six years. Although not impossible, such an event would qualify, in this region of the planet, as a major miracle akin to the transformation of water into wine and the feeding of the multitudes.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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