SYOU get up at 4am to get to work on time, or risk waiting until five? This is the question faced by many commuters in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, which experiences some of the worst traffic jams in the world. Geography is one of the reasons: the 2 million people who try to enter and leave the metropolis every day have to weave their way in a narrow strip between the sea on one side and a lake and hills on the other. But poor urban planning and lack of investment in infrastructure in recent decades have compounded the problem. Filipinos spend 16 days a year stuck in jams, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The World Economic Forum ranks the Philippines 96th out of 141 countries for the quality of its infrastructure. Neighboring Indonesia, another nation of thousands of islands, ranks 72nd.
On January 17, the Minister of Public Works announced that when President Rodrigo Duterte left office in 2022, he wished to reduce the number of cars that pass along the main artery of the city by one-third. city. These bold statements characterize Mr. Duterte’s approach to infrastructure. When he became president in 2016, he considered asking Congress for emergency powers to help him manage the traffic. In the end, he opted instead for a long-term plan to spend 9 billion pesos ($ 177 billion) on new infrastructure called “Build, Build, Build”. The focus on construction represents a “very bold change in government priority,” said Vince Dizon, a presidential adviser.
As the jams in Manila suggest, little has changed yet. But change is coming. “Build, Build, Build” involves 100 major projects. Construction is underway on almost half of them. In 2018, the government introduced legislation to cut red tape in permits, in part to speed up investment in infrastructure. Some planning committees meet three times more often than before. Twenty projects have been approved in the last three months of last year, said Dizon. Impractical plans promoted by the president, such as a plan to link all the main islands of the Philippines by a bridge, have been quietly put aside.
One of the largest projects still underway is New Clark City, which is expected to house 1.2 million people and numerous government offices, in an effort to reduce traffic in nearby Manila. The city was planned under the predecessor of Mr. Duterte, but embraced by him in an unusual display of political continuity. The first phase ended in November. Mr. Duterte also chaired the opening of a new airport in the province of Bohol and the largest passenger ferry terminal in the Philippines on his home island of Mindanao.
Infrastructure spending has roughly doubled since the president came to power. The plan is to reach 7% of GDP by 2022, against 2.6% in 2015 (see graph). The austere policies of the former presidents left Mr. Duterte free to borrow. Public debt represents around 41% of the GDP. He introduced a series of reasonable tax reforms, which are expected to help raise government revenues, and diversified the sources of funding for the Philippines. Japan has provided some $ 12 billion in recent years. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is so enthusiastic about Mr. Duterte’s infrastructure plans that last year he loaned more to the Philippines than any other country except India. China has also pledged $ 9 billion for infrastructure, although it has signed formal agreements to provide just $ 900 million.
Public-private partnerships are also used. More than a quarter of major projects under “Build, Build, Build” will involve private investors. However, ensuring the fairness of the terms of the concession agreements is an obsession with Mr. Duterte’s administration. The president’s ongoing conflict with two water companies in Manila over their contractual rights is one example. The shares of one of the companies, Manila Water, fell to a 14-year low at the height of last month. This can worry companies considering joining the infrastructure push.
The government says that by mid-2022, about half of the 100 “Build, Build, Build” projects should have been completed. Kelly Bird of ADB says that even completing 30 years would make the program “extremely successful”. Filipinos are well aware of Mr. Duterte’s efforts. A poll by Pulse Asia, a pollster, in December found that 69% of those polled thought his government was doing “better” infrastructure development work than its predecessor.
However, obstacles will arise as Mr. Duterte approaches the end of his term and his political power begins to decline. And once he has resigned, there is no certainty that his successor will carry out his plans. In the Philippines, new presidents often kill projects launched by their predecessors. In 2011, Benigno Aquino, the serving president, canceled 66 of the 72 car ferry ports planned by the previous president, Gloria Arroyo, alleging corruption. Hopefully, however, Duterte’s successor will see the benefit of inheriting dozens of partially constructed projects and a host of projects ready to go. A huge pool of sensible projects could prove to be as important a legacy as the infrastructure that Mr. Duterte manages to build. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “” Build, Build, Build “”