His Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III
President of the Philippines
at the National Millenium Challenge Corporation Compact Closing Event
[Delivered at Malacañan Palace, Manila, on May 24, 2016]
When I was a university student majoring in Economics, one of my professors defined our field of study as “the study of fulfilling unlimited wants with limited resources.” The harsh reality of the difficulties involved in this struck me when I first became a Congressman in 1998—just one year after the Asian Financial Crisis. As a representative, I had to champion my district’s needs. Unfortunately, back then, the refrain of every government agency was, “We don’t have funds.” Those were the times I truly felt that we were confronted with unlimited wants and virtually no resources.
To be frank, I felt much the same way when I first assumed the Presidency. Instead of the wants and needs of one district, there were the wants and needs of the entire country to fulfill. This is a gargantuan task, especially given our conviction that no Filipino should be left behind. Fortunately for us, the Millennium Challenge Corporation felt the same way.
The signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact in 2010 made $434 million in much-needed funding available to the Philippines for projects specifically targeted to reduce poverty. This was a manifestation of the trust that the American government and the people had in us. This was a commitment to help—a commitment we swore to match by ensuring that every dollar spent would have a meaningful impact on the lives of Filipinos.
I have to admit: My personal desire to maximize the effects of the compact and my training as an economist led me to wonder why the bulk of the grant would be used in infrastructure projects in Samar. I even toyed with the idea of proposing a renegotiation, so that even more communities in different provinces could feel the impact of the compact-funded projects.
At the same time, the fact that Samar has consistently been listed among the poorest provinces of the Philippines weighed heavily on me. I knew that any project that would enhance their local economy was a project I must throw my full support behind. The MCC Compact-funded project is just that. $222.49 million went to the widening, rehabilitation, and improvement of the more-than-200 kilometer Paranas-Taft-Borongan-Guiuan Road, the construction or rehabilitation of 61 bridges, and slope protection, drainage, and road safety projects. Once it is completed in July this year, this project will provide access to 13 coastal communities and will cut travel time by an hour between Tacloban, Leyte, and Borongan City, Eastern Samar amongst its benefits.
This is part of the large-scale improvement of the Samar Circumferential Road: the construction and rehabilitation of almost 380 kilometers of road, together with 64 bridges, through the combined efforts of our Department of Public Works and Highways, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Korea Economic Development Cooperation Fund, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Allow me to give you a concrete example of the benefits of this massive undertaking. The towns of Oras and Arteche are both located in Eastern Samar. They are not too far from each other, but there was a time when travel between the two towns was exceedingly difficult due to the poor condition of roads where they existed. Before, you would have to pay around P500 to travel 5 hours from Oras to Arteche—roughly the same price as traveling from Manila to Oras via bus.
Now that the Junction Taft-Oras-San Policarpio-Arteche-Lapinig Road has been completed, the cost has shrunk P80 and takes 30 minutes to travel from one town to the other. Everyone knows: having the basic facility of an improved transport system creates a wealth of possibilities. More efficient trade and transport creates a wealth of possibilities; more trade and transport must take place; tourism potential is heightened, and the delivery of services, facilitated. Greater accessibility also means that it will be easier for the authorities to maintain peace and order in an area where insurgency was once very high, due to the difficulties in governing—as manifested by the poor condition of roads, which contributed to the relative isolation of communities.
As an added bonus, there were unintended benefits to the project as well. When Yolanda struck in 2013, I am told that the heavy equipment used for the Paranas-Taft-Borongan-Guiuan Road project was positioned in an area where it could immediately help to clear and reopen roads quickly. This afforded us the means to bring in the necessary relief and assistance in the aftermath of Yolanda—the value of which cannot be underestimated because the airport and port were likewise devastated by the storm.
I have no qualms admitting now that my initial worries about the so-called limitations of the compact were unfounded. Apart from our countrymen in Samar benefiting from infrastructure development, millions of Filipinos across the archipelago have felt your support through the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s (DSWD) KALAHI-CIDDS program. This helps communities spur local development through self-determined, designed, and implemented projects. Through the compact, $132 million went to 3,984 subprojects: from community water systems, sanitation projects, and new school buildings, health stations, and access roads.
The valuable truth at the heart of this endeavor: No one understands their needs better than the communities themselves. Our shared role has been to empower them. Because we have done that, millions of Filipino families are benefiting from ease of access to quality healthcare, a dependable supply of potable water, increased farm production, and more regular attendance to school, amongst many others.
Another MCC Compact project is our Department of Finance’s Revenue Administration Reform Project (RARP), which received $79.42 million in funding. The compact has helped to launch campaigns such as “Register, File, and Pay,” and “Angat pa, Pinas” to heighten the public’s awareness of their civic duty. There is also the Electronic Tax Information System, which will help the BIR to collect, track, and analyze data, making for more efficient, transparent, and reliable audits.
I know BIR Commissioner Kim Henares already has a reputation for being fiercely dedicated to her duties, but those involved in the RARP can attest: All our work paid off. Tax collections have never been more efficient. For example, in 2012, we breached the P1-trillion mark for the first time. Collections from the arrears management program have also drastically increased: from P2.3 billion in 2013 to P8.4 billion in 2015. All this has led to increased fiscal space for our administration and even our successors. Apart from the good practices we started, more funds can now be used for projects and programs that will benefit Filipinos.
In and of themselves, the MCC Compact projects already represent good news to millions of our countrymen. Even better news lies in the fact that, in December of 2014, the Philippines was selected as eligible to develop a second compact—the first time a country has been considered eligible even as the first compact is still in progress. This without doubt was another vote of confidence for the Philippines.
Everyone who took part can take great pride in the fact that we were all good stewards. We chose to work together, we kept our word, and we were able to foster positive change. At the same time, and on a rather more personal note, I am especially proud that we Filipinos did not rely on your assistance alone. On the contrary: the large-scale transformation of the Philippines you see today is the result of millions of Filipinos engaged in reform, determined to give rise to a better future for all.
It is because of our countrymen that we have made unmatched investments in the Filipino people through health, education, and other social services. It is because of them that we have been able to reform tax collection and budgeting, and institute transparency and accountability as hallmarks of government processes. It is because of our fellow Filipinos that we have transformed our country. This is not only a literal transformation of governance that empowers our people so that inclusive growth becomes more and more a reality. Perhaps more importantly, there has also been a significant change in attitude. Now, our people are empowered to participate, to speak out, and to demand good governance and true service from all succeeding administrations.
This gathering takes on special meaning for me: it has, in a way, allowed me to come full circle. We signed the MCC compact a few months after I took my oath of office; we witness its end today, as my own covenant with our people is coming to an end.
These days, I am often asked, “How does it feel to have just over a month left as President?” My answer is always the same: I have no cause for fear, or worry. I will be leaving behind a Philippines renowned for its economic resilience and for its commitment to inclusivity; I will be leaving behind a citizenry ready to work with able, trustworthy partners like the Millennium Challenge Corporation. I will be leaving my office as someone who remained true to his Bosses: the Filipino people. Today—perhaps the last time I will be facing many of you as President—I tell you: it has been a distinct honor to have worked with you, and to have served my countrymen.
Thank you. Good afternoon.