Canada keeps optimism up for Mindanao peace

Canada keeps optimism up for Mindanao peace
By Dennis Jay Santos
Last updated 04:40am (Mla time) 08/04/2007

DAVAO CITY—One of the countries that planned to invest heavily in Mindanao under a negotiated peace settlement with Moro guerrillas has not lost interest in the stalled peace talks between the guerrillas and Philippine government representatives.


Peter Sutherland, Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines, said his country continues to monitor the talks and has not relaxed its commitment to help rebuild war torn areas in Mindanao.


Despite some setbacks in the talks, Sutherland said his country has kept its confidence that the talks would succeed.


“If we thought this (peace talks) has gone nowhere, then we wouldn’t be involved,” he said.


Canada has been funding peace support projects in Mindanao under its Canadian International Development Agency (Cida).


But Sutherland said a crab mentality that he saw in some Filipinos was keeping the Philippines from really taking off.


“Some people have the tendency to have crab mentality,” he said during last week’s visit here.


He said while the economic reforms were indeed in place and the economy has improved a lot, the common folk have yet to benefit from this.


“The economy can only be great if men on the streets can actually benefit from it,” he said.


He said during his years in the country, he learned to love Filipinos for their being “incredibly happy people.”


‘Dancing inmates’ thrill online viewers

By Jolene Bulambot
Last updated 05:44am (Mla time) 08/04/2007

CEBU CITY – Wearing orange uniforms, they dance and groove in unison to the musical beat, swaying their bodies and acting out parts like professional performers, and drawing applause from the crowd.


The 1,500 inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) not only entertained spectators and visitors but have also started gaining worldwide popularity through the Internet.


Mastering at least 10 movements, the “dancing inmates” have attracted fans, including those from international media outlets who have seen them perform on the CPDRC quadrangle at the YouTube website.


Their latest dance, “Thriller,” to the beat of a 1980s song popularized by Michael Jackson, has hit a significant mark with more than a million views since the video was posted last week. As of 10 p.m. on July 25, the viewers numbered 1,152,025.


The performance has also been nominated 6,820 times as a favorite and has a rating of 3,708.


Byron Garcia, Cebu provincial consultant on security, posted the video on YouTube on July 18. In the morning of July 20, “Thriller” had already gained 266,000 views. A few hours later, it went up to 400,000.




“It was remarkable. I was really surprised. I uploaded the video on Wednesday during my birthday and when I opened it on Friday, I saw the views reach hundreds of thousands,” Garcia said.


He said he was surprised when his sister, Gov. Gwen Garcia, called up from Ormoc City to tell that she saw CNN reporting about the inmates dancing in the Net. “She thought it was the algorithm or the Sister Act dance,” he said.


Aside from the 1,773 comments as of July 25, Garcia could not help but wonder why many people were amazed, considering that “Thriller” was not a final performance but a routine practice for a number on Aug. 1, the 438th founding anniversary of Cebu province.


The video has been consistently nominated as the most viewed, the top most-rated video, top favorite and several other categories, Garcia said.


He said he had been receiving many e-mails from international news organizations that wanted to interview him on the success of “Thriller.” They included Esquire Magazine’s editorial assistant Corey Sobel, US Today’s Janet Kornblum, ABC’s Kristin Pisarcik of New York City, Brazilian News’ Diego Assis and Russ Heller of Blender magazine.


A film agency, The Collective, which distributed “Fast and Furious,” “Monster Ball,” “Speed” and “Angels” movies, wants to buy “Thriller” should it gain five million views in a month’s time, he said.


Routine exercise


“I have e-mailed my response to Ryan Holliday of The Collective and I can’t really divulge what it is. As to the international media, I have been telling them that this is a new program, which I think is the first in the country that has been effective because the prisoners themselves voluntarily participate,” he said, adding: “We don’t use force to convince them to do their routine exercise.”


Garcia said the dance was part of the prisoners’ daily exercise under the jail’s rehabilitation program. The daily exercise starts as early as 6:30 a.m. and lasts until 8 a.m. It is repeated in the afternoon, from 4 to 5.


The program started in April last year when Garcia devised a plan to convince prisoners to attend the daily grind. Since the more conventional exercises were considered boring and dull, Garcia said he thought of introducing a new routine that would be entertaining and therapeutic.


“The prisoners now are so much different. Before, they were not disciplined. But now they have changed. Our programs included not just the routine exercise. Our livelihood programs proved to be very effective and many of the inmates are happy about what we are doing for them,” Garcia said.


The other dances they presented during the monthly celebrations at the facility included “In the Navy,” “YMCA,” “Nanggigigil Kami,” “Dayang-Dayang,” “Sister Act 1 and 2,” and the Algorithm march.


The last number also gained prominence in the YouTube, generating 414,000 views in eight months. Sister Act 1’s “I Will Follow You” had 43,000 views and Sister Act 2’s “Hail Holy Queen” had 45,000, Garcia said.


Vince Rosales, 27, a professional dancer and guitarist, has been the choreographer since last year. He was tapped by Garcia in April 2006.


At first, Rosales said he was reluctant to accept the job because he would not know how to convince the brusque prisoners to dance.


“I was really afraid but at the same time I was really challenged. I think that was the reason I accepted this very unusual job. I was so young at 26 [and]I have to face these people who have been charged with heinous crimes and worse I have to persuade them to dance. It was really nerve-wracking but I made it with Sir Byron’s help,” he said.


Tough adjustments


Rosales had to quit his dance group, Extreme Shock, and band to shift to a new career.


For the first two weeks in his new job, he had to make very tough adjustments but as the months proceeded, he learned to love the prisoners and they have learned to appreciate the therapeutic effect of dancing, he said.


The CPDRC is a multimillion-peso, highly sophisticated facility located in the mountain barangay of Kalunasan in Cebu City. Its main feature is its expensive security surveillance gadgets.


The Department of the Interior and Local Government in Central Visayas had already announced that it would recommend that the facility be recognized as one of the best-run local government facilities in the region.


The CPDRC also has a unique livelihood program, in which inmates are given a chance to earn by making exotic bags for export to Europe and the United States.


The inmates are self-sufficient. They sew and dye their own uniforms, make their own footwear, and sew linens for the district hospitals.


In order to save what they have earned, they were given passbooks so they can deposit and withdraw money through a local government-run cooperative.


“With our rehabilitation programs, we hope that we can give what is really due the prisoners. We should not condemn them but help them by providing venues to which they could be rehabilitated and be useful individuals once they get out. With the feedback we are receiving, we are more inspired to give more meaningful programs for the inmates,” Garcia said.

Broadband deal not needed — UP study

‘Gov’t has no core competence for project’

By Tony Bergonia

Last updated 02:18am (Mla time) 08/06/2007

MANILA, Philippines — The strongest argument against an $800-million plan to build two government-owned information technology (IT) backbones to create a Cyber Corridor is that there is no need for them, according to two professors at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE).


One of the projects is the $329-million national broadband network (NBN), while the other is the $460-million plan to build a satellite-based IT backbone for the Cyber Education Program (CEP).


Economics professors Raul V. Fabella, dean of the UPSE, and Emmanuel S. de Dios listed many reasons the government should not pursue the two projects at the risk of betraying the public interest. The biggest reason cited in the study: The government does not need to own one broadband backbone, much less two.


“The only backbone that the government needs today is a moral one,” Fabella and De Dios said in a paper titled “Lacking a backbone: The controversy over the National Broadband Network and Cyber-education projects,” which was released on Aug. 2.


The paper said one reason the two projects were likely to end up being just a waste of funds was that it was not in the government’s “core competence” to own, maintain and use an IT infrastructure separate from two that already exist — one owned by Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) and another owned jointly by PLDT’s competitors.


“From the 1990s … until recently, the government seems to have adhered to the concept of ‘core competence,’” the paper said.


It was a strategy that saw canteens, air transportation and power generation being run by private firms, instead of government agencies.


It was a strategy, the paper said, which resulted from lessons the government learned when it threw away hundreds of billions of pesos by generating and distributing electricity through National Power Corp.


“This strategy has clearly yielded more success,” said the paper.


“But the loan-powered versions of the NBN and the CEP require the government to abandon this painfully won strategy and resurrect the zombie of a government-run communications system,” it said.


Details of the $329-million NBN project that went to Chinese firm ZTE remain hazy, although the Department of Justice has ruled that the contract for it is legal.


Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and Yu Yong, ZTE vice president, signed the contract on April 21, in ceremonies witnessed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo shortly before the Philippine copy of the contract was stolen.


On the same day, Trade Secretary Peter Favila signed with Chinese authorities a $460-million deal to build a satellite-based backbone for the CEP on behalf of the Department of Education.


Both agreements were sealed in Boao, China.


More harm than good


While there was no question of the benefits of a broadband connection for the public schools and government offices, the government’s two biggest IT projects are likely to do more harm than good to public funds, and to the people, the paper said.


“It is essential to note that original government plans at no point envisioned a separate backbone to be financed, owned and operated by, and dedicated to the needs of the government,” it said.


“It was completely unexpected, therefore, … when this apparent resolve and consistency crumbled and the government reversed its direction.”


Not only did the government reverse itself, but the cost of the projects also ballooned from P5.1 billion to P19 billion for the NBN and from P5.2 billion to P24.6 billion for the CEP, according to the paper.


“The government has now incredibly ended up batting not just for one, but for two publicly owned government broadband backbones!” it said. “How has this happened?”


Defenders of the NBN said the project was like a gift being handed on a silver platter by the Chinese government to the Philippines so they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.


China’s motives


But the paper said a closer look at Chinese generosity would unmask the real motives for China’s eagerness to lend $329 million to the Philippines for the NBN.


“China’s newly discovered generosity is … neither strange nor totally unexpected,” it said. “That country is, after all, sitting on some $1.33 trillion of foreign exchange reserves.”


Generosity is easy to come by if one’s vault was starting to burst open with cash.


China, the paper said, was using loans “as a tool to simultaneously unload” its excess cash and to achieve another goal — entice indebted countries to import Chinese products to keep Chinese workers employed.


The excess cash won’t have to sleep anymore in Chinese government vaults but, in the case of the NBN contract, earn three percent annual interest as a result of the sovereign guarantee that assures payment whether or not the Philippine government benefits from the project.


ZTE also has IT projects in Liberia, Algeria, Ghana and Lesotho. The projects were all funded by loans from the Chinese government.


“But though one may justifiably raise eyebrows at the Chinese … it should really cause no surprise that they should be conscious of their country’s interests and seek to promote these avidly,” said Fabella’s and De Dios’ paper.


Trap of donor nations


“Instead, what should be surprising is if the Philippines and its leaders were sufficiently unaware of, or oblivious to, their country’s own interests to be caught in the trap of donor countries,” it said.


The paper said that while it was clear that hundreds of billions of pesos would pour into the NBN and CEP, their benefits in terms of pesos and centavos were not very clear. It said the government also appeared not to know exactly what it wanted to do with broadband technology, except to connect to the Internet as many government offices and public schools as possible.


No feasibility study


This, the paper said, was obvious from the start — there was no feasibility study made on the NBN project, in particular, because no lender wanted to finance it.


“To begin with, if the government seriously believed the NBN backbone was a vital project, then it ought first to have completed the preliminary work … of identifying the magnitude and urgency of the need, the technology and equipment required to fill it, and a ballpark figure for its cost,” the paper said.


“Since it did not set its own minimum conditions beforehand … the government effectively allowed bidders and loan pushers to write their own terms,” it said.


The paper did not identify who these bidders and loan pushers were, but the NBN project came about after telecommunications firm Amsterdam Holdings Inc. (AHI) sent an unsolicited proposal to build a broadband network with the government as its main, but not exclusive, client.


Shortly after AHI sent the proposal, US firm Arescom and ZTE came in with their own.


The AHI proposal apparently was driven by Ms Arroyo’s 2006 State of the Nation Address in which she identified the Cyber Corridor as one of her priority projects.


But to do this, the President needed full support from Congress, a goal that was then, and probably is now, not difficult to meet because the House of Representatives was under Ms Arroyo’s ally, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., whose son Jose III owns AHI.


Fabella and De Dios said the absence of a feasibility study led to confusion on the part of officials who were pushing for the NBN and the CEP, and those who had been vacillating.


“No common basis can … be laid for a comparison of options, since deliverable features will always vary with costs,” they said.


“This situation is as absurd as calling for a bid to supply government with ‘fruits in general,’” they added.


Turnaround artists


With government not knowing exactly what it wanted, “the technical upper hand is abdicated … to project proponents such as turnaround artists in unsolicited bids and ODA [official development assistance] merchants.”


The paper said the Philippine government should have learned its lessons from past, and ongoing, foreign-funded projects like the Light Rail Transit 1, Metro Rail Transit 2, MRT 3, the NorthRail and Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).


It said the absence of choices, as required by lenders and uncontested by debtors, “was why the rail gauges of the LRT 1, MRT 2 and MRT 3 are all different, and why the nonfunctional NAIA 3 is irrationally still in the heart of the metropolis.”


“The situation is pathetic in one sense since it vividly illustrates the adage about beggars not being choosers,” said the paper.


It said the fundamental IT problem that the government had to address was to find the “last-mile connectivity” to link government and public school computers — from as far north as Batanes to as far south as Tawi-Tawi — to the Internet.


But it said that simply building a backbone to serve as an invisible technological highway would not serve the purpose.


No links to final users


“In short, even as information highways might connect various islands, provinces, cities and indeed the world, there are few, or no links, connecting them to final users,” said the paper.


“It is as if expressways had been built but not the municipal or barangay roads that would connect people to such high speed lanes,” it said. “A related problem is, of course, few people own the ‘vehicles’ (read computers and peripherals) needed to travel such roads.”


What needs to be done, the paper said, is just for signals carried by fiber optics or wireless technology to reach the farthest of government computers.


“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” it said.


If the government wants to save on costs, the paper added, it simply could use its leverage as a “bulk buyer” to obtain lower rates from private telecommunications firms.


“For this, one does not need an NBN,” the paper said.


Proponents of the NBN had said during Cabinet meetings the project would save the government as much as 50 percent in telecommunications spending.


It was to be the NBN’s single biggest selling point, but nowhere in letters or transcripts of meetings discussing the project was it made clear how much in savings were to be realized from the project. Not one of its proponents had certain answers.


Why then pursue the project?


The paper said one reason could be “poor ethos” taking its toll.


“Just as a slave can get used to his chains and actually fear freedom, it is said that poor countries cannot afford to be rich,” said the paper. “That is, poor countries are too engrossed in the ‘poor ethos’ and find it difficult to escape from it.”


“Their short-term horizons prevent them from discerning the large future payoffs of postponing consumption. Thus, they tend to splurge today … poor nations are poor because they cannot handle affluence,” the paper said.


Irrational shopping binge


“If a credit line prompts an irrational shopping binge, that is a sure sign of the poor ethos in action. That person is destined for bankruptcy,” Fabella and De Dios said.


Another reason that could be driving the Arroyo administration into pursuing these two costly projects, according to the paper, was its newfound confidence in fiscal reforms and the increase in revenue that these brought.


“But more revenues make sense only if additional resources are spent judiciously and effectively,” said the paper.


“Unfortunately, many in the political establishment have taken these promising numbers as a license for them to take what they believe is their well-deserved share,” it said.

Central bank monetary policy seen too tight

Economist says this may drag down economic growth

By Michelle Remo
Last updated 07:37pm (Mla time) 08/05/2007

THE SURPRISING 6.9-percent economic growth in the first quarter, which officials said was a proof the Philippines was no longer a laggard in Asia, is unlikely to be sustained if the Philippine bank would stick to its tight monetary policy.


Victor Abola, economist from the University of Asia & the Pacific, said that the current policy stance of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) was not conducive to boosting the growth of the economy.


In a study presented to the media last week, Abola said the slowdown of the inflation to below-target levels might drag down economic growth and lead to loss of jobs in the short to medium term.


Instead of keeping its key policy rate at 6 percent, Abola said the BSP should slash this to 4 percent to create more room for growth. He said there was no reason for keeping a tight monetary policy when inflation has already gone down way below the target.


The economist said that while low inflation was normally desirable, as it was expected to encourage consumption and influence higher growth, consciously bringing it down to very low levels would result in lower economic output and higher incidence of unemployment.


Abola said the central bank’s tight monetary policy had already pulled down the inflation rate to only 2.6 percent in the first half, lower than the official target of 4 to 5 percent for the entire year.


In his study, Abola said that by average, a one-percentage-point drop in inflation rate would lead to a decline in the gross domestic product by 0.64 percent to 2.41 percent. A 0.64-percent drop in the GDP results in the loss of 89,000 to 159,000 jobs. Taking the high end, he added, a 2.41-percent drop in GDP would trim down the number of jobs by 329,000 to 600,000.


He further explained that inflation and economic growth had a direct relationship, meaning lower growth was normally associated with lower inflation. “This is because inflation is directly affected by demand for goods and services, and that slowdown in aggregate demand drags down overall economic growth.”


Abola said there should, therefore, be a right policy mix that would keep inflation within tolerable levels while achieving a desirable level of economic growth.


“It seems like the BSP is putting too much weight on lowering inflation and zero weight on boosting output. Keeping inflation low is a good thing but it is not the only important thing,” Abola said.


As stated under the Arroyo administration’s economic targets for the year, inflation is targeted to stay within 4 to 5 percent while GDP growth is targeted to reach between 6.1 and 6.7 percent.


Abola said monetary policy should loosen up if the government wanted the 6.9-percent growth sustained.


The BSP has refrained from easing its policy stance especially since growth in money supply had been reaching uncomfortable levels. The year-on-year growth in money supply was recorded at more than 20 percent in May. The rate eased to 19.4 percent in June.


According to the BSP, money supply growth of beyond 20 percent put the government’s inflation targets at risk of being breached.

Bills on income tax, subsidy cuts pushed

By Michelle Remo
Last updated 05:18pm (Mla time) 08/05/2007

BILLS THAT will simplify the income tax system and cut subsidies to industry are expected to be discussed when Cabinet officials and lawmakers meet this week to decide on the priorities for the 14th Congress.


Finance undersecretary Gil Beltran, who will attend Tuesday’s meeting in Malacañang, said the government was hoping Congress would adopt the proposed simplified net income tax system (SNITS) and the rationalization of fiscal incentives.


Under the SNITS plan, professionals and self-employed individuals will have the option of deducting a uniform rate of 40 percent from their gross income to determine their taxable income.


This will simplify the current system that requires the self-employed to compute allowable deductions, such as expenses related to operation of a business, to arrive at their taxable income. The tedious process of computing discourages some from religiously pay their taxes, finance officials have said.


It is also under the SNITS that the Department of Finance (DoF) wants minimum wage earners exempted from the income tax. The DoF said that although this will result in lost potential revenues for the government, the amount would only be minimal at about P500 million a year.


The DoF had said this was something the government could afford if it wanted to ease the burden of rising oil prices and the higher value-added tax on low-income earners.


The rationalization of fiscal incentives, on the other hand, is a measure aimed at lifting tax and duty exemptions enjoyed by some business sectors. The DoF said the government should be giving fiscal incentives only to exporters, who contribute to the country’s foreign currency reserves, or industries that are in the infancy stage.


The DoF said that the government loses close to P300 billion in potential revenues every year to the grant of fiscal incentives to various industries.


The National Economic and Development Authority earlier said it was working for a bill that would require the national government to fund political parties.


NEDA Director General Romulo Neri said the objective was to prevent political parties from seeking financing from sectors that have vested interests.


“The executive and legislative should consult each other on what bills to push. On the part of the Cabinet, it will be useless to advocate for bills if these are not the ones prioritized by Congress,” said Beltran.


Beltran said it was prudent for legislators to know the objectives of the measures being pushed by the Arroyo administration. Harmonizing the objectives of the two branches of government was necessary so that time and effort to legislate a law would not be wasted on debates, he said.


Legislators expected to be present during the meeting of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Committee are Senator Francis Escudero III, chairman of the ways and means committee, and Rep. Exequiel Javier, chairman of the same committee in the House.

Inquirer writers

winner.jpgTOP WINNERS. Inquirer writers Volt Contreras (second from left), Gerry Lirio, Connie Fernandez and Fe Zamora show off their Louie R. Prieto Award trophies during ceremonies at the newspaper’s office in Makati. With them are Inquirer chair Marixi Prieto (left) and Chinit Rufino (right). INQUIRER/RUDY ESPERAS


faces.jpgFACES VS TERROR. Women delegates from the International Solidarity Affairs and Gabriela express solidarity with Basilan’s Moro women who fear the consequences of an all-out war in the province. INQUIRER/RUDY ESPERAS