Do it now

By: Peter Wallace - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | November 14,2022 - 09:06 AM

The three most important sectors of a society are those that feed people, keep them healthy, and educate them to be able to have a meaningful life. Yet these are the three sectors where President Marcos Jr. has yet not followed his admirable appointment history of appointing known experts to lead the various sectors of society.

Mind you, the appointment of Vice President Sara Duterte has some merit—given her political power, she can get things done. She can successfully argue for the vastly greater levels of funds education needs, convince Congress to pass laws needed to improve education and modernize the administration of education given her experience as mayor for six years and vice mayor for three years.

But in addressing the details of educating kids, she needs expert help. This means undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of proven expertise. I could be wrong, but as far as I can see, none of the seven undersecretaries have an advanced degree in education, nor the long years of experience working in the sector that is needed to be able to fully understand its problems, hopefully, know what’s needed to fix them.

Whilst only three of the seven assistant secretaries have an educational background. Mind you, they all are highly experienced, but in other fields. That must bring into serious doubt the ability to solve education’s numerous problems.

The Philippines devotes $777-$813 for the education of each child. This is the fourth lowest in Southeast Asia. The best, of course, is Singapore where the government spends $16,704-$20,632 per child. Other members of Asean-5 spend between $1,068 and $6,024. We give our teachers a miserable $623 monthly salary. Needless to say, that’s second to the lowest amongst Asean-5 where the average is $1,695. Giving kids a properly equipped, secure classroom wouldn’t hurt either. These are three areas where the VP can make an immediate, direct improvement. Beyond that, she needs expert advice. Given the way the department is now structured, I wonder if she’ll be able to get it.

Then there’s agriculture. News reports say the President visited the head office twice in the past four months where daily 12-hour attendance is what’s really needed. I agree with him that growing food is of utmost importance. But that is best done by delegating the task to a highly experienced agriculturist. Someone who intimately knows the multiplicity of the problems this sector faces. And who can work actively, daily to implement the essential changes that must happen if we’re to feed our people. The President can stand over him/her to demand rapid, well-reasoned results.

President after president has promised a total reform of agriculture to one that is competitive in the world, or at least in Asia, and provides food security. None has done it. The sector remains as inefficient as it has always been. With the minimalization of farm size forced by the ill-considered agrarian reform, I suspect it is even more inefficient now. Absurdly high tariffs are needed to protect this inefficiency. The Filipino consumer suffers from the consequent unnecessarily high prices.

As to health, the call is almost universal for the immediate appointment of a secretary. I can’t find anyone who thinks it’s an appointment that can wait. I’d like to hope the President was misquoted when he said he’d wait till things normalize before making the appointment. When a situation is in flux, facing many problems, that is the time when you most need a full-time, highly experienced (a phrase that should dominate the President’s thinking) person in charge. Maria Rosario Vergeire for me would be a good choice, but she doesn’t want it.

If the President is finding it difficult to find a doctor competent for the job, he might want to consider widening his search into the business community. Many, if most of the problems in health, are organizational in nature, i.e., improvements in systems, reorganizing and digitalizing the whole operation, including all its agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), etc. These problems are not medical. For medical advice, the secretary can turn to Vergeire for that expert advice, and to the other undersecretaries if they are equally well-chosen. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find out if they were, or not. Only a few of the educational backgrounds were mentioned in the CVs issued by the department.

The Department of Health is in disarray. Like agriculture, its problems have been with us for decades and have not been sufficiently addressed. As it now stands, the much-needed changes can’t happen because an officer in charge does not have the legal authority to make the needed major changes. She can only hold the fort, a fort that needs to be rebuilt—and rapidly. Tied into this is the appointment of a new president and chief executive officer of PhilHealth, the arm that covers the ever-so-important funding of universal health care. It, too, requires a major shake-up. One that can’t be done whilst a full-time CEO is lacking.

I appeal to the President to fill these two ever-so-important vacancies with urgency. And take another look at providing the necessary expertise in the top leadership positions in all three departments. The time to decide and act is now.

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