Death march by design | Inquirer Opinion

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Edward Yourdon (“Death March,” 2nd Edition, Prentice-Hall, 2003) tells us that a “death march” project is a project whose schedule is so compressed (trying to do a project in half of the time realistically required), and/or whose budget or human resource are so constrained (half of what is realistically required). Death march projects are designed to fail. Death marches are arguably the default design of government projects contracted to the private sector, where “tongpats” (kickbacks) are built in. The main wonder is that the government when it comes up with the budget, does the same to itself.

Several death marches have been designed into the national budget for 2023. This budget, at P5.27 trillion, is almost 5 percent higher than the 2022 budget. This 2023 budget is supposed to prioritize education, infrastructure development, health, agriculture, and social safety nets. The ambitious end-of-term target of the Marcos Jr. administration is a single-digit poverty rate of 9.0, achieved through a 6.5 to 8.0 percent gross domestic product (GDP) annual growth from 2023 to 2028.The biggest death march designed into the budget is the almost 30 percent (P1.35 trillion) portion that cannot be deployed—it will go to debt servicing on the government’s debt of P14.63 trillion. But let’s look at the death marches in education and agriculture over which President Marcos Jr. and Vice President Sara Duterte have taken direct responsibility.

The second is the agriculture death march. The budget of the agriculture sector (Department of Agriculture, attached corporations, and the Department of Agrarian Reform) gets a P184.1 billion budget, a 39.2 percent increase from its 2022 budget. Some P29.5 billion or 16 percent of this budget goes to irrigation services, just one of the critical inputs. Will this budget “invigorate and transform this sector from an economic laggard to one of the main drivers for growth and employment”?

The Philippine population expands at a rate of 1.4 percent (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2019), while the agriculture sector grew only by half a percent in late 2020. Food and energy shortages are now driven by domestic and international factors. The sector needs surgery, not palliatives. One critical surgical procedure is to bring farm sizes to 25 hectares from the current 1-3 hectares. Such land consolidation through creative ownership and management arrangements is key to technological innovation in infrastructure and mechanization that leads to an industrialized agriculture sector. This requires the championship of Mr. Marcos and a national policy and investment framework. It cannot be done piecemeal by farmers and entrepreneurs.

The third is education death march. The education sector, inclusive of the Department of Education (DepEd), state universities and colleges, the Commission on Higher Education, and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority will get only P852.8 billion. ACT party list Rep. France Castro thinks this should be P1.3 trillion, or 6 percent of GDP as suggested by the United Nations. The education budget will only be P710.6 billion, or only 83 percent of the DepEd request, or only 66 percent of what is adequate. Unfortunately, the brouhaha over the Vice President’s claim to confidential funds may have robbed legitimacy from the education sector’s claim to greater resources.

The DepEd proposed an P86.5 billion budget for 2023 for the construction of 34,552 classrooms in the poorest first- to sixth-class municipalities (an average of P2.47 million per classroom factoring in sites and services). This is only 38 percent of the current 91,000 classroom shortage. The Department of Budget and Management, however, only “approved” P5.9 billion for classroom construction in 2023. This is good for only 2,384 classrooms this year, or only 2.6 percent of the shortage.

As a result of government subsidies and pay increases in public schools, irreparable damage is happening to the private education sector that has helped bring education to Filipinos through decades. No less than 425 private elementary and high schools have closed since 2020, affecting 20,838 students. This hemorrhage will continue until addressed adequately through policy and systems innovations, such as the inclusion of private schools in the tuition voucher system, to enable them to retain a sustainable share of enrollment.

Where durations are not fatally compressed or logistics are not fatally constrained, the only way for the program to succeed is for the entire team to work “16 hours a day.” I thought Mr. Marcos’ promise and call for “unity” would translate into teamwork over double shifts. What we see is slack on top of death march designs. The Marcos Jr. management playing team is still incomplete, suffering early foul calls, and hobbled with debilitating substitutions.

What can be done? Mr. Marcos has the ball and needs to shift into resurrection mode, and fast.

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