Eastern Visayas, long time unnoticed

I knew it was too good to be true, having the entire place to myself. The hotel room was actually more like a condotel’s: two bedrooms with own T/B, living room, dining area, kitchenette, and even a laundry area. Evening, I was already in my lounge wear, revelling in live TV shows, when a young woman was shown inside. Earlier, my contact from her office had informed me that rooms in the City are limited, the surviving hotels and better buildings having been snapped up by aid agencies for their offices and base camps. I guess it was a kind way of saying, sorry, but you have to share space at this time. I’m OK with that although the young woman and I both were caught off guard by each other’s presence inside the room.

After placing her bags in the other bedroom, she came to sit in the living room. We made small talk and I learned that her family’s from Eastern Samar. I asked whether her family was in any way affected by the typhoon and she said, thank god, they were among those who were not. That started us off on the topic of Eastern Samar. I asked if the road from the City to there had already been repaired and she said, god, no, it’s the same same. Know what, she went on, after seeing GenSan I’m wondering how come Eastern Samar’s still a sleepy place. I gave her a nod. I’ve been to the area a few times and I can relate to that. Then it struck me that this was because there were little or no external investments going in and I told her this. She thought about this a while after which she said she agrees and she wished there would be more investments going into her hometown.

External investments these days are pouring into Mindanao, in relatively secure places like GenSan. In the Visayas, capital from Metropolitan Manila is concentrated in areas like Bacolod and Iloilo. The Samar group of islands (including Southern Leyte) has somehow slipped the notice of capital. The economies of these localities are largely traditional and outward directed: copra and associated manual labor, fishing, logging (mostly illegal), farming which isn’t even wide scale, small to medium scale mining, and manufacturing. Such industries have not reached economies of scale as to have significant impact on households. Inventories of downtown shops are still at the basic level (many a times I needed to buy new clothes because I needed to extend my stay but the kind of clothes I’d liked to have weren’t selling. I’d come to know the layout of the downtown area just from searching for clothes. I usually end up buying whatever’s on display at the last dress shop, having ran out of options.). But, put up a major BPO in the area, and in no time it’ll become a boom town, more sophisticated in tastes, not to mention effectively slowing the outflow of college-educated young people to Metropolitan Manila.

The Eastern Visayas Region remains in the top three poorest regions in the country. Similar to the situation in CAR, growth within the region is unequal, highly concentrated in the regional capital, Tacloban City, with no significant capital investments in the rest of the Region. Before BPOs decide to locate their offices in any of the Samar provinces, they will have to look at policies and support infrastructures: roads, utilities and other services, land tenureship, etc., critical to their kind of business. The provincial capitals of these areas while designated by the NSO as urban areas, having fulfilled requisites in population and some other elements, are not urban in the real meaning of the concept. These centers lack the essential and necessary infrastructures and services and so called ‘urban’ vitality and vibe.

The Region already has a good regional development plan. There is even an accompanying spatial strategy. The RDC, in fact, all the RDCs, because it owns and has initiated this process should take the lead as to how to bring about the planned and approved spatial strategy. One factor that keeps LCEs and legislative councils from delivering on their level relative to the plan and strategy is their lack of comprehension of what spatial planning is in the first place. Like myself, if I hadn’t taken up urban management, what the f do I know about spatial planning (or, even land use planning)? It is a highly technical concept and decisionmakers have little if without time to turn to textbooks during real time decision making. The RDCs, because they have introduced the concept, are accountable to the LGUs in this.

Another is the lack of sound economic and fiscal strategies for the Region. It was in the news that the Region needed PHP91B in order to realize it’s plan and that actual regional output was below the target. In this particular scenario what were strategies in place to, say, open up the regional economy, and to produce it’s share in investments? What plans are in place to realize the target in, say, ecotourism? Policies, infrastructures, services, stimulation packages, incentives system, etc. But how exactly to bring in the money to build? The situation is that Regions are not yet at that level of economic and fiscal sophistication. Regardless the LGU Code basically tells LGUs, the Region, that it is also a corporate body hence try to have an income base independent of shares from the national government. Then, of course, here, we’ve not even included good governance.

Also, NEDA has a hand in defining PPPs and in the context of regional development, it needs to rationalize projects of this arrangement vis-a-vis issues, plans, and priorities of the regions toward a more equitable spatial distribution of national investments. Eastern Visayas, particularly the Samar group of islands has gone unnoticed for quite a long time already.

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