By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
and Beatriz Marie D. Cruz
POLITICAL analysts on Monday criticized Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s alleged lack of transparency about his trip to Davos this week, which they said bodes ill for efforts to attract foreign investors.
His five-day visit to Switzerland for the World Economic Forum (WEF) raises more questions than answers, they said, after the presidential palace was accused of hiding the size of his delegation. News website VERA Files reported that at least 70 people accompanied him on his trip.
“By not being completely transparent about his activities including his trip to Davos, he is disrespecting the Constitution, the country’s laws and the public to whom he is accountable,” Maria Ela L. Atienza, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
“No matter how the government tries to invite investors to the country, the lack of transparency, as well as the perceived state of politics, governance and corruption in the country does not invite confidence,” she added.
Carol Claudio, the executive assistant of Presidential Communications Office chief Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil, did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.
Junkets with a large delegation are not new, said Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher, noting that many dictators in Africa have been attending global fora “at taxpayers’ expense, with the promise that the junket is supposed to result in trade deals for the country.”
“If they can’t demonstrate with good faith why 70 people need to be there, questions and criticisms of the costs of travel and personnel are warranted,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
VERA Files on Jan. 13 reported that Philippine delegates had a hard time finding hotel rooms in Davos, prompting them to turn to the nearest city, Zurich, which is considered as the seventh most expensive place to live in Europe.
“The choices are the Hyatt hotels in town of which there are three: Park Hyatt Zurich (5-star, P39,040 standard rate per night), Hyatt Place Zurich Airport The Circle (4-star, P9,997 standard rate) and Hyatt Regency Zurich Airport The Circle (4-star, P11,182 standard rate),” according to the website. “For a huge delegation from a poverty-stricken nation, that is no peanuts.”
“Investors who prioritize careful or transparent investments are likely to see red flags in the Marcos delegation,” Mr. Juliano said.
However, investors who want to engage in “predatory” or nontransparent business practices would see this “as the kind of government that will protect them, at whatever economic cost to the Filipino taxpayer,” he added. “Like attracts like, after all.”
Leonardo A. Lanzona, who teaches economics at the Ateneo De Manila University, said the lack of transparency is “indicative of the absence of ideas” on the part of the Marcos leadership.
“I have not heard of any proposed global initiative from the president,” he said in a Messenger chat. “So why is he going there in the first place?”
Mr. Lanzona said the World Economic Forum’s main objective is to “address and discuss critical global issues, not to finalize and obtain investment pledges.” “The government seems to be more concerned about its own costly travel preferences than the needs of the country.”
On Sunday, Mr. Marcos said he would seek out potential partners for his agriculture and infrastructure push.
Critics have said his appearance at Davos needs to be viewed as a reputation-building exercise rather than a realistic play for investment.
In 2003, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled the Marcos family had illegally acquired P25 billion worth of assets, which were kept in various Swiss bank accounts.
Switzerland is the eighth country that Mr. Marcos visited since he took office in June. The others are Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, Cambodia, Thailand, Belgium and China.
“What makes sense to me at least is the fact that they will be coupling the World Economic Forum travel with visiting communities of overseas Filipino workers (OFW),” Mr. Juliano said. “Considering OFW communities have been a sizable constituency for the Duterte-Marcos alliance since 2016, it does make sense that Marcos is showing himself off there to reinforce the constituencies.”
“This may be once again not about actual economic policy but constituency-building for Marcos, consistent with the kind of politics he espouses,” he added.
More than 2,500 people had registered for the event as of Jan. 10, including state leaders, businessmen, royalty, media honchos and academics, according to a Jan. 15 report by Quartz. “There are hundreds more participating on the sidelines, whether organizing, catering or attending corporate events along the promenade that cuts through the center of Davos,” it said.
Scholars from Germany’s University of Gotinggen, University of California, the National University of Singapore and Kiel Institute for the World Economy in a 2019 report said WEF meetings in 2009 to 2018 had been “dominated by high-income countries.”
“While the number of attendees from low- and middle-income countries has increased from 454 in 2009 to 712 in 2018, the share of attendees from this country group is stagnating.”
“Consistent with previous reports, there’s not always much tangible economic incentive for developing economies’ participation in the WEF,” Mr. Juliano said. “More often than not, they only tend to reinforce their pecking order with global capital.
The global forum has also enabled global inequality because it has been used by high-income countries to pursue unequal trade relations, he added. “What usually happens is a developing country is the one adjusting to the economic demands of rich countries — not them providing equal footing trade agreements with smaller economies.”
George N. Manzano, an economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific, said the Davos forum is “an event for those who want to see and be seen with influential people.”
“President Marcos’ attendance could raise the profile of the Philippines and pitch the investment attractiveness of the country,” he said in a text message. “Given the changes in the Philippines’ investment rules, the president can pitch infrastructure projects as well as manufacturing for companies willing to divest from China.”
Members of the Board of Investments and Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) are part of the Marcos delegation.
In a statement, PEZA said the Philippine delegation had bilateral talks with the Swiss government on trade and investments.
The two sides exchanged views on their domestic economic situation, discussed bilateral relations and touched on the free trade agreement between the Philippines and European Union, the agency said.
There are 60 Swiss companies operating in the Philippines, 28 of which are registered with PEZA as export-oriented IT and manufacturing enterprises, PEZA said. These Swiss locators have generated P19.168 billion in cumulative investments and created more than 8,000 jobs, it added.
Also on Monday, congressmen defended Mr. Marcos from criticisms about his foreign trips, noting that the president is the “architect of foreign policy.”
“At this rate, I cannot say that this is excessive,” San Jose Del Monte Rep. Florida P. Robes told BusinessWorld in a Viber message.
“The Philippines cannot afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world,” she said. “What we need now is to strengthen our position and presence in the world stage so that we can attract the needed investments and foreign relations to secure our economy and patrimony.”
Albay Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda said the president’s big delegation to Davos was justified, calling his trip “multi-purpose.” “If he believes that the country is best served by a foreign policy that emphasizes face-to-face and personal relationships, let him,” he said in a text message.
But Party-list Rep. France L. Castro questioned the practicality of Mr. Marcos’s trips. “While I understand that these trips can be beneficial to our country in terms of economic and diplomatic relations, it is important to consider the cost-benefit analysis and ensure that the resources allocated for these trips are being used in the most efficient and effective way possible,” she said in a Viber message.
Ms. Castro called for transparency and accountability on the use of public funds in the president’s trips.