LGUs to play big role in ASEAN integration
MANILA, Philippines – The national government highlights the important role that the local government units (LGUs) will play as the Philippines join neighboring countries in the ASEAN Economic Community later this year.
In a conference on local governance on Thursday, February 12, governance experts and officials from various national agencies claim that while discussions and agreements happen on the national level, the LGUs should also keep an eye on it.
The ASEAN integration will feature free trade between the member-countries by 2015. Products and services will have a single market and production base in the region, and trading will also have a freer flow in the region.
Cielito Habito, head of the USAID Trade-Related Assistance for Development Project, said that the integration is a chance for LGUs to promote themselves and improve their competitiveness. "Taking advantage of the opportunities in the ASEAN integration lies on the local executives," he said.
He added that the integration provides a good venue for LGUs to share their good practices with other areas. "I see a great value in providing for opportunities for LGUs to come together to discuss concerns of interest. They should look for each other's problems and share stories of success," he said.
But Interior and Local Government undersecretary Austere Panadero said that local officials have to ensure that their localities are competitive enough to fully enjoy the economic integration.
"There might be sectors left behind. That is the challenge to LGUs," he said.
Focus on agriculture, SMEs
According to the panelists, investing on our local products is one way LGUs can keep up with the economic integration.
Most LGUs mainly depend on agriculture as its primary livelihood, so Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries (PCCI) chief Donald Dee suggested maximizing this sector in able for LGUs to become competitive.
"When you go to the local level, understand that we're talking agriculture. What are the indigenous products we can bring to the international market? Identify what our products are per LGU," he said.
Apart from agriculture, Trade Undersecretary Zenaida Cuison-Maglaya also advised maximizing the proliferation of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in various parts of the country.
"Our SMEs consist of 99.6% of all companies in the Philippines. If they won't be assisted, it's a loss for our country," she said.
Habito added that these SMEs should cluster together, and local officials "should be instrumental in banking businesses together."
President Benigno Aquino III earlier said that SMEs are indeed the key to the economic integration.
Daniel Espiritu, director of the ASEAN Political Security Community of the Department of Finance, said the LGUs should work with national agencies to address the needs of other sectors like infrastructure and education.
"National agencies have their branches in local areas. A great part of work will be done [by the national level] but local officials should assist," he said.
But empowering the LGUs through decentralization is seen as a more effective step in addressing the problems on various sectors in the local level. Under the Local Government Code of 1991, the national government is supposed to devolve certain functions and powers to LGUs to enable them to address specific needs in their areas.
Various groups earlier claim that the government should first address problems on various sectors to fully prepare the country for the integration.
Bohol Governor Edgardo Chatto said this devolution "recognizes leadership of local officials and strength of the administrative capability of local governments."
"Effectivity of services is clearly observed as we move to give more power to local level. Decentralization is, no doubt, powerful enough to support to meet needs," Chatto added.
Guidance for officials
Espiritu added that local officials have to be well-educated with how the ASEAN integration will work and how it will affect LGUs. "We have to make sure that bureaucrats in the local level have a sense of urgency in what they're doing," he said.
But local officials claim they would be needing more beyond simple information dissemination.
South Cotabato Governor Daisy Avance-Fuentes shared during the conference that they were already exposed to various meetings to discuss the ASEAN integration, yet they are still left unguided of what specifically should be done.
"In LGUs, we're not economists. Give us a road map. Tell us, and we'll try to do that," she said.
Chatto, on the other hand, expressed that "there should be guidance in commonality of direction to where [LGUs will be] best.
Panadero admitted that they still can't define definite steps for LGUs to partake. "But what I know is that we need to support each other," he said.
Panadero added that plans for an ASEAN desk will be revived to assist in LGU consultation. – Rappler.com