Thu, 09 Feb 2023

THE GLOBE-trotting president strikes again, this time in the wintry mountain town of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In November last year at the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, the Office of the Press Secretary announced that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had been invited to the event by WEF founder Klaus Schwab. Marcos at the time said he was undecided about the invitation, as it would entail "travelling too much" after his scheduled state visit to China in early January.

Having already made six international trips in his first six months in office, the president eventually decided that Davos would be a good place for him to promote the country, its economic initiatives-particularly the Maharlika investment fund- and to attract more investors. This was the agenda he described in his departure message to the media on January 15. The WEF was scheduled for January 16-20.

Unfortunately for the President, there are many Filipinos who know enough of the Marcos history to link Switzerland to yet another controversial concern. Brady Eviota, a Bern-based Filipino columnist for MindaNews, discussed the Swiss bank accounts of the Marcos family. Eviota recalled that the money remained hidden until 1987, when the bank accounts were frozen by Swiss authorities. In 1997, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court ordered the money's return to the Philippine government through an escrow agreement.

Some journalists did ask about this issue, reviving this public concern in their coverage of the trip. Carlos Sorreta, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, said in a pre-departure press briefing that it won't be an issue, saying the two countries have established a clear framework for legal cooperation. Asked whether Marcos would withdraw from the Swiss accounts, Sorreta answered, "It's hard to comment on that."

Junket

It did not help that social media posts circulated saying the President's sister, Irene Marcos-Araneta, was also traveling as a member of the Philippine delegation to Davos. Antonio Montalvan in his Vera Files op-ed last month said Irene is the family's "treasurer," referring to her reported attempts to transfer money from Swiss accounts to banks based in other European countries. But so far, media have not confirmed whether Marcos-Araneta traveled to Davos or not; and Palace officials have not denied the rumor.

The Palace has been similarly vague about the size of the Philippine delegation, or how much this trip is costing the country. Citing Filipinos in Switzerland who are closely following the event, Montalvan said there were at least 70, including private individuals and businessmen. After three days without information about the contingent, Press Secretary Cheloy Garafil on January 19 told Manila-based reporters covering the President in Davos that only 11 persons were officially registered for the WEF events. Secretaries Alfredo Pascual, Arsenio Balisacan and Benjamin Diokno confirmed the number to the press.

But the list that the Presidential Communications Office provided contained 17 names, including Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Senator Mark Villar and other members of the Cabinet including three undersecretaries. With these various references, media did not get official confirmation about the number traveling with the President; whose travel to and stay in Davos was on personal or official expense, and who were traveling for personal or official purposes.

Rappler did name members of the Marcos family present, including First Lady Liza Marcos; presidential son and Ilocos Norte Representative Sandro; House Speaker Martin Romualdez and his wife, Tingog Party-list Representative Yedda Romualdez. Rappler's Bea Cupin correctly noted that these family members had also joined past trips of the President.

BusinessWorld cited analysts who said the lack of transparency about the Davos trip does not enhance BBM's efforts to attract foreign investors. Hansley Juliano, a political economy researcher, told BusinessWorld that such secrecy can appeal only to investors who want to engage in "predatory" business practices. These investors would feel protected dealing with a government that operates without transparency.

PH as investment hub?

The Marcos government has been drumming up the campaign to make the Philippines an investment destination. Filipino journalists reporting on the WEF have not examined the prospects of this plan. Similarly, news accounts did not discuss the insistence of the government in promoting the Maharlika Investment Fund.

Speaking in public affairs programs and in columns, economists and analysts from across the political spectrum found BBM's attendance at the WEF unjustifiable, especially since there was no real guarantee that Marcos would take home investments.

Ernesto Pernia and Winnie Monsod, both former Socioeconomic Planning secretaries and Terry Ridon, convenor of think-tank Infrawatch, all felt that the WEF is the wrong venue to promote the country as an investment hub. Pernia said the repetitive message of the country's being investment-worthy is already a "hard-sell" that might scare private investors away; while Monsod said the promotions could have been held alternatively online. In another interview on CNN Philippines, Monsod said that the twenty people who attended the session "looked bored" listening to Marcos. Monsod also said the WEF is not a government entity that warranted an official delegation coming in full-force.

Ridon agreed with this point, saying that the WEF is not the United Nations or ASEAN where bilateral or multilateral talks are expected to result in real investments or other commitments. He added that if Marcos wanted to rally European commitments to the country, he could have done so during the European Union-ASEAN Summit which he attended in Belgium last month.

As for the Maharlika fund, Pernia and Rappler columnist JC Punongbayan agreed that it was inappropriate to promote it in the forum as the Fund has yet to be fully implemented. Punongbayan added that there was nothing to brag about it since the country has no seed money for it to begin with.

Political analyst Richard Heydarian and economist Sonny Africa both said the investment "pledges" that Marcos have announced so far, particularly those from his China visit, might only be repackaged versions of those offered to former President Duterte, which were in fact largely unfulfilled. Both agreed that overseas trips do not guarantee investments; that other factors such as the overall condition of the business environment, good infrastructure and political stability, serve as the major considerations for interested parties. Pointing to a significant contrast, Heydarian wrote that Vietnam's top leader rarely travels, but that country is now a top investment destination.

BusinessWorld also cited an international study that found there is little economic incentive for developing nations to participate in the WEF, since the forum is dominated by developed countries. Juliano said the forum has in fact enabled inequality: "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."

The sources above also agreed that economic problems at home, including inflation and the food crisis, require the urgent attention of the President and concurrent Agriculture Secretary.

In his Manila Bulletin column, Diwa Guinigundo, former Deputy Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, referred to the article "Davos: Where journalism is PR and change is consumer choice." The article said the WEF is "not improving the state of the world," and that media is partly at fault as "automated content analysis of media coverage over 10 years shows its drift towards the forum's official narrative. Presentations during the week-long forum that are more provocative and contrarian rarely receive enough mileage."

Sadly, Philippine media share the blame, as they seem stuck with the government narrative about the Davos trip, unable to question, probe or provide information that will help Filipinos evaluate the President's policy decisions and his penchant for travel.

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