Construction, and alleged corruption, in the Philippines

MANILA — To call them potholes would be an understatement.

They’re more like craters, portions of the highway that seem to have imploded, eating up more than half of the road’s width. And for many years, they were the bane of the residents of Samar, a province in the central Philippines that is also one of the poorest in the country.

For these mostly impoverished Filipinos who live practically a few feet from the highway, the road was the center of their universe. It was where they congregated after a hard day’s work on the farm. They would drink liquor by the roadside, mingling with fellow farmers. The children would play on the highway, too, unmindful of the peril posed by trucks and other vehicles.

More importantly, the highway — part of the longest highway network in the eastern Philippines, which connects the three main islands of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao — had helped the folks of Samar survive. They used the pavement to dry their crops under the sun— mainly rice, corn and copra, or coconut meat, which is used for making oil.

So as the highway deteriorated over the years, the residents of Samar became as destitute as the road that had nurtured them for decades.

“Samar could no longer bear the condition of the national highway as it is full of potholes that traveling by land in the province is hazardous and a great burden for the commuting public,” stated a manifesto, which was written by officials from several villages in the province in February. “Concerned offices do not care about the agony of the riding public and the communities directly affected because of these roads.”

There had been countless theories offered as to why the highway in Samar – which runs from Calbayog City in the north down to the town of Calbiga — was in terrible shape.  The cement used was inferior in quality. The contractor scrimped on supplies. The provincial government simply didn’t care. And so on.

And then there’s corruption. Indeed, many now say that Samar’s problem with its roads and highways reflects the larger problem of corruption in the Philippines. It is a problem that the World Bank, which finances multimillion-dollar development and infrastructure projects here, is particularly concerned about.

In January the World Bank, in a controversial move, sanctioned seven contractors. The sanctions were allegedly due to “collusive practices” in a major project to upgrade and rehabilitate 870 miles of the country’s highway network, including Samar. The first phase of the project, which is nearing completion, was financed partly through a $150 million loan from the bank.

As various investigations in the past have shown, corruption in the Philippines is rampant.

“Misuse of public money is a problem for everyone. It deprives the poorest people of the development funds that are so vitally needed and it undermines public confidence in public and private institutions,” James Adams, the bank’s vice president for East Asia, said in January.

But the construction, and the alleged corruption, continues. These days, farmers in Samar can be seen gathering by the roadside. Children are back playing, many of them sprinting along the highway as they head home from school. Rice grains are neatly spread on blue and orange tarps that flap as each vehicle passes by.

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