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Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

Sep 17, 2021

The many hats of Ben Diokno

The economist. The reformist. The professor. While these may sound like characters in a television series, I’m just referring to only one real person. These could well describe the three main hats that Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Benjamin E. Diokno wears interchangeably or all at once, depending on his current position.

As an economist, his policy expertise and research contribution extend to various areas of public economics. He even served as adviser and consultant to institutions like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Commission, and the USAID.

As a reformist, he was instrumental in crafting major policy reforms of the country, including the 1986 Tax Reform Program, the 1991 Local Government Code of the Philippines, and the Government Procurement Reform Act. During his term as Budget Secretary in 1998, he introduced a more transparent budget process with the introduction of the What-You-See-is-What-You-Get (WSYWYG) system. 

As Budget Secretary under the Duterte administration, he introduced cash budgeting to replace obligation budgeting to promote budget accountability, simplify tracking of expenditures, and speed up fund utilization.

As a professor, he has taught for over 40 years on courses such as public sector economics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, and development economics, among others. He is professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, his alma mater where he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration, as well as his Master’s Degree in Public Administration and in Economics. He also holds a Master of Arts in Political Economy from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University in New York.

Governor Diokno shares that he really wanted to go into government service. He thought it was logical because he came from a political family. While in college, his ultimate goal was to join one of the international development organizations. But when he got his Ph.D. in Economics, he was undecided whether to return to the Philippines, which was then under Martial Law, or stay in the US. He sought the advice of a former professor, who told him, “If you stay in the US, you’ll be a small fish in a big pond, if you go back to the Philippines, you’ll be a big fish in a small pond.”

I could say we’re lucky he heeded the advice to serve our country.

Governor Diokno was actually the one who fondly called the Duterte administration’s massive infrastructure program as the “Golden Age of Infrastructure,” now known as “Build, Build, Build,” which he helped design and implement because he believes that the lack of public infrastructure has been a major challenge to the country’s path to sustained inclusive growth.

As BSP Governor, his specific goals include keeping inflation manageable and having a cash-light economy where at least half of all financial transactions are done digitally and at least seven out of 10 households have a transaction account.

But if he was president, which he explains is not in his bucket list, he will focus on finding better ways of doing things to improve governance and the lives of the ordinary citizens. His bias would be on higher spending for social services and physical infrastructure.

He thanks President Duterte for choosing him in helping manage the country’s finances as budget secretary, which he considers an extremely tough assignment. But he thinks being BSP Governor during this unprecedented crisis would be most unforgettable for him. He thought managing BSP would be a breeze, which it was, until COVID-19 came. But with the help of a supportive Monetary Board and professional staff, he maintains the BSP did well.

Under his leadership, the BSP was able to act swiftly and boldly to help the country during this pandemic. Through various monetary measures, the BSP released some ₱2.2 trillion into the system to calm the financial market, ensure adequate liquidity, and support the government in financing its COVID-19 related expenditures.

He goes on to assure that even if the current focus is on the health cum economic crisis, he won’t let it distract them from realizing BSP’s long-term reform agenda: Digitalization and financial inclusion.

With the magnitude of his tasks, I wondered how he spends his free time, if any. He tells me he just finished reading Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, and is now into First Friends by Gary Ginsberg. He just enjoys learning, reading, and writing. And with a mind like his, that answer did not come as a surprise to me, at all.

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