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The governance guru

Jesus Estanislao is probably best remembered for his post-Edsa stint at the Development Bank of the Philippines. “When I came in, the bank was in a bad financial condition, virtually bankrupt.  Worse, an internal cultural mindset was in place,” he says, recalling the start of his brief government career. That mindset was one of entitlement, of not having to work hard to be profitable because government resources were there, anyway. “We sought to professionalize DBP. We had to make money like a bank makes money. We had to produce dividends for our shareholders, in this case the national government. We had to do some serious reorganizing. We had to change many things about a bank which took an average of 12 minutes to take a single deposit.” Estanislao was subsequently appointed socio-economic planning secretary and director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority where he sought to reorient the country’s trade policy, veering it away from protectionism. He then moved on to the Department of Finance, where as secretary he faced the task of ridding the Philippines of its reputation as an outcast among finance departments in the region and in the world. He says the most rewarding aspect of working in government was the ability to transform (organizations). He was asked to stay on after the former President Corazon Aquino ended her term, but Estanislao was firm. “I had to move on.” And move on he did. Estanislao has worn many hats during his long and storied career. After his government stint, he served as founding president of the University of Asia and the Pacific from 1992 to 1997. He advised President Fidel Ramos during the Philippine chairmanship of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1996. He also represented the Philippines in the APEC’s eminent persons group. He served as the first dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo in 1998. Earlier on, he served as founding executive director of the Center for Research and Communication, out of which the UA&P grew, from 1969 to 1981.
Dr. Estanislao with the participants in the ISA Boot Camp, which teaches local and national government officials the basics of the Performance Governance System for agency-wide reforms.
He holds a PhD in economics from Harvard University, an MA in economics from Fordham University, an AB in economics and a Bachelor in Philosophy (summa cum laude) from the University of San Carlos.

Wake-up call

But Estanislao’s reputation is as much a function of his passion for his governance advocacy as it is of his sterling resume. During the Asian crisis of 1997-1998, and learning from the experiences of Thailand where it all began, he realized that the private sector in the Philippines had been used to doing things its own way. Similarly, government-owned and -controlled corporations and government financial institutions were governed by their respective charters. “There was no overseeing body and no common perspective.” There was no accountability, too, with directors and managers appointed for their connections rather than competence. The Institute of Corporate Directors was the first to be established, with the objective of introducing globally-accepted governance practices to private corporations in the Philippines. Soon enough, Estanislao realized that reforms cannot be undertaken by the private sector alone. “It takes two to tango.” Thus, the Institute for Solidarity in Asia was born. Local government units were the first to commit. Estanislao and his team had to deal with the peculiarity of having the new concept of local autonomy alongside old governance mindsets, where local leaders saw their office as fiefdoms. “We helped them generate resources, but more than that, we encouraged them to develop strategy,” he says.

Forests over trees

Indeed governance is based on issues, not personalities. The ISA took on a more active role, working with government agencies when in 2003 he was approached by then-Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and then-Finance Secretary Gary Teves to lend a hand to help the Philippines pass its application to the Millennium Challenge Corporation. And while “governance” may sound abstract and esoteric, Estanislao believes it can be measured. Both the ICD and the ISA adopt the Performance Governance System which is centered on strategy formulation and execution. It aims to promote a governance culture at all levels, founded upon ethics and social responsibility, which affects corporate strategy toward breakthrough performance. Estanislao advises organizations to adopt a broader view of where they are and where they are headed. “Answer only these questions: What do you want to do and when do you plan on achieving them?” Then again, one must not have too much on one’s plate. “On average, an organization must have 12 strategic priorities.” He talks about the improved community relations of the Philippine Marines as an example.  In Mindanao, they are known for being tough, but they are equally popular for their work in day-care centers. Estanislao is aware that public service may at times get mired in succession issues. Some government leaders, keen on leaving their own legacy, are quick to junk their predecessors’ initiatives so they could introduce their own. A way to ensure continuity, regardless of who the chief executive is, is to convene a multi-sectoral coalition that engages candidates in meaningful debates and gets them to agree to the unit’s mission and core values. With regard to governance in the private sector, Estanislao believes that at least 20 of the 70 or so well-governed companies in Asia are from the Philippines. “We’re not at the top yet. But we are on our way. We are certainly not at the bottom.”  This even a recent survey placed the Philippines as the second lowest among 11 Asian economies in terms of corporate governance. Certainly we need to work more on reporting and disclosure systems. We also need bodies to be more independent.  Finally, our companies should be ready to adopt more stringent governance practices. For example, he cites the recent PSE requirement that listed companies should have a minimum of 10 percent of their shares held by the public. Because some companies did not want to comply, they delisted from the exchange. “What are we thinking? Hong Kong and Indonesia are already at 20 percent!”

From the core

All these seem daunting, but the 75-year-old Estanislao finds himself willing and able to advance his causes. How does he do this? “I make time for two things every day,” he says. “First, I set time for prayer. And then I also make sure I have time for physical maintenance.” Believe it or not, Estanislao goes to the gym, lifts weights and swims. He consults a trainer on how best he could stay in shape.  His swimming technique is called “total immersion,” adopted by the fastest swimmers in the world.  “The idea is not to let your arms and legs do the work. It should be the core of your body that pushes you forward.” Estanislao also makes it a point to read one book a month – “any kind: history, fiction…”  and devotes much of his time to reflection. He looks forward to 2015 when the Philippines will host the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and APEC meetings.  He is optimistic we can show the world the best of the Philippines in both the private and public sectors. As far as his advocacy will take him, he will continue to push so that more and more Filipinos would put their country above themselves. “We are all in this together.”
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