Since its unveiling to the public last April 2017, the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) program has stoked fierce discussion and debate. Yet of the various facets of the program’s implementation, few issues have achieved the same salience and staying power as that of the implications of its China-funded projects. From the administration’s “pivot to China”, concerns have been often raised concerning the “debt trap” risks of China-funded infrastructure, as well as their putative linkages with worsened corruption, social, and environmental dynamics.

This paper examines the development of the Duterte administration’s present and prospective China-funded projects, focusing specifically on the risk of generating ‘white elephant’ projects. While the drivers underlying the selection and implementation of unviable projects have cut across administrations, the economic bureaucracy’s limited absorptive capacity to meet the demands of an infrastructure spending surge, along with ‘exceptionalist’ procedures in the procurement of China-assisted projects, have amplified the risk of generating white elephant megaprojects in the Duterte administration. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the need for shifting away from unviable megaprojects towards more cost-effective and resilient infrastructure for the foreseeable future, which may require deferring some of the largest prospective China-funded projects. There is likewise scope for institutional reform in infrastructure governance processes, such as by involving third-party experts for independent verification and auditing of project approval and implementation procedures.



About the Authors

Jerik Cruz is a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on political economy and methodology, and a recipient of the MIT Homer A. Burnell Presidential Fellowship. Prior to his studies at MIT, he was a development economist and lecturer at the Department of Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University, and has co-authored policy studies commissioned by the Asian Development Bank, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Program, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute, and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Hansley A. Juliano is a D1 Doctoral Candidate under the Graduate School of International Development (GSID), Nagoya University, under the Japanese Government (MEXT) Scholarship Program. Prior to this, he served as faculty of the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University from 2013-2020 and has participated in civil society/sectoral movement advocacy and research for the same time period.