Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons

Once there was a tract of land covered with greens suitable for pastures. A shepherd saw this and he brought his sheep to the land. Another shepherd discovered the land, and brought his sheep there too. Soon, more and more shepherds came. Their sheep fed on the grass, but as the number of sheep increased, the land became arid. The grass could only grow so much and the land can only hold so much sheep.

The tragedy of the commons is that nobody wants to pay for something that everybody uses. The thinking that it's free and we're all entitled to it anyway, is destructive. Dr. Diaz said that a lot of good projects have been scrapped or are suffering because of this mentality.

One example of such project is the newly rehabilitated North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Some people refuse to use the NLEX because of the sky-high toll fees. They would rather pay nothing at the old MacArthur Highway. Traffic is heavier there and the road quality can't come close to NLEX's, but it's free and that's what matters. It's all about the money, really.

I can understand their sentiments, especially if you pass by the NLEX on a daily basis. The costs would be monumental. However, if you consider the long term benefits compared to the short-term effects, the NLEX is the clear winner. Think of how much you will save on tires (bad roads easily wear our tires), car maintenance (shock absorbers and suspensions systems cost a fortune), and on gas (being stuck in traffic consumes a large amount of fuel). Most importantly, think of how much time you'd save. Time is gold. More than the financial aspects, the gift of time is what you can give to your families and loved ones. Can you really quantify that in terms of money?

That's what project planning is all about-- weighing the cost versus the benefits. These costs and benefits do not necessarily translate to monetary terms. There are social costs and there are social benefits. They are not always tangible. The important thing is to
make sure that the benefits ALWAYS exceed the costs.

How do you choose which projects to implement and which ones to put back to the drawing table. When it comes to projects that involve a large number of people, for example building markets, toads, and bridges to populated areas, the justification for such is easy. But what about those projects that are not backed up by numbers? How would you justify them?

Take the case of the pedestrian overpass connecting the Asian Institute of Tourism (AIT) to the UP Diliman main campus. One of my classmates, a landscape architecture graduate, works for the MMDA's planning department. He says that particular footbridge is somewhat controversial inside the MMDA. The points of contention: 1) An overpass already exists near the Iglesia ni Cristo (or "Central" area); 2) The amount of pedestrian traffic (potential users of the overpass) does not warrant its construction, and; 3) The cost for building the overpass should be shouldered by UP and not MMDA, because it will serve mainly its students.

So why was it built anyway? It was a REQUEST from UP, granted by MMDA as a FAVOR. While I do not and will not argue the fact that it probably is in the best interest of the students (after all, Commonwealth Avenue is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the country), there's still something questionable to it. It does not serve as a good example of sound project implementation and represents everything that is wrong in the system. Is it all palakasan, that whoever has the ears of the approving agency gets the nod? And then there's the fundamental flaw-- with only a handful of students actually using the overpass, can we really say that the benefits significantly outweigh the costs?

The purpose of planning is to come up with a RATIONAL (meaning systematic, well-thought, supported by hard facts) determination of how to INITIATE, SUSTAIN, and TERMINATE a project. This implies that every project has a life expectancy, but why do plan for a PROJECT CYCLE . If it's a cycle, then it never ends right? The idea is that once a project is terminated, the CONCEPTS derived from that project live on and bring life to a NEW project. While technically, it may not be the same project, the essence is resurrected into another project. Thus, a project life cycle is just building on what is done before.

Time is a critical dimension in project planning. The early stages of planning are particularly crucial as the potential for savings is biggest here. As the implementation goes on, there are lesser chances for cutting costs. If you're building a house, changing the design after 7 DAYS is a far cry from changing the design after 7 MONTHS of construction.

Of course, one has to take into account the effects of inflation and depreciation in project planning. I have a classmate who has been with the planning department of DPWH for over twenty years now. He says that one of the more problematic areas in DPWH is the huge gap between the time that a project is conceived and the project is actually approved. By the time that the project gets the funding and is ready to be implemented, the actual cost has already increased due to interest rates, inflation, peso devaluation, among others. While they look for an additional source of funds, the expenses keep piling up.

Proper project scheduling, considering problems that may arise, and making allowances for unforeseen events are necessary.
Planners must have the incredible gift of foresight. While no one can really predict the future, anticipating it is the key to the success of any endeavor.

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