Chatting with the Philippine finance minister is an odd experience these days. Jose Isidro Camacho is a perfectly normal, pleasant and thoughtful guy. What's unusual is the topic at hand: Security.
Finance bigwigs typically are too busy looking at trends in inflation, tax revenue and currencies to think about peace, order and social stability. Here in the Philippines, economics and security are inexorably linked. In fact, many international investors say security is the single biggest reason they aren't putting much money here.
"Peace and order are among the biggest issues we need to deal with from an economic standpoint," Camacho explains in an interview.
Highly publicized kidnappings and crime here have damaged Manila's reputation with companies that create jobs and investors who provide capital. Worsening violence at the hands of rebels like the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim kidnap-for-ransom group, in the southern Philippines is slamming tourism across the nation.
More and more, security concerns are spooking markets, which fear high poverty rates make the Philippines a natural breeding ground for terrorist groups. Hence, the recent arrival of US troops. Nowadays, when you tell Americans, Europeans or Japanese you're visiting the Philippines, the advisory "Be careful over there" is almost certain to come up.
Some of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's advisers think she should hire former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to come over and raise some hell. The rationale: If Giuliani could clean up the Big Apple, he could do it anywhere -- even Manila.
"We could recruit him as a consultant on peace and order," Arroyo said, following a recent trip to New York.
Talk about your PR stunts. Getting Time magazine's latest person of the year over here could repair the nation's crime-ridden image. The Philippines, after all, suffers from increasing disorder and lawlessness. Who better to draw attention to Manila's cleanup than a man whose leadership following Sept. 11 won him global acclaim and an honorary British knighthood? The concerns here are valid, if somewhat overblown. To some extent, the Philippines is suffering from what might be called the "CNN effect." If you're relying on the mass media for perspectives, you're not getting the real story. Much of the international television coverage gives the impression Abu Sayyaf-like rebels are terrorizing central Manila. In reality, the problem is 800 miles south of the capital city.
Yet there have been kidnappings in the greater Manila area; many have targeted ethnic Chinese businesspeople. The trend continues to hurt the local economy. And that's why, along with reforming the fragile Philippine economy, it's equally important for Arroyo to restore peace and order to this nation of 77 million.
"This is no longer just a social, quality of life issue, but an economic one," says Jose Cuisia, president of Philippine American Life and General Insurance Corp, a unit of biggest insurer American International Group Inc.
Safety concerns are partially eclipsing Arroyo's accomplishments. In her first 13 months, she's calmed the political and economic instability that prevailed a year ago. The Philippine currency is stable, the stock market is up 21 percent this year, and the nation's credit-rating outlook also has improved.