Harvard 'Mafia' Advises Aquino Government

Alumni and Institute Play Key Roles in Philippines

"Do we have a Harvard Mafia running our country?" queried a recent edition of The Philippine Star, a Manila-based newspaper. Four of Aquino's cabinet members, a Supreme Court Justice and the director of the Central Bank are among a core of Harvard-trained high-ranking officials in Philippine President Corazon Aquino's government.

And numerous Harvard researchers are currently advising the Aquino administration on issues ranging from agrarian reform to industrial policy, as Aquino attempts to strengthen a floundering economy.

Harvard can claim an influential role in a number of countries, either through its graduates or its faculty.

Edward P. Seaga '52, prime minister of Jamaica and Benazir Bhutto '73, a top opposition leader in Pakistan, are graduates of the College. And Mexico's President Miguel de la Madrid-Hurtado and Greece's Prime Minister Andreas G. Papandreou earned masters at Harvard.

Three of the people working most closely on solving the Mexican debt crisis are Harvard graduates--President Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico's minister of budget and planning, and Elliott Abrams '69, United States assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

And University scholars are working on a variety of development-oriented projects ranging from fiscal reform in Indonesia to health planning in Chad.

But Harvard's collective impact in the Philippines is especially strong because its many alumni hold key positions in the government, while faculty members continue to advise these former students, who are now high-ranking officials.

The Aquino-Harvard connection was forged between 1980 and 1983, when the President's late husband, Benigno S. Aquino, an opposition leader to deposed President Ferdinand Marcos, served as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs. At the time, Corazon Aquino was a homemaker, living in Newton.

"Harvard is known internationally," says John W. Thomas, a lecturer at the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID). "But, the fact that Ninoy [Benigno Aquino] was at Harvard has enhanced the University's reputation with the Aquino government."

Since coming to power last February, the Aquino government has frequently turned to Harvard graduates and faculty to assist the fledgling administration. The HIID, which assists developing countries on economic, political and public health issues, is working on a number of projects in the Philippines.

Researchers at the HIID have conducted four major development programs in the Philippines during the past year, some of which are still ongoing.

.Three members analyzed government policy towards, small and medium-sized businesses by interviewing Philippine government officials and businessmen from June to September. The three Harvard researchers--Tyler Biggs, Jeremy *** and Brian D. Levy '80--made policy recommendations to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Conducted under the auspices of a $6 million worldwide U.S. State Department funded project, the HIID study was part of a Reagan administrative initiative to enhance the economic strength of developing nations through aid to smaller, more labor intensive firms.

.John W. Thomas is advising the Minister of Agrarian Reform, Heherson "Sonny" Alvarez, on key economic issues affecting the Philippine peasantry, Alvarez was a Mason Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he met Thomas.

.Peter Timmer, Black professor of Development Studies at Large, recently completed a study of price support of agricultural products. His recommendations will soon be evidenced in new technical training programs established by the Ministry of Agriculture.

.Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor of Economics, is currently advising the Aquino government on international financial policy.

While the HIID's reputation earns it grants to do development work worldwide, in the case of the Philippines many of its projects came about through the "old-boy" network. Timmer was asked by a former student of his at Stanford, who is a Philippine official, to head a task force on food logistic issues. And Thomas was contacted by his former student Alvarez, Minister of Agrarian Reform.

Thomas says he believes the fact that Alvarez was comfortable with Thomas greatly assisted his research. Alvarez "gave me carte blanche to look at the whole scene," he explains.

The project that evaluated small and medium sized businesses received special access by way of the Philippines' most prominent business and economic research and education institution, the Center for Research and Communication (CRC). The CRC was founded in 1967 by Bernardo M. Villegas, a graduate of Harvard.

A Modest Role

While the Harvard-based advisors contend their suggestions are listened to by the powers-that-be in the Philippines, they add that their recommendations are not necessarily translated into government policy.

"Our role is a modest one. We're not sitting at the right hand of the ministers dictating policy. The government officials define the issues and ultimately decide whether to use our recommendations," says Dwight H. Perkins, director of the HIID.

But Perkins says that when the HIID researchers met with the Minister of Trade and Industry Jose Concepcion to discuss their findings on business, they were granted five hours of his time. Perkins considered the length of the session a reflection of the value placed by the government on its outside consultants.

"I was there to learn as much as I could and to share my views with the Minister of Agrarian Reform," Thomas says. "But I certainly do not have the impression that when Harvard talks Aquino [necessarily] listens."

Perkins says he believes the value of the HIID to the Aquino government is its ability to offer an informed outsider's perspective, which is partly based on past experience. During the past 25-years, the Institute has conducted projects in nearly 30 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa. Peter Timmer, for example, spent 17 years working on agricultural policy in Indonesia.

In Timmer's report he attempted to provide the Minister of Agriculture with various trade-offs between policy alternatives. "The human capital the Philippines has to work with is quite impressive. The question for outsiders is just if you can stimulate discussions, help with their framework and apply our international comparative expertise," says Timmer.

As for whether there is noticeable animosity towards the Harvard presence in the Philippines, the HIID researchers said they detected none. However, Thomas notes, a few Filipinos have accused the advisors of an American bias.

Timmer speaks of the Aquino-Harvard connection as a continuing process based on educating future leaders and advising existing ones.

"We are working to establish a Harvard Connection. That's the next step."