POVERTY: PHILIPPINES‘ ACHILLES HEEL


Erle Frayne D. Argonza

Poverty is the Achilles’ heel of the Philippine state, and will be so for at least two (2) more decades. Amid the appreciable growth the economy has sustained so far, with the national economy doubling in just eight (8) years during the incumbency of president Gloria Arroyo, poverty remains very high.

If we go by the yardsticks of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank, the Philippines has been performing fairly well on wealth production as a whole, so much that the country graduated to a middle income status by the turn of the century. No more a poor economy by world standards, yet the country’s poverty increased from 28% in 2001 (when Arroyo took over the presidency) to 33% today (per latest government statistics).

Paradoxical, come to think of it, that while the economy has been growing and had moved to middle income status, more people have become poorer. Tough, very tough, is the task of mining for the ‘gini in the bottle’ that would reduce poverty considerably to a negligible 5% or less, a level that is easily manageable and where state and communities can simply decide to fully subsidize the remaining poor.

Whether the Philippines can meet the UN’s Millenium Development Goal of cutting poverty by half in 2015 seems much clearer now to social forecasters: the dream is elusive and unattainable. Not even if the economy will double again from mid-2009 to 2015 which is a most likely development.

The Philippines’ poorest happens to be the rural populations, notably the fisherfolk sector where malnutrition runs the highest rate (2/3 of children/families). Rural population is now down to 34% or 1/3 of the population, while the urban peoples comprise 66% or 2/3. Urban to rural poverty ratio is 1:2.5, meaning that for every 1 poor person in the cities & towns, there’s an equivalent of 2.5 persons in the countrysides.

The message is clear to the next government (formed by the new president after the May polls this year) that the attack zone on poverty should be the rural population. Both antipoverty and anti-hunger programs should be initiated at very high levels in the countryside to be able to bring down total poverty by a large degree.

Failure to solve rural poverty in the long run redounds to perpetuating insurgency. Even if the present insurgent groups would concur peace pacts with the state, new insurgent groups will emerge again in the foreseeable future should the rural folks remain paupers.

Urbanization is now moving up, and with its growing eminence has come the rise of new cities. Citification has seen the incomes of communities treble by leaps and bounds, thus permitting the same communities to spend on infrastructures and social development.

Left to themselves, without massive migrations from rural folks, the cities can accumulate enormous income surpluses to solve unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition (both hunger and obesity). Philanthropic groups consequently rise from civil society and market players, and boost surplus production for solving poverty.

However, such is not the case even as the migration of the poor from the countryside to the cities continues in steady waves. So this brings us all back to the challenge of solving poverty right at the backyards where the poorest are most concentrated. This means that the food producers shouldn’t be left out in the development game, even as rural development should be brought to its next level.

Goal-wise, the realistic target is to reduce poverty from 33% in 2009 to 25% by 2015, or an average of 1.33% reduction per annum. Means-wise, an appreciable mix of good governance, right socio-economic policies, and strengthening of institutions would do a long way to bring down poverty altogether in the short run.

Urban population will grow to 70% around 2015, while rural population will go down further to 30%. With lower rural populations to manage by then, there is no more reason for government not to be able to do something to solve poverty. And we say government, because the increase in poverty largely came from governance-related factors such as poor absorptive capacity (to handle large budgets), inefficiency, graft, poor inter-governmental coordination, and low political will to pursue audacious solutions to daunting problems.

In 1989, this analyst wrote an article “Prospects of Poverty Alleviation in the 1990s,” a piece that I delivered as a symposium lecture at the University of the East (Prof. Randy David was also a speaker). At that time, poverty was a high of 49%, while urban to rural poverty was 1:2.1.

Since 1989, we have seen poverty reduced from 49% to its present level of 33% (a 5% increase since 2001 though), although rural poverty moved up paradoxically during the same period. Poverty reduction is not really impossible, as evidenced by the huge reduction across a 20-year period. Bringing it down further to 25% by 2015 is a doable target.

So let us see how the nation will fair under the next government of the republic (after May polls), when we see a new set of political leaders and cabinet members installed to power. As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, my standpoint is that a nationalist coalition, such as what the present candidate Sen. Manny Villar, is most equipped with policy paradigm and tools to deal with the Achilles heel of pauperism, aside from the competence and visionary acumen of the noblesse senator.

By nationalist, I mean that of moving towards a regulated market and fair trade, with high propensity for ‘physical economy’ policies. We can no more return to the days of liberalization policies that saw the economy crash down in ’83-’85, stagnate for a time and grow again before hitting the next recession in ’97, and finally move up to middle income status only after a turtle pace struggle taking three (3) decades.

Liberalism and its propensity to be pro-Big Business and Big Landlord is a big no in our fight against poverty, whether in the Philippines and other nations of the globe. In my country, nationalism is the antidote paradigm and social technology watershed to reverse decades of liberal policies and solution to poverty. I’ve been echoing this theme since my teenage years yet, and remains steadily anchored on it.

[Philippines, 20 March 2010]

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