MS 30th Anniversary XXX

Fighting poverty

Sloganeering on poverty has always been used by politicians during elections. Campaign promises to eradicate poverty is used to attract votes from the majority of the voters who are poor. We have seen this many times over. A case in point is former President Joseph Estrada’s “Erap para sa mahirap.”. President Noynoy Aquino’s “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” is another classic example. Even the late President Cory Aquino’s “ibababa ko ang presyo ng galunggong” is similar since the lowly galunggong is the poor family’s fish of choice. Despite all the promises however, no substantial change happens on the ground. The poor remain poor. I certainly do not claim to be an expert on poverty. What I have is the experience of being poor, and working with poor urban and rural communities for more than 25 years. What I learned, I learned from the school of life. The recent National Statistical Coordination Board’s (NSCB) report on 2012 poverty incidence surprised many. After all, the public has been fed with rosy macro-economic scenarios that gave rise to expectations of better times. The NSCB revealed that poverty incidence as of July 2012 stood at 27.9 percent, not much different from the 28.8 percent in 2006 and 28.6 in percent in 2009. This is bad news considering the good economic outlook. This means that the poor do not benefit from the macro-economic gains. This is one thing. The other is the unsaid fact that more Filipinos are poor now than in 2006 or 2009. The NSCB report cunningly omitted the population factor. Certainly, the conservative estimates of 2012 Philippine population put at 95 million (conservative since the World Fact Book pegged it at 103.8 million) is much higher than the National Statistics Office’s figures of 89M for 2006 and 92M for 2009. Thus, using the NSCB poverty figure, that 27.9 percent of population is poor, there were actually 26,505,000 Filipinos in poverty in 2012. This is much bigger than the 25,632,000 in 2006 and the 26,312,000 poor Filipinos in 2009. In effect, even if percentage-wise the poverty level is unchanged, the actual number of poor Filipinos is bigger by almost 900,000 from 2006. The conclusion therefore, is, the poverty situation has worsened. Experts say that one major reason for the poverty problem despite the robust economy is the fact that money goes to financial markets and not to industries, where jobs are created.     Investments on stock markets and non-infrastructure businesses like business process outsourcing (BPOs) do not create substantial sustainable employment. These are what is known as “portfolio investments”. They do not involve industrial production and thus, do not create infrastructure for more jobs. These investments are also easy to pull out once the business environment changes. Sustainability then is suspect. Production industries, in contrast, build infrastructure like factories and take longer before operations are stopped. Thus, they are seen to be more sustainable. I agree with this but I am of the opinion that a more comprehensive analysis of the poverty problem is in order. Nobody says that poverty is easy to solve. It is a very complex problem that needs a multi-disciplinary approach and the participation of all stakeholders. Many factors should be considered. A master plan is needed so the various initiatives work towards the same goals, redundancy is minimized and resources maximized. Comprehensively fighting poverty is not cheap, but necessary. Quality education as key Everyone says this but actual initiatives are lacking. In 2012, the Department of Social Welfare and Development spent almost P40 billion for its 4Ps program which, according to reports, has helped more than 3.8 million poor households deal with their basic food and health needs. The program also helps grade school children of poor families stay in school. This is good. But after finishing elementary education, what is next for these kids? Times have changed. A high school diploma will not land a job. The environment is so competitive that often, a masters or doctoral course becomes necessary if one is to advance in one’s career. I say that government should consider an educational plan that will enable poor but deserving students to pursue higher education. This should be on condition that after graduation, they will work in the country for a definite number of years and pay back government for the money used for their education. The quality of public education also needs much improvement and should be more attuned with the demands of the times. This will address the mismatch between what the labor market requires and the graduates our schools produce. For instance, there is much opportunity in the information and communications technology  sector. Businesses are becoming more and more Web-based or ICT-dependent. Do we have quality public colleges that train students to maximize such opportunities? Quality education to my mind is the best anti-poverty measure. Expensive BUT sustainable. Balancing industrialization and agriculture The Philippines is very lucky to be rich in natural resources. We should use (not abuse) these to our advantage. Industries create jobs and help people address their needs. But agriculture also creates jobs and more importantly, feeds us. It is lamentable that we have the capacity to produce food for all but millions go hungry and rate themselves as food-poor. We want a balance between industry-created jobs and food self-sufficiency. We want industries that build on, not harm our food sources, our natural environment. If we build such industries away from the major cities while at the same time supporting environmentally-sound agricultural and aquatic initiatives, we will create more sustainable livelihood opportunities without further congesting urban areas. People from provinces will no longer need to migrate to cities. We will also be funneling much needed resources to local government units. Over time, LGUs will hopefully be less dependent on national government. A balanced industrialization and agriculture should form part of the master plan against poverty. (More next week.) [email protected] and @bethangsioco on twitter
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