…And now, the hard part

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PRESIDENT-elect Benigno Aquino III ran his campaign on the slogan “None Poor Without Corruption” ( Walang Mahirap Kung Walang Corrupt). His platform of governance not only emphasizes the same theme. The same platform also links corruption to mass despair, apathy and cynicism.

That document (http://www.malayanghalalan.com) declares that “We have lost trust in the democratic institutions we so courageously re-established after the dictatorship. Our proven capacity for collective outrage and righteous resistance has been weakened. We have ceased to depend on the patriotism and civic engagement that used to animate many of our efforts.

“We have become divided and alienated, focusing only on ourselves and on our individual pursuits. Our moral faculties as a people have been paralyzed. We have retreated into a dark world of self-absorption and cynicism. Our collective despair has reached its lowest point.”

The corruption that has metastasized throughout Philippine society has indeed created a culture of helplessness, resignation and moral decay in which criminals, brutes, clowns, idiots and liars are held up as models for emulation, being otherwise having been shown to be fatal to one’s life and fortune.

The same culture has bred an indifference to, and even approbation of evil, and condemns self-sacrifice, patriotism, and moral outrage as the quaint vices of idealist fools. In this setting the most egregious injustices are shrugged off as part and parcel of the human condition, and fear accepted as the necessary condition for survival in a countryside ruled by murderous warlords and political dynasties.

The link between corruption and poverty is even more evident. Estimates vary, but there is general agreement that trillions of pesos in public funds have been lost to corruption since 1946. The World Bank estimate in 2000 was that $48 billion (P1.968 trillion) had been lost to corruption during the 20-year period from 1977 to 1997. It is more than probable that the (hopefully) outgoing, flagrantly crooked Arroyo regime has added at least another half a trillion to that amount during the nine years in which it has been in power.

The usual lament is that instead of keeping corrupt politicians, generals, police officers and other officials in mansions, mistresses, vacations abroad, yachts and fleets of cars, these amounts could have built schools and clinics as well as roads and bridges, created industries and jobs, and helped fund the stalled and failing Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

The country’s land problem is even more basically linked to poverty. Funding constraints due to corruption would indeed be a problem if CARP were being rigorously implemented. But there is the even more crucial issue of the Program’s flaws and the many loopholes that haunt it that have led the Department of Agrarian Reform to cut back its targeted land acquisitions — by almost half in some years — and to fail to spend its budget for that purpose.

Except for the government, every other institution that has evaluated the Program has questioned its supposed success. The late President Corazon Aquino proclaimed the Program in 1987, but left the drafting of the law to the restored, still landlord-dominated Congress that was about to convene.

Farmers’ groups complained that leaving it to Congress to work out the details of CARP doomed it to failure. A World Bank mission that evaluated the draft of the Program agreed, though not in so many words. The mission suggested, among others, that CARP be immediately implemented to frustrate efforts to go around it. It was also critical of a provision allowing the distribution of stocks to tenants and workers instead of the land itself. The mission noted that landowners would find stock distribution a more attractive option to actually transferring land ownership to their farmer tenants. Congress predictably ignored these suggestions.

Everyone knows by now that among the landowning families that opted for stock rather than land redistribution were the Cojuangcos, whose Hacienda Luisita was specifically mentioned by the late Corazon Aquino as subject to the Program. The stock distribution option, under which the workers obtained 33 percent ownership, and the Cojuangcos 66, kept Hacienda Luisita under the family’s control. Several dozen agri-corporations followed the Cojuangco example.

While Mr. Aquino’s campaign emphasized the corruption and poverty nexus, it did not note the iron link between poverty and the failure to eradicate land tenancy. Mr. Aquino has in fact been visibly annoyed whenever the Hacienda Luisita issue is mentioned, and seems to have no particular interest in re-examining CARP, much less committing to the dismantling of the archaic land tenancy system as a fundamental solution to the poverty and stagnation of the Philippine countryside and hence, of the entire country itself.

It’s understandable from a human standpoint, CARP being among Corazon Aquino’s legacies. But any attempt to at least mitigate the deepening poverty of the country, which every survey ever taken during the last nine years has found has made hunger a daily reality among more and more families, must address the land problem.

A successful and authentic land reform program would not only free millions from the Jurassic serfdom that, uniquely in Southeast Asia, still exists in the Philippines. It would also boost rural incomes and stimulate the growth of industries, create jobs, and incidentally help keep families together rather than depriving children of parents who have had to seek employment in other countries to assure their families of any semblance of a future.

Mr. Aquino won the 2010 elections handily, and, unless the usual suspects have other plans, will probably preside over this country for the next six years. Assuming that he is honestly committed to diminishing, if not eradicating, poverty, he will have to bite the bullet of family and self-interest by addressing a problem whose solution has eluded this country for decades. Winning the elections despite such hazards as the Comelec, failing PCOS machines, warlord tyranny, disenfranchisement, a fickle electorate, and an administration noted for its absolute lack of transparency and good will was the easy part.

(BusinessWorld)

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