The poverty of anti-poverty policy

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Almost every Philippine regime since that of Diosdado Macapagal has at least paid lip service to ending the poverty that in varying degrees of intensity haunts this country and millions of its people.

Macapagal saw poverty as the legacy of the unfinished Revolution of 1896, which because of US conquest and intervention failed to deliver on its promise of independence and the social, political and economic reforms that by the time he was President would have made the Philippines and its people among the most prosperous in Asia.

Macapagal’s successor Ferdinand Marcos made the need to reform Philippine society to improve the quality of life of “the poorest of the poor” one of his justifications for placing the country under martial law in 1972. He claimed during the final years of his regime, but never made good on it, that land reform and industrialization were among the means he would use to achieve that aim.

After Marcos was overthrown by the 1986 civilian and military mutiny, Roy Prosterman of the US Agency for International Development (US-AID) urged President Corazon Aquino to abolish the land tenancy system, or else risk continuing social unrest and even civil war. Mrs. Aquino responded by supporting the passage of a land reform law by Congress, which, however, was so ridden with loopholes it hardly made a dent on what Prosterman once described as “the worst land tenancy system on the planet.”

Mrs. Aquino’s son Benigno Aquino III saw corruption as the crucial element in the country’s continuing poverty, and in 2010 campaigned for the presidency on the promise to end poverty by ending corruption (“walang mahirap kung walang corrupt”).

For his part, then candidate Rodrigo Duterte also made poverty alleviation one of the planks of his platform when he ran for president in 2016.

The focus on poverty is understandable. The extent of the country’s problem with it can hardly be exaggerated. About 22 million Filipinos are in extreme want, says the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), while 50 to 60 million are “in varying conditions of deprivation and vulnerability.” The poor are everywhere in evidence in the streets of Philippine towns and cities. They have inadequate housing or no homes to speak of. They can hardly survive each day, much less send their children to school.

The existence of the NAPC is itself a statement on State recognition of the need to do something about mass poverty. But as the Commission itself points out in its trail-blazing 90-page book Reforming Philippine Anti-Poverty Policy (Quezon City: NAPC, 2017), not only does State policy on poverty need reforming. So many other factors in governance and government policies are also at cross purposes with what should be the central government task of addressing poverty. The neoliberal policy of leaving development solely to market forces and its making poverty alleviation an incidental concern if at all is one example. What has become a policy of encouraging hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to work abroad because of limited employment opportunities at home is another. The country’s anti-poverty policy is itself poor not only in implementation, but in concept and design as well.

NAPC Secretary Liza Masa correctly describes the alleviation of poverty as “the greatest challenge facing our country today” despite the much-touted growth of the economy over the last several years. The NAPC book identifies three basic reasons for the persistence of poverty despite economic growth: the underdevelopment of agriculture and industry; the inequitable distribution of incomes, assets and opportunities; and the inadequacy of social services and social protection (the unemployed and retirees, for example, are mostly left to fend for themselves).

The Philippines has hardly any real industry to speak of — much of what passes for it are assembly line plants and call centers — while agricultural productivity and development are hampered by the archaic land tenancy system. The results are limited job opportunities and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while millions of Filipinos live a hand-to-mouth existence without medical care, education and other social services.

The development of agriculture and industry if achieved should result in correcting the social inequity based on the inequitable distribution of the rewards of development and economic opportunities, and the deficit and even total absence of social services in many communities.

NAPC suggests that the path to authentic development lies in the structural transformation of the economy by building industry through national industrialization, and developing the agricultural sector through the implementation of genuine land reform and agrarian development.

Each of these areas have certain needs that have to be addressed, but the Commission argues that state policy on poverty must first of all be based on putting poverty alleviation at the heart of economic and social policy rather than looking at it as incidental to economic development. Such an approach demands that poverty alleviation be the purpose of every government policy, program and law.

Immediately doable, says the Commission, is the government’s declaration of its commitment to areas of priority concern in addressing poverty, among them the following: (my wording)

1. The crafting of national industrialization and poverty eradication policies;

2. The adoption of a policy of social and human development, which would include the ample provision of social services and protection as well as disaster response;

3. A commitment to long-term development which would include environmental protection and rehabilitation as well as sustainable production and consumption;

4. Assuring people’s participation in governance;

5. Promoting and protecting civil and political rights;

6. Ensuring justice for the poor; and

7. Asserting and defending national sovereignty.

Whether the reforms and policies needed will ever be adopted and implemented is problematic. The country’s sorry experience with past administrations is not encouraging. The Commission argues that what is most needed to assure the adoption of the needed reforms is the building of “a constituency of change” — an informed and empowered citizenry that will demand the implementation of the necessary reforms, to develop which the reform of the party system, the electoral process, and the justice system are needed, as well as strengthening accountability and transparency in governance.

Addressing, reducing, alleviating and even abolishing the man-made curse of poverty will in short require a multidimensional, multi-faceted, multi-institutional approach across the economic, social and political structures of Philippine society premised on the principle that living productive and meaningful lives is a fundamental human right. It demands the commitment and engagement of the entire government, all of its officials, and the bureaucracy.

It can’t be done through cash dole-outs to the neediest families, hoping that the bounties of economic development will eventually trickle down to the poor, or relying on foreign investments and assistance and leaving economic and social development to market forces. These have quite simply not worked — and we have the impoverished state of most Filipinos to prove it.

Despite its many flaws and failings, the Duterte regime could have redeemed itself if, by adopting and implementing the reforms needed, it had managed, among all the administrations that have preceded it, to rescue the Philippines and its long-suffering people from the violence, indignity and hopelessness of the penury that for generations has defined their lives.

There is still time, but will there ever be, and has there ever been, the will to do it?

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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