Wealth distribution is extremely unequal in the Philippines. Too few people get too much while too many get too little of the wealth the economy generates.
A handful of families earn millions annually and can afford several homes, a fleet of vehicles, the most expensive local if not foreign schools for their children, the best medical care, and trips abroad and other luxuries whenever they feel like it.
But some can’t even afford the “luxury”of a makeshift roof over their heads. They bed down for the evening in bus and jeepney waiting sheds, on the streets, in doorways, or in carts. They—the very poor– worry where the next meal is coming from, and are often forced to do without one meal or even two a day. Their children go to school twice each week if at all, and getting sick, even if only with a cold, can be a death sentence because they can’t afford even the most basic medical care.
That a very few have everything while millions have little or even nothing is the consequence of the vast disparities in wealth and incomes in this country. Over 50 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Philippines is controlled by some 15 families. The other 50 percent is divided among 13 million families, assuming the average Filipino family size to be six.
The Arroyo government announced last week that it has met the high end of its (GDP) growth target of between 5 to 5.5 percent for the first quarter despite rising oil prices, political instability, and higher taxes. The 5.5 percent growth, however, isn’t enough for economic benefits to “trickle down” to the poor, said Economic Planning and Development Secretary Romulo Neri. While in a celebratory mood, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself admitted that “more need to be done” if the poor are to benefit from growth.
Primarily, however, Mrs. Arroyo seemed to have meant raising GDP further, and what she meant by more–boosting revenue collections; modernizing agriculture, addressing investment bottlenecks, achieving lasting peace and upgrading English, Science and Math skills—sounded like more of the same policies she’s either previously announced or which have been in place in past Philippine governments. None of Mrs. Arroyo’s “mores” addresses the problem of how wealth is to be more evenly distributed.
Boosting revenue collections is a no-brainer if the intention is to boost GDP to the 10-13 percent conservative economists believe could result in growth benefits’ “trickling down” to the poor. A boost in revenue collections would enable the government to, among others, deliver the social services (housing, education, medical care) the poor need. But boosting revenue collection—itself a problematic undertaking tainted by corruption– is only the first step. The second is seeing to it that the funds are used for public purposes and don’t end up lining the pockets of corrupt officials. For this to happen the government must be committed to rooting out corruption. Whether it is so committed is at least debatable.
Meanwhile, by including among her “mores” the achievement of lasting peace, Mrs. Arroyo seems to be agreeing with the view that social unrest including rebellions is the cause rather than the result of the poverty that afflicts the majority of Filipinos. This is a mistaken assumption if ever there’s one, and incidentally leads to such misbegotten policies as the purely military and police approach— repression–in dealing with rebellions and even protests.
No one will quarrel with the need to upgrade science, math and English language skills. This implies a focus on the reform of Philippine education through, among other means, giving it the budget the Constitution mandates. But if the intent is to make Filipino labor more competitive in the international market, such an upgrading is extremely short-sighted.
Filipinos should be skilled in math, science and the English language so they may be better able to contribute to national development. The focus on working abroad, while enabling poor families to cope, says the UN Development Program, has had the opposite effect of discouraging development efforts. Remittance-dependent families do not usually end up in businesses other than operating a tricycle or jeepney service, if at all.
Finally, there’s the modernization of agriculture, by which Mrs. Arroyo seems to mean the usual approach of encouraging new farming techniques, using superior seeds, perhaps putting more irrigation systems in place. This approach has been tried for decades, but have not significantly modernized Philippine agriculture to the extent of boosting production. Though a pioneer in developing new farming techniques as well as rice varieties alleged to be superior to traditional ones, the Philippines remains an importer of rice, lagging far behind Thailand, many of whose agriculturists trained in UP Los Banos, and even Vietnam, where a devastating war ended only 31 years ago.
Obviously Philippine agriculture has to be modernized in some other sense. Exactly in what sense has been suggested time and again, and that is, in the sense of eliminating the centuries-old system of land tenancy that’s largely intact because of the loopholes built into the misnamed Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
CARP has not worked in the way it was intended primarily because of those loopholes, which among others, have permitted such anomalies as landed estates’ being subdivided among family members, being declared industrial estates or made into subdivisions, and farmer beneficiaries’ reselling their land to former or aspiring landlords. The landlord-dominated Congress and the elite, including Mrs. Arroyo, couldn’t be happier if the country’s farmer-tenants aren’t.
Mrs. Arroyo was of course right in saying that more should be done. But what she has in mind will not solve the Philippine crisis of uneven wealth distribution and mass poverty. Her “more” is less.