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Philippine poverty unchanged in six years?

April 30, 2013 · 


Philippine Daily Inquirer

10:11 pm | Monday, April 29th, 2013


Three years ago President Aquino ran with the battle cry “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (If there is no corruption, there will be no poverty). It served as the cornerstone of his “daang  matuwid” (straight path) platform of governance. Halfway into his term, the President has achieved much, including the stellar economic growth that has earned the country an investment-grade credit status from Fitch Ratings.

This is why the disclosure last week by the National Statistical Coordination Board that the incidence of poverty has remained unchanged for the past six years was a big embarrassment to the Aquino administration. Many believe this was the reason Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, who heads the NSCB, was bumped off the official delegation that flew with the President to Brunei last Wednesday for the Asean Summit. The NSCB report said poverty incidence for the first half of 2012 was 27.9 percent. Comparing this with the 2006 and 2009 first-semester figures of 28.8 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively, it said poverty remained unchanged as the computed differences were not statistically significant. The NSCB noted that in terms of income distribution, 20 percent of the population (or the poorest segment) accounted for only 6 percent of the total national income, while the upper 20 percent accounted for nearly 50 percent.

All efforts to address poverty will be for naught if the government continues to neglect the agriculture sector. In a paper written in November 2008, Balisacan presented facts that remain true to this day: Despite the relatively rapid pace of urbanization in the past 20 years, poverty in the Philippines is still largely a rural phenomenon. Two of every three poor persons are in rural areas and mostly dependent on agricultural employment and incomes. Poverty incidence in agricultural households is roughly thrice that in the rest of the population. While agriculture’s share in the total labor force has dropped from about one-half in the late 1980s to only a little more than one-third by the mid-2000s, the sector continues to account for about 60 percent of total poverty.

Last week, Balisacan was also reported as saying that the visible underemployment in agriculture was a persistent problem that always came up in labor survey results. “This means that agriculture sector workers work less than 40 hours a week, perhaps because there is not much demand for labor in their areas, and they are looking for additional work, possibly because the wages they receive are not enough to meet their needs. If the problem of visible underemployment in agriculture is addressed, then incomes of farmers would increase, poverty incidence would decrease, and we would not be compromising food security,” he said.

The government should convince the private sector to invest in agriculture. It can start with the coconut industry, where, according to National Anti-Poverty Commission chief Joel Rocamora, the P70-billion coconut levy fund is available to spur farmers’ production. Plus interest, the fund should now be about P90 billion, and it can be used to tap the coconut industry’s huge potentials in job generation, he said.

Also, the government can improve the agriculture sector by simply coordinating with Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, who has a number of programs and projects that need only official support to get implemented. At a recent roundtable with the Inquirer’s business section, Alcala cited a quedan system that allows coconut farmers to take part in value-added production from coco sugar to coco biodiesel through cooperative- and joint-venture-type arrangements, and the expansion of the “Sikat Saka” program, under which farmers may borrow funds using an ATM card, to cover the top 20 rice-producing areas nationwide.

In the next three years, the Aquino administration hopes to cut poverty incidence to 16.6 percent, or half the 1991 poverty rate of 33.1 percent. It better start aggressively addressing the issues stunting agriculture; otherwise, it will have no option but to again lower the poverty threshold income (or the minimum amount required to meet basic food and nonfood needs) to meet its goal, as it did in 2011 when the threshold was lowered from the previous P52 to P46 for every Filipino per day. Yes, this can cut the official number of poor people, but this is not what we need. We need the government to implement programs and policies that will attack the root causes of poverty.


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