Bernardo M. Villegas
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Agenda for Helping the Poor (Part 2)

           Considering that the increase in rural poverty was greatly due to a very counter-productive comprehensive agrarian reform program (CARP), I would like to hear from the candidates at all levels how they are going to approach the new phase of agrarian reform.  I would be terribly disappointed if they would support a continuation of the fragmentation of existing large tracts of land.  We have done enough fragmentation.  Whatever budget we will have in the future for agrarian reform, let the money be spent on the rural infrastructures that we denied the poor farmers over the years.  Laws should be modified to allow the farmer beneficiaries (close to 5 million of them) to lease or even sell their lands to those who are willing and able to make their lands productive.  We should hear from the candidates very concrete proposals for legislation or executive action on how to consolidate lands to attain economies of scale in the planting of coconut, sugar, palm oil, coffee cacao, rubber, and other high-value crops in the manner that banana and pineapple plantations were organized in Mindanao even during the direst period of agrarian reform in Luzon and the Visayas.  I want to hear from the candidates how they will emulate Malaysia in the creation of nucleus estate plantations which enabled Malaysia to bring down poverty incidence to close to zero in the last century.  As I have written in another column, Malaysia has a poverty incidence at zero or at least close to zero, thanks to corporate schemes like the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) or Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) that reached a peak during the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir.  A professional group under the leadership of Flor Orendain is consolidating 15,000 hectares of coconut farms in Nakar, Quezon to achieve this goal of replicating FELDA in one of the poorest provinces of the country. If successful, I hope this program will be replicated in many coconut regions such as those in Bicol, Eastern Visayas, and Mindanao.

          Since not all members of the rural households can work in agriculture, I would like to see proposals from the candidates on how to redesign the K to 12 curriculum so that with the help of the Technical Skills Development Authority (TESDA), some of the youth from poor households can become plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, and electro-mechanical workers so that they can fill the expanding demand for industrial workers in the face of a renaissance of manufacturing that is expected as Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese firms relocate their industrial operations from China to the Philippines in the coming years.  This is a trend that has been discerned by Director General Lilia de Lima of the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA) from her frequent trips to Japan and other Northeast Asian countries.  A corollary to this focus on technical training (instead of too much emphasis on university education) should be the de-emphasis of birth control programs under the RH Law which can result in the drying up of the youthful manpower that has already wreaked havoc on the labor forces of developing  countries like Thailand and eventually China.

          As mentioned in Part 1, those who are fortunate enough to find jobs abroad as overseas workers do not belong to the poorest of the poor.  Their households belong to the low middle-income class that have monthly incomes of anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 pesos ($400 to 500).  These households, however, can easily fall below the poverty line if they are not helped to make productive use of the remittances they receive from the OFWs and to save for the proverbial rainy days.  I want to hear proposals from the candidates on how to help the OFWs and their families to prepare for the future when OFWs return and seek job opportunities in the Philippines or entrepreneurial ventures in which they can invest their savings.  These opportunities are especially abundant in high-value and intensive farming, the hospitality industry, logistics, education, and food processing.  I also expect the candidates to suggest how low-income households can have access to such financial services as consumer credit, micro insurance, microcredit and health services.  As mentioned earlier, quality basic education should be available for free in public schools and as much as feasible quality secondary education too.  With the exception of the University of the Philippines and a handful of state universities,  higher education should be left in  the hands of the private sector.

                   For the 25 percent of the poor who are in the urban areas, the greatest need is socialized housing.  Let the candidates propose solutions to informal housing that will relocate the settlers right in the middle of the areas where employment opportunities are found and not in far-away sites where there are no jobs, forcing the poor workers to spend most of their incomes in transport expenses.  Local governments can always find public lands in the middle of the city which can be offered to private housing developers as sites for socialized housing such as those constructed by PHINMA Properties in Quezon City and Cavite (Bistekville and Stikeville).  With the help of Pag-Ibig, medium-rise housing units can be made available for long-term lease.  It is not advisable to encourage the low-income households to own these units so that what they have to pay will not include the cost of the land but will be almost equivalent to what most of the informal settlers pay as rental in the squatter areas.  With a growing economy, these urban poor will be able to improve their earning capacity and move to better surroundings in the future.  As they move up the income ladder, they can always sell their leaseholds to households lower down the income brackets, especially those who are just starting their families.  Those running for mayors and governors should study closely these creative solutions and include them as part of their election promises.  They will be more believable because they can cite successful examples.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.