Bernardo M. Villegas
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Duterte Administration and Poverty Reduction

           One of the benefits of a President coming from the island of Mindanao will be the greater probability that poverty reduction will be given the highest priority by the Duterte Administration.  Whereas the national average of poverty incidence is about 25 percent, in many regions of Mindanao (especially the Muslim Mindanao areas), poverty incidence can be as high as 60 percent.  There is enough evidence that decades of neglect by imperial Manila have led to the impoverishment of this potentially rich island that is well endowed with natural resources.

          From the early pronouncements of President Rody Duterte, even before he was elected, we can expect his Government to break the cycle of poverty and economic isolation, not only of Mindanao, but in all the rural areas of the Philippines, where 75 percent of the very poor reside, by investing in countryside infrastructures, rural education, health and access to basic utilities, especially potable water and electricity.  At the core of the fight against poverty in the Duterte Administration will be a shift form dole-outs to empowerment, so that through private initiatives the Filipino people can take responsibility for their community’s development.  After all, this is the rationale for President Duterte’s preference for a federal form of government.

          From pronouncements of the key members of the Cabinet, especially those constituting the economic cluster, I foresee the following areas of priorities:

          1.  Promote modern agribusiness technologies and practices:  There will be emphasis on the cultivation and production of high-value crops through natural farming for local consumption.  The Davao model will be replicated in other regions of Mindanao and throughout the whole Archipelago.  This will lead to the expansion of local employment and income opportunities, while reducing wastage by shortening the logistics and travel time of agricultural produce from farm to market.  Private investments through build-operate-transfer (BOT) or similar schemes will be encouraged to build cold storage, public markets, and similar support infrastructures to expand rural economic activities.

          2.  Operationalize the concept of “business islands” by transforming certain locations as regional growth centers along the lines of special administrative regions similar to Hong Kong.  With fiscal transparency and efficiency, these locations are envisioned as magnets for investments to disperse and broaden economic activities away from the National Capital Region.  The low hanging fruit is the Clark area.  I find it strange that some people are still talking about an international airport along Manila Bay.  Making Clark as the premier international port is a no brainer.

          3.  Refocus and wind down the activities of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).  Very early in the campaign trail, President Duterte was already expressing his disappointment with the failed land reform programs of the past.  Contrary to the noise being heard from the new Secretary of  the Department of Agrarian Reform, it is expected that President Duterte will focus on making the more than four million farmer beneficiaries of CARP finally earn a living by endowing them with farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities and the agricultural extension services that were long denied them by previous Administrations.  From his great familiarity with the success stories of high-value crops in Mindanao, President Duterte is expected to move on from overemphasizing land ownership and land fragmentation and focus instead on farm productivity and modernization  He would rather see our farms populated by prosperous farmers who will till the land, rather than impoverished landed poor that the failed agrarian reform programs of the past have inflicted on Philippine society.  We shall see more consolidation of land through farmers’ cooperatives or nucleus estate systems along the lines of Malaysian palm oil plantations.

          4.  Make education relevant and reward our teachers.  We should review our curricular offerings, in view of the transition to K to 12, to make our education relevant to the needs of an agro-industrializing   society.  This would require a greater focus on science and technology, while strengthening the foundation of our education offerings based on values, virtues, civics, and ethics.  To attract the best talents into education, teachers will be rewarded with higher pay (in tandem with the military personnel).  To sustain their continuing relevance, teachers will be supported in their never ending formation and studies, making sure that their career progression will be based on merits.

          5.  Refocus the Conditional Cash Transfer Program as a bridge towards self-reliance.  Although this Program will continue to be an emergency solution to assist poor families to meet their immediate needs of survival, the cash transfers should be an occasion for the beneficiaries to gain skills while receiving benefits to improve their employability or income prospects.  Especially critical is to continue tying the cash transfers to assuring that the children of the poor will not drop out from formal schooling at the basic education levels.  The Government will partner with private foundations that are improving the quality of basic education in the rural areas.

          It is heartening to learn that the Budget Secretary is willing to increase the fiscal deficit with the view of allocating more Government expenditures to rural infrastructures and improving the quality of the services to the poor in the rural areas.  I am sure that the Secretary of Education will make basic education a most potent tool for poverty eradication.   It is time that we make use of our good international credit standing to bring down our much vaunted economic progress to the poorest of the poor.  I have no doubts that with the above priorities, there will be the much desired “trickle down” in the next six years.  Inclusive growth will not just be a motherhood statement but a happy reality at last.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villega@uap.asia.