Bernardo M. Villegas
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Back to the Right Provinces

          An estimated 2 million workers may lose their jobs during the pandemic and unemployment rates in the country can reach double-digit levels.  It is highly probable that the poverty incidence which had gone down to a record low of 16.1 % in the last four years may return to the more than 20% level at which it had hovered for many years before this present Administration.  That is why our concern should shift from an obsession with growth rates of GDP towards measures to address the plight of not only those who have been living dehumanising lives before the pandemic but also those low-income but not poor households (about 37 percent of all households) who have lost their jobs or their sources of income (e.g.bus,  cab and tricycle drivers, construction workers, sidewalk food vendors, tourism-related workers, etc.) and have joined those falling below the poverty line.  One of the solutions being proposed by both Government and the business sector is the “Balik Probinsya” program, convincing those who are among the poor urban dwellers, especially informal settlers, and those who have lost their jobs during the ongoing pandemic to consider relocating to the provinces.

         This well-intentioned program reminds me of the efforts to resettle those in the informal housing sector (aka squatters) way from the middle of urban areas to far flung places where there are no job opportunities.    The result was always predictable.  The resettled workers would eventually go back to where they were before the resettlement because  no jobs  were available  in the places where they were resettled.  This gave rise to the efforts of some real estate developers to team up with local governments in the Metropolis to build social housing units on LGU properties right in the middle of  urban centers like Quezon City and Cavite.  Informal settlers should be provided housing where their jobs are.  Examples of these well thought-out relocation programs were the Bistikville housing units put up by PHINMA Properties in tandem with the Quezon City government right in the centre of Quezon City.  An LGU in Cavite followed suit and partnering with the same real estate company  put up Strikeville housing units in a municipality of Cavite.

         The moral of the lesson is that Balik Probinsya will work only if job opportunities or other means of livelihood will be available in the provinces to which we are trying to entice urban dwellers to move.  That is why we have to identify the regions, provinces or municipalities in which jobs and other means of making a living will be available to those who migrate away from urban centers like Metro Manila or Metro Cebu.  We can begin by examining which regions of the Philippines have been growing faster than the National Capital Region before the pandemic struck.  Data from the Philippine Statistical Authority will reveal that over the last five to eight years, NCR has been lagging in growth behind such other regions as Bicol, Davao, MIMAROPA,  Central Luzon, CALABARZON and Central Visayas.  Provinces  or cities that have been outshining Metro Manila in economic growth are Batangas, Bataan, Pampanga,  Iloilo, General  Santos, and Cagayan de Oro.  When we speak of Balik Probinsya, let us be specific and pinpoint these more progressive regions, provinces or cities as alternatives to highly congested urban centres like Metro Manila and Metro Cebu.

         More importantly, we have to address the “Balik Probinsya” message to middle or high-income class households who are the ones who can help generate more employment opportunities in these more progressive areas outside the urban centers.  For example, we should convince professional people or entrepreneurs in Metro Manila or Cebu but originally from Batangas province or Iloilo City  to reconsider relocating their families back to where they came from in order to practise their respective professions or use their savings to start a business in these more progressive areas.  Combining information on the industries that will recover faster than the others from the economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fast growing economic regions, we can suggest that professionals or entrepreneurs who are now residing and working in Metro Manila in the food and agribusiness industry, health services and fitness, digital services and education—the sectors that have benefited from the pandemic—should seriously consider practicing their profession or using their entrepreneurial talents in Batangas or Iloilo, among others.

         At the risk of being overly repetitive, let me give the example of agribusiness as a high-growth opportunity for people in Metro Manila to consider in the province of Batangas.  The pandemic has opened our eyes to the great opportunity to contribute to food security in densely populated areas like Metro Manila.  Those with enough interest in urban gardening who are now city slickers residing in Manila should consider partnering with some small farmers who had been the beneficiaries of agrarian reform in Batangas (or Bulacan, Pampanga or Nueva Ecija).  The small farmer can contribute his   property (say 3 to 5 hectares) to the business and the “city slicker” wanting to go into high-value farming  can contribute part of his savings and credit worthiness to invest in planting honey dew melon, red lady papaya, eggplants, lettuce, cabbage, kangkong and other high-value fruits and vegetable, using advanced technology to be provided by such companies as Harbest or East West Seeds.  Together, they can provide the Metro Manila dwellers with these highly nutritious food items  which will be in even greater demand as a means of improving immunity from the Coronavirus for a long time to come.  As more urban farming units are established in the areas surrounding Metro Manila, there can also be  a greater possibility of attracting some of the informal settlers in Metro Manila to relocate in these provinces to work for the urban farms.  The order of balik probinsya is clear:  first, attract the well-to-do to relocate to the provinces; then provide employment opportunities for some of the unemployed or underemployed workers in Metro Manila.

         The employment opportunities will not be limited to the farming side of agribusiness.  There will be need for workers also in post-harvest, transport and logistics, food processing and retailing as the supply of high-value food items is increased in the areas surrounding Metro Manila.  An analogous case can be made for those professionals or entrepreneurs in the high-growth sectors of health services,  digital services and the educational sector who will move to the higher-growth regions.  They will also create employment opportunities for the lower-income households as they expand their operations outside Metro Manila. In fact, the provinces in CALABARZON and Central Luzon have great potentials for attracting domestic tourists from the NCR  if there are entrepreneurs who will invest in bed-and-breakfast facilities, beach and other resorts which will be the first to enjoy the recovery of domestic tourism.  It will take a long time for the Philippines to attract foreign tourists  after the pandemic is over. What can recover almost instantly is domestic tourism.  In fact, it is well known that the province that has the largest number of domestic tourists is Batangas, with the number of those living in the Metro Manila area habitually spending their weekends in such areas as Nasugbu, Matabungkay,  Punta Fuego, Jamilo Coast, Laiya in San Juan, etc.  The provinces north of Manila  such as Bataan Zambales and La Union, can surely compete with Batangas in attracting domestic tourists.  It is well known that tourism is the most labor-intensive service sector.  There is still hope for travel and tourism if we just focus for the meantime on domestic tourism.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia