Bernardo M. Villegas
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Perfect Tandem

           The Philippine economy is growing at a respectable rate of 6 to 7 percent.  So why are there still millions of people going to bed hungry every day?  The answer is that for a growing economy to reduce mass poverty in any significant way, growth of 7 percent of GDP for more than a decade is needed.  That was the experience of the tiger economies in the last century and China in more recent times.  Our growth of 7 percent or more has to be sustained for at least a decade for us to see millions of Filipinos being liberated from mass poverty.  High growth is not a sufficient condition for eradicating poverty.  But it is a necessary condition.  Without growth, any attempt to redistribute income will just result in distributing more poverty.

          That said, however, we have never been in a better condition to attack poverty more directly than with today's leadership in our national government.  We have a perfect tandem between our President and Vice-President who are both single-mindedly focused on poverty eradication.  Take President Benigno Aquino III.  As he said in his SONA, the Philippine Government is building an environment where progress can be felt by the majority.  At the beginning of his term, there were 760,357 household-beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.  The target was 3.1 million within two years.  Only in February of 2012, the three millionth household-beneficiary of Pantawid Pamilia had already been registered.  In 2013, there will be an additional 3.8 million--five times than at the beginning of his term.  Furthermore, 23.31 million more Filipinos have access to PhilHealth's array of benefits and services.  The 5.2 million poorest households identified by the National Household Targeting System will now fully benefit from PhilHealth's programs, free of charge.  Because of the Department of Health's No Balance Billing Policy, treatment for dengue, pneumonia, asthma, cataract--as well as treatments for catastrophic diseases like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and acute leukemia--can be availed of for free by the poorest Filipinos.

          Even more vital than health in helping the poor is giving their children access to quality basic education.  In this regard, President Aquino is lucky to have a very competent and honest Secretary of Education in which he has great faith.  As he said in the SONA:  "Before the next year ends, we will have built the 66,800 classrooms needed to fill up the shortage we inherited.  The 2,573,212 backlog in chairs that we were bequeathed will be addressed before 2012 ends.  This year, too, will see the eradication of the backlog of 61.7 million textbooks--and we will finally achieve the one-to-one ratio of books to students."   There will also be a big jump in the budget for education.  From 177 billion pesos in 2010, the proposal for 2013 is 292.7 billion pesos.

          In addition to these direct expenditures that immediately benefit the poor, the present Administration is building on the previous Administration's commendable record of improving the infrastructures in the countryside--the most important long-term solution to mass poverty.  The improvement is especially in good governance, again thanks to the President being able to rely on an honest and competent Secretary of Public Works and Highways, Rogelio Singson.  As the President said in the SONA:  "We will not build our road network based on kickbacks or favoritism.  We will build them according to a clear system.  Now that resources for these projects are no longer allocated haphazardly, our plans will no longer end up unfulfilled--they will become tangible roads that benefit the Filipinos people.  When we assumed office, 7,239 kilometers of our national road were not fixed. Right now, 569 kilometers of this has been fixed under the leadership of Secretary Babes Singson.  In 2012, an additional 2,275 kilometers will be finished.  We are even identifying and fixing dangerous roads with the use of modern technology.  These are challenges we will continue to address every year, so that, before the end of my term, every inch of our national network will be fixed."   As a personal observation, I can attest to the fact that the national highway from my hometown, Sto. Tomas, Batangas, all the way to San Pablo, Laguna, has been expanded in record time with the least disruption to traffic.

          The President is also fortunate that his Vice President, Jejomar C. Binay is effectively  focusing on two areas directly related to  poverty alleviation:  socialized housing and the welfare of the poorest among the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).  As the Vice-President reported in a speech to the Foundation for Economic Freedom last July 25, 2012, there is much progress in the issuance of free land titles to the poor:  "Free land titles have been handed out through the 'Handog Titolo Program.'  In January 2012, 65 owners of untitled land in Pakil, Laguna became land title holders with the help of the local government of Pakil.  In February 2012, in cooperation with the Makati city government, 523 land titles covering a total area of 53,630.2 square meters in 6 barangays, were distributed to qualified residents.  In May 2012, land titles were also handed over the residents of Mabini, Batangas with the help of the LGU in Mabini.  This is only the beginning and if we continue on this track, we can provide so many marginalized families with a decent instrument against poverty..."   In the same speech, Vice-President Binay reported that at present, there are 114 areas around the country that have been proclaimed as socialized housing sites, with about 280,000 beneficiaries, mostly very poor families and low-income government employees such as police, military and teachers.  Similar projects are being implemented to benefit indigenous people such as the Aeta and Mangyan tribes and more minorities will be soon reached.

          The Vice-President is hands-on in coming to the aid of OFWs who get into trouble with foreign governments.  As an illustration, he described the situation pertaining to a case in Saudi Arabia:  "Robert Mendoza was killed by Jonard Langamin in a work-related dispute.  This often carries the most severe punishment and I intervened to secure the forgiveness of the Mendoza family so that Mr.Langamin did not have to face execution.  To better address cases involving blood money or diyyah, we have formulated guidelines which are now awaiting the President's approval."  The Vice President also prioritized the welfare of the OFWs at the lowest level of skills and income:  the domestic helpersUnder his leadership, new guidelines were instituted for the departure of Filipino au pairs, who have now proper safety nets for their protection without restricting their rights to self-improvement.  The Vice President has recommended to the President that au pairs be given the same tax exemption from travel taxes and terminal fees as OFWs.   Given this perfect tandem between the President and the Vice President as regards bringing down the benefits of growth to the lower-income households, I am confident that the vision of "inclusive growth" contained in our Philippine Development Plan will be achieved. It is quite clear that the Government is not just leaving the solution to our poverty problem to free market forces alone.  They believe in the dictum expressed by Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical Centessimus Annus that free market forces alone cannot address the problem of mass poverty.  There must be direct intervention by an efficient and honest Government in the delivery of such basic services as education, health, OFW welfare, socialized housing and the provision of rural infrastructures.  We have the perfect tandem  for the Government to address these basic needs.  Fortunately, they still have another three years to directly combat mass poverty.  For comment, my email address is