Bernardo M. Villegas
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Agenda for Helping the Poor (Part 1)

           Using the famous phrase from YayaDub,  “Sa Tamang Panahon” (at the proper time), we can say that candidates for the May elections have a most fitting time during the ongoing Jubilee Year of Mercy to make promises about addressing the serious poverty problem faced by more than 25 million Filipinos.  The most important challenge that should be faced squarely by national and local government officials in the coming years is to achieve inclusive growth.  Thanks to the political, economic and social reforms that previous leaders up to President Benigno S. Aquino III have instituted, the economy is almost on automatic pilot to grow at 6 percent or more for at least the next decade.  The fly in the ointment is that this growth is not trickling down.  The subsistence farmers and fisher folks, especially the coconut farmers and the landless ones, continue to wallow in absolute poverty.  I expect especially the candidates for President and for the Senate to spell out in concrete details what they intend to do to address this paramount challenge to the next Administration.  The public should not accept mere motherhood statements from the candidates, which unfortunately we have been getting in most presidential debates.

          The first harsh reality that candidates should take into account is that market forces alone will never bring down the poverty line.  Markets benefit those who are sufficiently nourished, healthy, schooled and skilled to respond to market signals.  Among them are the more than ten million Filipinos who have found jobs abroad and are remitting part of their incomes to their respective families.   Also, there are the more than a million workers in the BPO/KPO sector who have received post-secondary education and are sufficiently fluent in English.  No one of these belongs to the poorest of the poor.  It must be emphasized, however, that they could easily become impoverished if market forces were allowed to deteriorate through erroneous monetary, fiscal (especially income tax), and other government policies that interfere with the freedom of private enterprise, as has happened in countries like Argentina , Venezuela, Brazil, and other Latin American and African countries.  Thanks to more enlightened economic policies that respect market forces, 75 percent of our population are not suffering from dehumanizing  poverty.

          This truth is no consolation, however, to those whose households are earning less than ten thousand pesos a month for a family size of six.  Seventy five percent of them are in the rural areas and most of them are coconut farmers (about three million), subsistence fisher folks and landless rural workers.  The greatest service that the State can give to them is to devote a great part of the 5 percent of GDP already being allocated to infrastructures to farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, and post-harvest facilities.  Furthermore, the increased government budget for social services should be focused on agricultural extension services; quality elementary schooling in the rural areas (which presupposes more expenditures on school buildings); more and better rural health clinics, especially maternity clinics that can reduce maternal mortality; and potable water to the rural poor.  Obviously, only a responsible State (both national and local) can deliver these goods and services in any significant way.  Corporate social responsibly (CSR) programs of the private sector can only make a very small dent on rural poverty.  I repeat:  markets have severe limits in addressing absolute poverty.

          I hope the candidates for both national and local offices will also be discerning enough not to throw the baby with the bath water in dealing with the Conditional Cash Transfer Program.  Corruption and mismanagement in the handling of this program in the past are no reason to move for its abolition.  The reasonable response is to improve the way it is managed.  It is also an unfair generalization to state that these transfers encourage the poor to be lazy and dependent.  The truth is the poor are some of the most hardworking human beings on this planet.  They, however, need instant cash to address their immediate needs for nourishment (especially the babies whose brains are permanently damaged if they do not receive sufficient nutrients during their infancy).  They also need cash to enable their children to attend regular classes in the public schools within their vicinity (especially for transport and meals in school).  What candidates should propose are effective means of selecting the deserving households and of monitoring the expenditures so that corruption and wastes are avoided or at least minimized.  I expect detailed proposals from the candidates about the more effective and productive means of implementing the CCTP.   To be continued.