Geography As Destiny

by Juan L. Mercado

Suppose our 80 provinces were countries. How would we compare with 185 other nations, say in increasing life expectancy? What about improving health? Or keeping kids in school longer, plus tamping down gender bias?

The Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR) 2013 raises those issues in a country reeling from legislators slurping at the pork barrel. That detracts attention. This eighth PHDR probes how hazard-studded geography can cripple people’s access to health clinics, schools and jobs. Is geography destiny?

The PHDR first came off the press in 1994, crafted under then National Economic and Development chair Solita Monsod’s no-nonsense leadership. The 1997 report tracked gains, by women, in education, jobs—and constraints. As insurgency flared, the 2005 report dealt with “Human Security and Armed Conflict.” The 2009 theme examined how institutions and politics impact on human development.

The latest study continues a 19-year effort, to shatter one-dimensional yardsticks. Gross Domestic Product divides national wealth by population, and shoves the beggar, in tattered hand-me-downs, alongside  83-year-old Imelda Marcos wailing over President Aquino’s plan to auction the confiscated Roumeloites jewels.

Conventional gauges reveal “what sets toothpaste prices,” the late Mahbub ul Haq of the World Bank noted. Are these the “right questions”? No, responded 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Focus instead on life spans, hunger, primary schools, and human aspirations, too. “We need a measure that is not as blind to social aspects as ‘GNP’ is.”

Would that include toilets? Sen triggered an international uproar in July when he wrote in his new book “An Uncertain Glory”: “Half of all Indians have no toilet.”

At the UN Development Program, Sen and Haq crafted human development indices. HDIs measure average performance, by a country, in terms of longevity, knowledge, and decent standard of living. HDIs were deployed for the first time in the 1990 global Human Development Report. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” the lead sentence read.

Twenty-three years later, the PHDR found the topnotchers here clustered in Luzon: Benguet, Batanes, Rizal, Cavite, Bulacan, Bataan, Laguna, Nueva Vizcaya, Ilocos Norte, plus Pampanga. Life expectancies were almost  two decades longer than those in conflict-ridden provinces. Those who lived in Benguet had 74-year life spans. It’s a truncated 57 in Sulu.

Seen in an international matrix, the life span for a Filipino is 69 years—similar to Indonesia but behind Thailand’s 74. The Philippines is wedged as No. 114 among 186 countries in terms of human development, says the UNDP’s “The Rise of the South.” We’re sandwiched between Moldova and Uzbekistan. Malaysia is way ahead at Slot 64.

Lagging provinces, as in the past, included Lanao del Sur, Masbate, Zamboanga del Norte, Saranggani, Davao Oriental, Agusan del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Tawi-Tawi, and Maguindanao. In the bottom five provinces, kids dropped out of school after six years—compared to almost 11 years for the top five.

As in earlier PHDRs, the “Provinces Versus Countries” analysis provides insights by comparison. Achievements in Benguet and Metro Manila, for example, are bracketed between Singapore on one end and Kazakhstan on the lower end.

Cebu, Zambales, Cagayan, Nueva Ecija and Davao del Sur are boxed in by Paraguay on top and Africa’s Moldova below. The performance of Guatemala and Equatorial Guinea compress that of nine provinces: Camarines Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Western Samar, Romblon, Mountain Province, Northern Samar, Sultan Kudarat, Palawan and Basilan.

Jose Rizal’s epigraph is relevant to issues that PHDR 2013 addresses, writes University of the Philippines economist Emmanuel de Dios, who heads the Human Development Network. Some are happy in their place of stay or even have the luxury of choosing it. “Others are simply condemned by their circumstances to endure it.”

Geographic inequality impacts economic growth and interlock “basins of attraction” like cities and mass markets. But “social and political barriers can frustrate people’s efforts to better their own lot,” the PHDR stresses. Still, “uneven, unbalanced growth is not incompatible with inclusive human development.”

Sure. But current public policy falls short. Overcentralized government programs tailor a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Disease-specific health campaigns skip neglected tropical ailments. Transport reforms are piecemeal. A “silo” complex buttresses an unresponsive bureaucratic framework that locks out human needs.

Improvement of the HDI has been slow but steady. It masks the oscillating performance in some provinces that haven’t closed the gap in human development. These provinces are locked into the vicious cycle of falling incomes and slumping health and education outcomes.

No effective political authority today tracks the record of human development at a province’s level. Hence, response is scattershot to cities and farms are strapped with leading or lagging areas.

There is need to change the current citycentric emphasis. A maze of laws and planning practices guts provincial tax bases and powers. A window of opportunity is opening in public sentiment to revisit the Local Government Code (1991) after more than two decades of implementation.

Provinces need elbow room, in law and budget allocations, to plan and implement programs with the democratic accountability that autonomy entails. As philosopher George Santayana groused: “It seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.”


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