Zero, Zilch, Nada

by Juan L. Mercado

“It was a punch of savage beauty,” the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell wrote. Manny Pacquiao’s hook plastered Manchester’s fair-haired lad, Ricky Hatton, just six minutes into the fight.

“No (more) partying like there was no tomorrow,” Powell added. “All tomorrows now belong to Pacquiao… Good night, Ricky. And thanks for the memories.”

But “a nation of 90 million cannot stay forever delirious,” Freeman daily snapped. “There are more pressing concerns.”

Concerns that bug Torio, for example. In battered flip-flops and Cory-yellow baseball cap, Torio peddles the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other newspapers. He’s 60 but looks a decrepit 75. He cadged extra money from the wife for an X-ray. “I spat blood last night,” he explained.

The X-ray confirms that Torio has moved from the ranks of the ill-fed to statistical charts of tuberculars. TB prevalence is 450 for every 100,000 Filipinos—triple the 116 for Thais. Disease sidelined him into a watch-your-car jockey.

UP economist Arsenio Balisacan worries over our Torios. The Philippines, he frets, may welsh on its pledge to meet Millennium Development Goals, specially that on poverty. Under MDG Target One, we swore to whittle down by half the proportion of Torios or those whose daily income is below $1 (purchasing power parity).

Along with 188 nations, we vowed to meet eight MDG benchmarks. And we would do this by 2015. “Cross our hearts,” pledged our delegates at the UN Millennium Summit.

Amazing. Our officials invariably dodge any time-bound target. They thereby duck accountability. Like Gloria or Erap, most coast along on vague and easily shredded promises

Balisacan and his colleagues at the University of the Philippines, however, took the government at its word. They matched 1991 poverty thresholds with “reasonably comparable household survey data (1985-2006).” They spelled out their conclusions in a forthcoming book, “Poverty Reduction: Theories, Facts, Remedies.”

Two findings stick out: (1) “As a proportion of the population, poverty did decrease. But it surged in recent years.” (2) “Poverty increased between 2000 and 2006 despite economic advance.”

In 1991, indigence was pegged at an already massive 45.3 percent. MDG Target One means we would have to slash that to 22.6 percent in the remaining six years. Can we do it?

“As seat of political power… Metro Manila is most accessible to media,” the book adds. Thus, subsidy programs for the poor, like National Food Authority cereals, are skewed to favor Manilans.

Manila’s indigents, however, add up to only 4 percent of the country’s poor. In contrast, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Western Mindanao account for a full third of destitutes.

Poverty incidence among farming families is triple that of city folk. The number of agricultural workers is shrinking. True. But this sector still accounts for 6 out of every 10 mired in penury.

Many past programs, from credit, food subsidy to land reform, “were christened in the name of the poor and equity. In practice, they benefited the non-poor, including politicians, bureaucrats, and the elites.”

The region’s economic pacesetter in the 1960s, the Philippines trails badly today. In just 20 years, Malaysia and Thailand virtually scrubbed “absolute penury.” China had a higher poverty incidence than the Philippines. Now, Beijing’s poverty incidence is only half that of Manila.

It’s the same story with Indonesia and Vietnam. Their poverty levels were double ours in the 1990s. Indonesia and Vietnam today have cut their poverty to a level similar to ours.

“Economic growth in recent years bypassed the poor.” Widespread poverty here has always been “disturbingly high,” the book notes. The current recession, symbolized by sacked OFW workers, “will deepen destitution.” Poverty threatens “to rip our social fabric.”

These findings won’t make the “Wowowee” show. We are being trundled to the poorhouse, anesthesized by fiestas, movie stars, entertainment—and even genuine achievers like Manny Pacquiao.

“Yet, addressing the poverty problem is the single most important and urgent policy challenge facing the country today,” the study says. It involves life and death for Torios. The governance vacuum swells the flood of those seeking visas to scram.

There’s a surfeit of those who offer themselves as saviors: Gloria, Chiz, Manny, Loren, Dick, Mar or even a nuisance like Ping or ex-convict Erap. Can they craft and hack “a strongly inclusive development agenda”? This involves “improving the quality of economic growth to enhance its benefits to the poor.” It must address population growth. Today’s population policy vacuum has to change, if only to improve the country’s chances of winning the war against poverty.

There’s no shortage of options. Strong connections run between agricultural and rural development and poverty reduction. Investments in basic health and education, especially in rural areas, pay off in terms of poverty reduction.

Failing decisive reforms, the prospects of achieving MDGs on poverty and social development by 2015 are low, Balisacan says. “Low” is the polite word for zero, zilch, nada.

“Sorry,” Torio apologized. “I’ve no idea what MDGs are.” Hopefully, our presidential aspirants—even Manny Pangilinan—will explain before your premature grave, I murmured under my breath.

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