Last of three parts
Along with security challenges, Aquino’s successor needs to address problems that directly impact the poor and in which the current regime has made little progress: stagnant jobs and incomes, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change.
On Tuesday came a sudden drop in poverty rates from the Philippines Statistical Authority (PSA), newly created by law from data-gathering bodies like the National Statistical Coordination Board and the National Statistics Office. At quick glance, the numbers indicate that things are looking up.
In just one year between the first quarters of 2012 and 2013, the PSA said, poverty incidence among individuals and families both fell by about three percentage points. If those results reflect reality, that’s nearly 3 million Filipinos escaping poverty.
Now for the fine print. The 2012 rate is based on the Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) conducted every three years and covering 51,000 families nationwide. The 2013 data comes from a modified Annual Poverty Indicators Survey (APIS), augmented by FIES income questions, but limited to 13,000 households.
Philippine statistical anomaly?
This writer doesn’t have a PhD in statistics, but one wonders how using one-fourth the sample size might affect results. Especially if decreasing respondents meant excluding vast swathes of farflung and impoverished countryside covered by the larger poll.
At least two seasoned statisticians would be extra careful about using the APIS to measure poverty incidence in tandem with the FIES. National Statistics Office Administrator Carmelita Ericta and NSO statistician Jeremias Luis explained in their 2009 Philippine Institute of Development Studies paper on the APIS:
“… the FIES has a detailed questionnaire on both income and expenditures while APIS has a summarized version in terms of income and expenditure items. Also the two surveys have different reference period so that when income data from APIS would be used to estimate poverty incidence, the result could be very different. … income and expenditures data of APIS were never utilized in updating the official poverty statistics on an annual basis.”
Well, now they are. We hope 3 million or so of our kababayan were indeed no longer poor after just a year. Development agencies should extol this feat, coming right after six years of minimal progress as measured by the 2006, 2009 and 2012 FIES. It beats even Vietnam, which the World Bank praised for slashing poverty by an annual average of just over two percentage points between the early 1990s and 2010. Superb job for the Philippines — if the PSA data checks out.
Jobless, hungry and dissatisfied
Improving numbers on jobs, hunger and prices, which tend to accompany poverty reduction, would help give credence to the reported incidence drop. The picture here isn’t as rosy as the PSA poverty figures.
Unemployment in January 2013 barely budged from 7.2 percent a year before, while it jumped last April to 7.5 percent, from 6.9 percent in April 2012. For January this year, unemployment worsened, rising to 7.5 percent, despite continued strong growth in 2013 and even excluding Yolanda-hit Region VIII.
Hunger data gives some support to the PSA poverty rate. The March 2013 incidence measured by Social Weather Stations was 19.2 percent, down 4.6 percentage points over one year. But the annual average hunger rate hardly changed since 2011. As for SWS’s self-rated poverty, it mirrored hunger results, dropping three percentage points to 52 percent in March 2013, but averaging the same in the last two years.
Pulse Asia’s Ulat ng Bayan surveys measured public approval or disapproval of government performance in key national concerns. Between March 2012 and March 2014, approval ratings were the same or slightly down for poverty-related issues: creating more jobs, improving workers’ pay, reducing poverty, and controlling inflation. A similar SWS survey showed declining net satisfaction over the past year in addressing poverty, hunger and inflation, after early 2013 gains.
The poverty agenda for 2016
The mixed data suggests that inclusive growth and poverty reduction remain big challenges. Economic policies are not translating growth into improvements that significantly uplift the needy. One tack needs serious review: the P40-billion-a-year in conditional cash transfers, Aquino’s flagship program, may be better spent on infrastructure and rural development, including agricultural productivity programs.
In particular, coconut farmers, among the poorest sectors along with fisherfolk, have seen incomes drop with falling copra prices. Both communities were further hit by superstorms ravaging the archipelago pretty much every year since Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009. Last November’s Yolanda destroyed vast coconut lands and fleets of fishing boats in the Visayas, robbing millions of peasants of their livelihood.
Thus, apart from inadequate economic policies and dubious spending priorities, the next administration needs to address the neglect of disaster and climate change programs legislated in the final Arroyo years. In particular, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act and the Climate Change Law should be vigorously pushed by Aquino’s successor, for the sake of poor communities most vulnerable to calamities.
The DRR neglect is clear from the woefully inadequate response to Yolanda, with hardly any national government action for days despite President Aquino’s claim that aircraft, vessels, trucks and relief supplies were ready well before the supertyphoon struck.
The fact is Aquino has not implemented the NDRRM law’s provision to set up a billion-peso national agency similar to America’s Federal Emergency Management Administration, with ample expertise, equipment, personnel, and a Cabinet-level head. If we had one, it would not take over half a year to come up with the Yolanda recovery plan now promised by recovery czar Panfilo Lacson only in June.
Meanwhile, a key disaster risk reduction strategy — climate change adaptation programs to protect communities vulnerable to intensifying weather patterns — also lacks presidential drive. The Climate Change Commission’s legally mandated chairman, the President himself, has found nil time to attend meetings. Even the billion-peso People’s Protection Fund for communities facing calamity threats was yet to be disbursed two years after its enactment under Aquino.
Plainly, if the nation’s leader does not give prominent and sustained impetus to DRR and climate change adaptation, they get neglected until disaster strikes. Then there are finger-pointing and pledges of resolute action, only to be forgotten till the next calamity.
If the next president aims to uplift the poor, his top agenda should be basic needs, jobs, and DRR, including climate change adaptation and a fully funded and enabled disaster response agency. That may not generate big headlines, but it will elevate the destitute and save countless lives.
(The first and second parts were published on Monday April 28 and Wednesday April 28.)