THAT’s the hard, sad truth, Senator Poe.
In lamenting the presence of 15 million hungry children in our society, Senator Poe strayed – God bless her – into the verboten topic of growth-poverty disconnect. How can so much hunger take place amid sustained reports of economic growth, she asked. How do we account for the great disconnect? How can we, in conscience, brag about economic miracles when 15 million children are being wasted by hunger ?
Among the top elective officials, she was the second to raise the great divide. The first was Mr. Binay, who a few months ago said the “I” word – inequality – in a speech. The story (no blood, no gore, no scam) was buried near the death notices.
On the “Why,” I will give Ms. Poe the answer, though stated in a roundabout manner: Mr. Aquino is more focused on the Calax bidding than the issues of hunger and poverty. Yes, that is the sum of it. While Mr. Aquino’s administration has been agonizing on what the right decision should be so it could save face before the business community, I don’t think his Cabinet had spent one impassioned meeting debating to find urgent solutions to poverty/hunger issues.
Is it because the poor and the hungry have been there from time immemorial? And that poverty and hunger are worn-out themes that do not speak well of a President? And that the poor and the hungry cannot raise the issue and get real notice? Then, what do we have in contrast?
In contrast, the tug and pull of the two business groups competing for the award to build the Calax may give the impression that the Aquino administration does not practice economic fairness and does not abide by the universal bidding rules. And that it has strayed from the path of technocratic righteousness — the kind of righteousness that pleases business and capital but does nothing to feed the hungry. Media, you see, abet this technocratic righteousness. The media has long lost attention and focus on hunger and poverty issues. Media no longer “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It has been doing the reverse.
If Ms. Poe has yet to know the priorities of Mr. Aquino, here they are:
Sustained GDP growth rates
Credit upgrades from Moody, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch
Alleluias and seals of good governance from the multilateral institutions
Approbations from the Davos crowd and the Makati Business Club
Positive write-ups from parachuting foreign business writers who often hail the Philippines under Mr. Aquino as the one of the brightest economic stars of the region
Mr. Aquino, in case Ms. Poe has yet to notice this, has defined his governing priorities and the constituencies mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount (the hungry, the weak, the meek the prosecuted, the helpless ) are not his preferred constituencies. Impressive stats are his calling, not really lifting the lives of the people on the margins. In several columns, I wrote that Mr, Aquino’s keyboards cannot even type the word “inequality.” It was true then and truer now.
Mr. Aquino crafts and executes his policies according to his defined governing philosophy. And by all means, he is not an insensitive outlier. Many prominent global political leaders are like that – Randians on steroids. Mitt Romney (the 47 percent) and Paul Ryan (inner city lazies), who aspired to become president and vice president of the US, had defined the US as a country of the glorious job-creators and the un-American “takers/moochers.” Even as most of Europe is on the verge of a deflation, Angela Merkel refuses to budge from her austerity and fiscal restraint policy to help save Europe.
While Senator Poe probably read Robert Kennedy (GDP figures are useless if they do not lift human lives), Mr. Aquino probably absorbed an overdose of John Galt.
The governing principle is the reason why the anti-poverty programs of the Aquino administration lack intensity and purpose. They are orthodox, routine and uninspiring. While the bolsa de familia has been successful in changing marginal lives in many Latin American countries, its Philippine incarnation– the conditional cash transfer program – has been slammed as either of the two: a failed program or an ineffective program.
The P60 billion or so that is allotted to the program a year does not go to supporting the health and education needs of the children supposed to benefit from the cash transfers. It goes to “ tong-its” and “gin bulag.” While the Aquino administration is proud of its budget, that amount is small when ranged against the size of the national budget. What is P64 billion (the CCT proposed for 2015) when measured against the national budget of P2.6 trillion? It is not huge by any means, considering that it is the centerpiece anti-poverty program.
A country mired in a great growth-poverty conundrum should be an aggressive and relentless welfare state. Mr. Aquino’s government has never been that.
Because Mr. Aquino is not even faintly bothered by the great divide, its other programs to rein in massive poverty and lack of opportunities go by the phony calling of programs for “inclusive growth.” It also claims that the budgetary philosophy rightly draws from the needs/aspirations of the grass roots, a bottom-up budgeting strategy.
Mostly, it is Orwellian-speak, like the unforgettable speech by his Cabinet secretary on what makes up “inclusive growth.” Hearing those words, you would either cringe at the utter lack of concern for the tragic lives at the wasted hamlets of poverty. Or you get the message that it is all phony talk – just to show that the government has programs to lift the lives of the poor.
There are, however, snarls and glitches with this governing mind set and principle. Like the questions recently raised by Senator Poe. Like Mr. Binay raising the “I” word – inequality – in his speech.
In January, the global figure most identified with denouncing the economic orthodoxy fully embraced by the Aquino government will be visiting. Pope Francis, whose economic beliefs are in dramatic contrast to what Mr. Aquino believes in and implements, may just say something about the great divide, which to the pope is the most pressing and urgent issue of our time.