Sixth in a series on national concerns
Quick: What’s the biggest issue facing Filipinos now? If you answered Grace Poe’s citizenship or Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential plans, you probably don’t belong to the one in every eight families who suffered hunger in the last quarter. For most of those 13 million-plus souls, no concern is more pressing than putting food in their stomachs.
That figure is actually down from about one-fifth of households, where hunger has largely stayed under President Benigno Aquino 3rd. That’s worse than even the 2009 average of 19.1 percent, as surveyed by Social Weather Stations, despite the 2008-2009 global recession slashing Philippine economic growth to one percent that year.
Thankfully, the SWS hunger incidence dropped to about 13 percent in the first half of this year. But that figure means nearly 3 million families — about one in seven Filipinos — still lack food. And there’s no guarantee that the recent improvement won’t be just a short-term calm for grumbling stomachs before Aquino’s last State of the Nation Address in July.
Hunger numbers are more dismaying, if not shameful, next to those of other states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In the annual Global Hunger Index, the Philippines has fallen behind three Asean neighbors that once suffered higher GHIs.
In 1990, our index of 20.1 points was better than Indonesia’s 20.5, Thailand’s 21.3, and Vietnam’s 31.4. But a decade later, the Philippines had a worse GHI than all three, ranking 29th among countries measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
In the last quarter-century, when Thais and Vietnamese cut their FAO hunger indices by more than three-quarters to 5 and 7.5, respectively, and Indonesians by half to 10.3 since 1990, we pared ours by just a third to 13.1.
And after falling 3.2 points in the five years between 2000 and 2005, Philippine GHI dropped by only 1.6 points over the next decade split between two administrations.
Plainly, we’re not getting better in fighting hunger, despite accelerating economic growth in the past decade. What going on?
Not by CCT alone
That’s a question for a full-scale investigation. One point to consider: Whenever hunger spiked, the Aquino administration’s constant refrain is that the conditional cash transfer should address the problem. CCT gives monthly stipends to poor families who fulfill certain conditions like keeping children in school and visiting health clinics.
While a laudable program much praised and promoted by the World Bank, CCT is not designed to address immediate food needs, which often cost more than the stipend. Rather, a broad range of measures are needed to fight hunger, addressing many factors contributing to the scourge, from lack of income and livelihood, to cost and scarcity of food, partly due to inadequate transport links.
The Arroyo administration’s Accelerated Hunger Mitigation Program, launched in 2006, included a multiplicity of initiatives to address different root causes of hunger, from low income and high food prices, to transport bottlenecks causing area scarcities despite abundant supplies.
Among AHMP measures were food-for-school and food-for-work programs, special food lanes for haulers carrying edibles to Metro Manila markets, backyard vegetable plots, government stores selling basic commodities at affordable prices, and microfinance for poor families.
Did it work? Average hunger incidence as measured by SWS rose from 16.7 percent in 2006 to 19.1 percent in 2009 and 2010. However, that period coincided with rising food and energy prices due to the 2005 spike in oil prices, the 2006 fiscal reforms (which raised value-added tax and imposed it on fuel and electricity), the 2008 surge in world food costs, and the 2009 global recession.
Economic and fiscal conditions were far better in the Aquino administration, with the world and Philippine economies recovering from the slump, and the budget boosted by higher revenues from increased growth and the 2006 fiscal reforms.
Yet despite much faster economic growth and larger state resources, hunger incidence rose under Aquino, averaging 19.9 percent in 2011-12 and 19.5 percent in 2013. Only last year did hunger begin moderating, averaging 18.3 percent, and falling further to an average of 13.1 percent in January-June 2015.
FAO Framework of Factors Affecting Food Security
One possible reason: Aquino did not continue AHMP, as one of its key coordinators told this writer in 2011. Instead, the administration kept pointing to CCT as the answer to rising hunger. But P1,400 additional stipends a month won’t even pay for the rice needed by the average poor family of six.
Plainly, as the FAO framework of factors affecting food security shows, hunger has many causes, and programs to address it cannot rely on one magic bullet. Hence, the next President should come up with his or her own program designed to fight the scourge on many fronts, with constant monitoring at Palace and Cabinet level.
Under Arroyo, the Cabinet Secretariat under this writer and the National Nutrition Council, ably coordinated by Assistant Secretary Bernardita Flores, kept watch on hunger factors and the AHMP measures addressing them.
Let’s hope Aquino’s successor can bring together the best programs from the past two administrations to fight hunger with the same success as our neighbors. Millions of food-insecure Filipinos depend on it.