Forget Pacquiao’s taxes, Napoles’s schemes, and the Miriam and Johnny Show. Below are the real issues Filipinos must address pronto.
First, the pilferage and hoarding of Yolanda relief goods, reported by the United Nations relief agency and London’s Daily Mail newspaper, must be stopped, investigated and punished—in that order. Not only is this unconscionable crime robbing the devastated communities of Leyte, Samar, Cebu and Panay of desperately needed food, clothing, housing, and medicines. It also makes donors here and abroad stop giving.
Far more than the pork barrel anomalies or the local government failings in disaster response that President Benigno Aquino 3rd ordered investigated, and certainly even more urgent than looking into the dubious parole of killer Antonio Leviste, the diversion and non-distribution of relief goods should command full and immediate attention by investigating agencies, Congress and Malacañang.
These irregularities and inefficiencies in relief operations also tarnish the country’s improving corruption image. If the worst disaster since Mount Pinatubo’s eruption, plus nationwide outrage over pork barrel are not enough to restrain kleptocrats, then we are truly appalling in our venality as a people.
Moreover, religious leaders must condemn this wholesale theft from hungry, homeless, jobless, dispossessed and bereaved Filipinos. In particular, Catholic bishops should consider excommunicating those selling relief donations. And tell those who knowingly buy the goods that they too commit grave sin. Remember: The harm they do to the least of their brethren is done to Christ Himself.
Despite GNP and CCT growth, poverty barely budges
Second problem: Poverty barely budged since 2009 despite rapid growth last year and more than P80 billion in conditional cash transfers to millions of indigent households. Reports the National Statistical Coordination Board: “The estimate for 2012 is slightly lower than the 2009 and 2006 poverty incidence figures, which were estimated at 20.5 and 21.0 percent, respectively, but these differences are not statistically significant.”
That means the minimal decline may be due to measurement methods and errors, not any real decline in destitution. In fact, in the past six years, poor families in the country increased by some 400,000 to 4.2 million households last year. That increase of 2 million people is equivalent to two-thirds of Quezon City’s population.
Extreme poverty afflicted 1.61 million families in 2012, erasing gains between 2006 and 2009, when the Arroyo administration reduced destitute families from 1.6 million to 1.55 million, despite global recession and skyrocketing energy and food prices worldwide.
Self-rated poverty data from Social Weather Stations confirms the disturbing NSCB numbers. Average SRP amid last year’s economic surge was 52 percent — three percentage points higher than the 49 percent mean in 2009, when gross domestic product crawled at less than one percent growth. Food-poor families who could not afford to buy what they needed to eat, were also up, averaging 41 percent of SWS respondents last year, compared with 39 percent in 2009.
With Yolanda’s devastation, Bohol’s earthquake, Zamboanga City’s siege, and other calamities this year, the poverty numbers will get even worse. Already, Region VIII, hardest hit by the supertyphoon, has the second-worst poverty incidence: 37.4 percent, trailing only the 48.7 percent of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. And both regions as well as Region XII or Socsargen, have seen their poverty rates leap from 2009, offsetting improvements in the last years of the past regime.
Channel more budget funds to the poorest
Bottom line: over the past three years, the poorest regions of the country have gotten worse, despite rising GDP and CCT, credit rating upgrades, and Tuwid na Daan. Yolanda is a wakeup call for the nation, especially the government and big business, to put their heads, hands and wallets together in devising, funding and implementing an anti-poverty plan that works, especially for the poorest communities.
More than economic growth rates and even Millennium Development Goals, the priority numbers to improve are poverty rates in the most deprived regions. And considering that the total amount needed to lift all 21 million indigent Filipinos above the poverty line is estimated by NSCB at P125 billion or so a year—just 6.5 percent of the 2014 budget, excluding debt payments—there is no excuse for not coming up with the resources to eradicate the scourge.
For starters, more of the budget must go to ARMM and Regions VIII and XII, which are allocated P164 billion total next year—less than half the P275 billion outlay for Metro Manila. More than corruption, what keeps Filipinos poor is this unfair distribution of state resources, channeling the bulk not where people are poorest, but where there are already far greater infrastructure, wealth, education, and other advantages.
If diverting typhoon aid is criminal, this misallocation of state funds is an even greater enormity. It must stop.
Disburse the People’s Survival Fund
The third issue the nation must address yesterday is the People’s Survival Fund, created under Republic Act No. 10174 passed back in July 2011. The billion-peso facility is administered by the Climate Change Commission chaired by no less than President Aquino. It is intended for research, planning and initiatives for climate change adaptation. That includes infrastructure to counter floods and storm surges, resettlement of communities from hazard areas, and other programs and projects to protect Filipinos from the adverse effects of global warming.
In sum, if properly and speedily implemented, undertakings bankrolled by the People’s Survival Fund would help reduce the losses in lives and livelihoods from deadly storms like Milenyo (2006), Frank (2008), Ondoy and Pepeng (2009), Basyang (2010), Quiel and Sendong (2011), Pablo (2012), and Yolanda (2013), which have been raging through the archipelago with increasing frequency and ferocity, as rising air and sea temperatures intensify weather phenomena.
Plainly, the People’s Survival Fund should have been quickly mobilized upon its creation nearly two and a half years ago. So this writer hopes that he just misheard the TV when Secretary Lucille Sering, vice-chairperson and executive director of the Climate Change Commission, said in an ABS-CBN interview soon after Yolanda hit, that the life-saving fund had not been disbursed, for lack of implementing rules and regulations.
Say it isn’t so: P1 billion to protect poor communities from devastating storms has been sitting idle for the past two years and five months, while tens of billions of pesos in presidential and congressional pork barrel are promptly released.
What a screwed-up nation we are.