Economy, Poverty

Economic growth not creating jobs, excluding the poor

Aquino is the worst performing President in terms of job creation. Adult unemployment under him, using SWS surveys, is averaging 26.8% compared to Arroyo’s 19.6%; Estrada’s 9.2%; and Ramos’s 10.3% (Photo from BusinessWorld/AFP)

First published by The Philippine Online Chronicles

For the Aquino administration, the past week has been all good news. First, the impeachment it initiated against Renato Corona ended in its favor, with the Senate convicting 20-3 the former Chief Justice. Second, first quarter data showed that the economy grew by 6.4%, which officials said is the second highest in Asia behind China.

As expected, Malacañang was quick to squeeze brownie points from the two developments. In a speech, President Benigno Aquino III hailed the conviction as proof that change can be achieved under his administration. The economic growth, meanwhile, was pledged to be more “inclusive” and will benefit everyone.

Exaggerated gains

In both cases, however, it appears that Aquino is exaggerating the gains for the people. The ouster of Corona, while widely seen as positive for anti-corruption efforts, is also tainted by the political and economic agenda of the Aquino administration. Valid concerns on the Supreme Court (SC) undermining its earlier decision on Hacienda Luisita, for instance, are being raised. A subservient Judiciary has also put the ruling Liberal Party (LP) in a better position to consolidate and perpetuate its reign.

The same overstatement of gains for common folks is true with regards to the reported expansion in the economy. Trends on joblessness, poverty and hunger don’t support government’s claim of robust and inclusive growth.

Above expectations

The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) called the 6.4% growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter of the year “above expectations”. It was higher than the 5-6% full-year target of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) and the 4.8% forecast of most analysts. Even more remarkable was that the growth was attained amid a deteriorating global economy. And as mentioned, it’s number two in the region after China.

This, said the NSCB, put the economy to a “rousing start” after a lackluster performance in 2011 when GDP grew by 4.9 percent. Main growth drivers during the quarter were the services sector (8.5%) and industry (4.9%) while agriculture posted anemic growth (1%). On the expenditure side, growth was pushed by the 24% increase in government spending.

What jobs?

Economic growth is often dismissed as meaningless due to lack of tangible gains for the people, especially the poor. Not this latest growth, if we were to believe government claims. New Neda head Arsenio Balisacan said that the quarterly growth produced some 1.1 million jobs, which bodes well for the Aquino administration’s efforts to cut poverty.

It was not clear where Balisacan got his 1.1 million jobs created by the 6.3% GDP growth. The latest jobs data from the National Statistics Office (NSO) refer to the January 2012 survey, which showed 37.39 million employed workers. That’s 1.1 million higher than the January 2011 survey of 36.29 million workers.

Misleading the public

If the Neda chief was referring to these NSO data, then he is misleading the public. A comparison of the January surveys does not capture the number of jobs created in the first quarter. Comparing the number of workers between January and April this year (the next survey round) would have been more appropriate.

Further, the number of jobs actually fell by 1.16 million between the January and October 2011 surveys of the NSO. This means that the first quarter growth should have produced at least 2 million additional jobs for Balisacan’s claim of 1 million jobs created to be true.

Worst performing President

Truth is, like in the past, the economic expansion during the quarter failed to generate jobs. In fact, the period even saw the number of jobless balloon by more than 4 million, based on surveys done by the Social Weather Stations (SWS). In its March 2012 survey, the SWS reported that a record high 34.4% were jobless, equivalent to about 13.8 million workers. In its December 2011 survey, unemployment was pegged at 24% or about 9.7 million workers.

Aquino is the worst performing President in terms of job creation. Adult unemployment under him, using SWS surveys, is averaging 26.8% compared to Arroyo’s 19.6%; Estrada’s 9.2%; and Ramos’s 10.3 percent.

Miserable living

Because growth is not creating long-term and sustainable livelihood opportunities, living conditions have continued to deteriorate. Again using SWS surveys, poverty worsened to 55% in March from 45% in December. That translates to around 2 million families (from 9.1 million to 11.1 million) added to the number of poor during the quarter when the economy was supposedly growing by 6.4 percent.

Poverty in the country has been chronic and even the drastically expanded conditional cash transfer (CCT) program under Aquino is not mitigating it. On the contrary, poverty has been alarmingly on an uptrend in recent SWS surveys. Before Aquino took over, poverty was pegged at 43% and has since steadily climbed. It breached the 50% mark in four of the last eight quarters and is now at its highest since September 2008.

Hunger also rose to an all-time high 23.8% of families in the first quarter of the year. The number of families that experienced involuntary hunger reached 4.8 million in March from December’s 4.5 million (22.5%). The average incidence of hunger under Aquino (20.9%) is more than double that of the level under Estrada (10%) and significantly higher than Arroyo (14.1%).

Excluding the poor

Inclusive growth is the favorite mantra of Aquino when talking about his plans for the economy, such as in his speech during the Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting in Manila last month. It is the central theme of his Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011-2016. But the policies he promotes in the PDP, under the tutelage of foreign creditors like the ADB, are the same policies that have long been excluding the poor.

His centerpiece program, the public-private partnership (PPP), for instance, is harming the poor twice. First, physically through brutal demolition to accommodate PPP projects. Second, economically through prohibitive rates in toll, power, fares, water, hospital fees, tuition and others.

Also, because the path is towards privatization, Aquino is spending less on social services and more on debt servicing so government can borrow more to fund its PPP initiatives. Credit rating agencies like Aquino more than Arroyo not because of his supposed anti-corruption reforms but because he is a better payor. Since taking over, Aquino has been paying creditors P60.37 billion a month compared to Arroyo’s P48.18 billion.

Growth for the elite

While excluding the poor, Aquino’s programs greatly benefit the rich including his relatives and cronies such as Danding Cojuangco, Manny Pangilinan, the Lopezes, Ayalas, Aboitizes and others who are expanding their business interests by bagging large PPP contracts. These elite families and their foreign partners also rake profits from the economy under Aquino’s policies of low wages, contractualization, liberalization and deregulation.

Last year, these billionaires saw their wealth expand tremendously even when the economy slowed down. The 40 richest Filipinos posted a collective $34 billion in net worth in 2011, more than $11 billion bigger than 2010’s $22.8 billion.

The economy did grow by 6.4% but not for everyone. #

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Economy, Human rights, Poverty

Silverio Compound: A fight for the right to live

(Video by Tudla Productions)

The Silverio Compound demolition in Parañaque City was the most brutal in recent memory, leaving at least one dead and some 36 hurt, mostly by gunshot wounds. Some 33 residents and protesters were also arrested, including seven minors and two women. Twenty-nine of them were eventually charged with resistance and disobedience to a person in authority and disturbance of public order. While some of the wounded were brought to various hospitals, many others refused to seek proper medical attention out of fear of being arrested or simply due to lack of money.

Negotiations

On April 23, residents blocked certain portions of Silverio Compound as early as 5 a.m. The main barricade was set up at Purok 4, which fronts the SM Hypermart. By 7 AM, five 6×6 trucks each carrying 30 to 40 policemen from the Parañaque City Civil Disturbance Management Unit (CDMU) along with two fire trucks began arriving in the area. They were backed by several members of the police’s Special Weapons and Tactics unit (SWAT) who were armed with high-powered assault rifles. By around 7:30 AM, many residents had already occupied Sucat Road, which was meant to cause traffic and delay the demolition. A demolition team of some 50 men arrived at about 8 a.m.

Initial findings of the emergency fact-finding mission (FFM) conducted by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) several hours after the bloody incident show that members of the CDMU provoked the violent confrontation. Prior to the hostility, leaders of the residents and local politicians Cong. Edwin Olivarez, former Cong. Ed Zialcita, and Councilor Eric Olivarez were negotiating with the police (talks began at around 9 a.m.) to suspend the demolition as the Silverio compound is the subject of a pending court case. The CDMU, on the other hand, was asking the protesters to free up a portion of the road to let vehicles pass.

Gun shots

Despite ongoing negotiations to suspend the demolition and willingness of residents to heed the police’s request to allow traffic flow, the CDMU prepared to turn toward the direction of the protesters at past 10 a.m. Witnesses also said they saw men secure the local politicians, which indicated that the police was getting ready to move. Thinking that the CDMU was about to disperse them, the residents started to hurl stones at the police. Eventually, the police responded by firing teargas toward the direction of the protesters. Accounts claimed that the police fired more than 10 teargas canisters.

The CDMU and SWAT members were forced to backtrack a bit but moments later, gun shots were heard, apparently fired by the police, sporadic at first and then in succession. The string of gun shots forced protesters to back down and run away while the CDMU and SWAT teams advanced and began arresting people. One person – later identified as 21-year old Arnel Leonor, a resident of Silverio Compound – was seen lying on the pavement, with what appeared to be a fatal gunshot wound in the head. He was brought to a hospital by the police many minutes later but was declared dead on arrival.

Violations galore

The atrocities committed by the police did not end in the indiscriminate shooting of the residents that killed Leonor and wounded others. Many of those who were already apprehended or subdued were still assaulted by the angry police. They were truncheoned, punched, kicked and slapped at whim by the arresting officers. These were captured by the media who were covering the incident. Worse, the arrests were arbitrary; the police picked up anyone they wanted. Some of those arrested and assaulted by the police were mere onlookers. They said they did not run away because they did not participate in the protest and thus thought will not be arrested, much less assaulted by members of the CDMU.

Arbitrary house-to-house searches were also carried out by the police to look for more people to pick up. Witnesses claimed that some police officers again fired their guns during these house searches. The demolition team, meanwhile, pushed through with the demolition of several stalls and houses.

Private profits over public housing

This bloody incident could have been prevented had Mayor Florencio Bernabe respected the original agreement between Silverio Compound residents and former Mayor Joey Marquez that the entire 9.7-hectare property will be used for socialized housing. This means that the 28,000 families occupying the property will just amortize the land to the Parañaque City government. It was Marquez who, in 2003, initiated the expropriation proceedings by virtue of an ordinance against Silverio Compound’s private owner Magdiwang Realty Corp. But Bernabe changed the plan, reduced the size for socialized housing to 3 hectares, and pushed for the construction of 32 medium-rise condos that can only accommodate some 1,900 families.

Bernabe is pushing for a public-private partnership (PPP) project for Silverio Compound, eyeing big developers including SM Development Corp. (SMDC) to build the medium-rise buildings and other infrastructures in the area. The remaining 6.7 hectares of the property will also be devoted for commercial development in a bid to entice private investors in the city. Clearly, this is a case of the local government prioritizing private profits over the people’s basic right to shelter.

Impunity

The blatant disregard for human rights displayed by the police involved in the incident speaks volume of how deep the culture of impunity has been ingrained among our law enforcers and security forces. To end this culture of impunity, those who are involved, directly and indirectly, and not only members of the SWAT and CDMU but even police and civilian officials, in the tragic Silverio Compound demolition must be held liable.

What is alarming is that recent developments point to the regrettable possibility of a whitewash. National officials, for instance, are now seemingly conditioning the public mind that Leonor could have died from a bullet fired by one of the protesters. Supposedly, one of those arrested tested positive for gunpowder. Only an independent probe of the incident, including a re-autopsy of Leonor’s body by an independent party, could provide a more credible finding.

There is no doubt that the police used excessive force in enforcing the demolition order. Their abuses have been well-documented by media outfits who covered the incident and their identities could be easily established. Bernabe, on the other hand, clearly abused his power in insisting to implement the demolition. There are more than enough grounds to immediately make these people accountable.

Call for support

While the residents of Silverio Compound remain undaunted by oppression and brutality, they need all the support that they can muster to ensure that justice will be served. At the same time, they also need assistance – medical, legal, etc. – to help them cope with the tragedy inflicted on them by institutions that are supposed to uphold their rights and promote their interests.

The people of Silverio Compound, like those in other urban poor communities who have been dislocated or threatened by PPP projects that only profit the few, are fighting not only for their homes but for their right to live as human beings. All those who value this very fundamental human right could not allow them to fail. (end)

Written for Paninindigan, Bayan’s official publication (click here)

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Economy, Human rights, Poverty

Who’s afraid of Occupy Mendiola?

Manila police violently disperse protesters trying to camp out at Mendiola Bridge to protest Aquino's anti-people economic policies (Photo by Bullit Marquez/AP)

Noynoy is. Malacañang security officials and the local police have made Mendiola a no camp out zone. Since December 6, Manila anti-riot police have been violently frustrating attempts by activists to set up camp at the historic bridge leading to Malacañang. Several youth protesters were arrested and injured in clashes with the police. At least five protest leaders were charged with sedition.

The last time rallies at Mendiola were banned and considered seditious, the illegitimate President, Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, was desperately clinging on to power and suppressing protests at every turn.

(Video of the violent dispersal, shot by Mayday Multimedia Philippines, here

Unusual

But President Benigno S. Aquino III is not fighting for political survival unlike his despised predecessor. In fact, he continues to enjoy high approval and trust ratings, according to the latest Pulse Asia survey. Thus, to some, it is puzzling how government is responding to the camp out protest. It is indeed quite uncharacteristic for a regime that supposedly has wide public support to be so insecure about a peaceful assembly.

Police officials insist that their intel work indicates something unusual about the camp out. Their claims, however, are as preposterous as the fantastical “put the little girl to sleep”. Manila police officials, for instance, say they think the protesters plan to encircle Malacañang in a seditious act of toppling the government. This explains the repeated statements by police officials that the camp out is inciting to sedition. The police’s intel sources, by the way, are the media advisories and Facebook posts of camp out organizers and participants.

Message

The student and youth organizations which initiated what the mainstream media have described as the Philippine version of the “Occupy Wall Street” actually have a simple message, objective, and aim. The message is that the political and economic system favors the rich and exploits the poor. The objective is to concretize this message by raising urgent issues – the budget cuts in education, rising prices, lack of jobs, landlessness, etc. The camp out aims to mobilize more people around these issues and struggle for genuine change.

Malacañang will not admit but what it worries is this: If the camp out will succeed, it will help weaken the plan of the Aquino clique to forever ride on the strong anti-Arroyo sentiment to sustain its legitimacy and wide public support. It will help the public see that the more fundamental contradiction is not Aquino versus Arroyo. No matter how noisy this conflict has been, the main contradiction remains between the exploited great majority of the people and the exploiting minority that both Aquino and Arroyo represent.

Pro-elite

Government has dismissed early on an Occupy movement gaining ground in the Philippines. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in October that there is no basis for a similar movement as the administration is “siding with the poorest of the poor”. Government, he said, strives for “inclusive growth”.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. In its December 6 editorial, the Philippine Daily Inquirer noted that the combined income of the richest 1% of the families (185,000) is equivalent to the poorest 30% (5.5 million). Aquino, like Arroyo, belongs to this 1% that monopolizes the country’s wealth.

Economic policies favor the ruling elite to which both Aquino and Arroyo belong. They use political power to prevent the redistribution of social wealth and accumulate more. The most glaring example is the Hacienda Luisita, which has been controlled by the family of the landlord President for more than half a century through deception and violence. Today, Aquino wants compensation from farmers his family has exploited to the hilt for decades before they can get the lands they have always owned.

To intensify

It will not always take the form of an Occupy or camp out, but objective conditions indicate that social unrest certainly will intensify. Long-term trends in social indicators show a worsening crisis that is the result of decades of flawed, pro-elite economic policy making.

Let us take a look, for instance, at the historical results of the surveys of the Social Weather Stations (SWS). From less than 10% in hunger incidence in the late 1990s, the portion of families that go hungry has jumped to more than 19% this year. Poverty remains unacceptably high at more than 54% this decade although it has declined from 61% during second half of the 1980s. From less than 10% in the last decade, unemployment has doubled to almost 20% in the 2000s.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, landlessness continues to worsen. Using official data from the last Census of Agriculture in 2002, farms not owned by tillers comprised almost 53% of the total number of farms. In the 1991 census, it was a smaller 42 percent. A similar trend is observed in terms of total area of farms. During the same period, the share of farms not owned by tillers deteriorated from 33% to 49 percent.

Symbols

The camp out is by no means the be-all and end-all in exposing Aquino and the deep-seated crisis of our backward politics and economy. But winning the “battle for Mendiola” is also crucial in terms of the symbolisms that occupying the bridge represents. First is the assertion of our democratic rights as Mendiola has long been a symbol of the people’s struggle against tyranny. Second is amid the global crisis, occupying a public space has become a powerful symbol in many countries to show the people’s disgust with the prevailing system that benefits only the few.

At any rate, the camp out is still a victory for the organizers. The police, through brutal force, may have succeeded in preventing the protesters from physically setting up their camp at Mendiola. But the activists succeeded in making the public see the current government’s low tolerance to mass actions for social justice, which is characteristic of elite, undemocratic governance. #

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Economy, Poverty

A regime of high prices: Aquino’s apathy towards the poor

More than half a year since Aquino became President, the only substantial change people have seen is the drastic increase in prices of almost everything

(This article was first published by the Philippine Online Chronicles)

Slammed by critics for his landlord roots and rich kid fascination for luxury cars, President Benigno Aquino III is increasingly being perceived as having no concern for the poor.

When he promised change during the campaign, many voters apparently believed him. But more than half a year since Aquino became the Chief Executive, the only substantial change that the people have seen so far is the drastic increase in prices of almost everything. Inflation in January recorded 3.5 percent, the fastest since August last year, said the National Statistics Office (NSO).

While Malacañang has expressed concern over the sharp rise in prices, alas it does not intend to directly intervene. It merely said that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) has to manage inflation through setting of the official interest rate. Setting higher interest rates, for instance, is expected to limit money in circulation and thus temper demand and prices. But the impact of the central bank intervention on ordinary consumers is uncertain and possible benefits are further down the line.

The BSP itself as well as the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) aren’t very worried and predicted a worst-case inflation of 5 percent this year. Overall, the Aquino administration has remained passive on the issue of high prices despite warnings including from the United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the skyrocketing costs of basic goods could fuel unrest. Hunger riots have already erupted around the world and, in Tunisia, even led to the ouster of its current government.

Indeed, in poor countries like the Philippines, where some 3.4 million families experience hunger, said a recent survey, high prices easily become a political issue. At the same time, it also highlights the basic flaws in the kind of economic policies being espoused by the Aquino administration, which continues the past governments’ bias towards so-called market forces, the interest of private investors, and minimal state intervention.

Thus, the situation today requires much more than asking the central bank to manage inflation. Drastic political action is needed for immediate economic relief. Otherwise, Aquino’s much-touted high political capital will be eroded rather quickly amid the growing public perception of his ineptness in running the country and in addressing the poverty that grips a great majority of the people.

Food prices

How much have prices increased since Aquino took over? A comparison of the retail prices of basic food commodities in Metro Manila shows a steep hike between June 29, 2010 – a day before Aquino’s inauguration – and February 5, 2011, which is the latest monitored date by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS).

Onion, for example, shot up by P140 per kilo during the period while Galunggong jumped by P40 a kilo. The retail prices of sugar have also increased by P12 to P13 while cooking oil went up by P30 per longneck bottle. The increases in prices are often justified by tight supply amid high demand. Others, however, are the result of policy decisions made by the Executive. For instance, the retail price of rice being sold through the National Food Authority (NFA) increased by P2 (well-milled) to P4 per kilo (premium).  The NFA, which is mandated to sell subsidized rice to ensure food security especially of the poor, increased the prices in December supposedly to ensure the “long-term viability” of the food agency. (See Table 1)

Oil prices

Similarly, the pump prices of petroleum products have also jumped significantly in the past seven months. The average retail price of oil products in January 2011 was pegged at P47.61 per liter or more than P5 higher than its June 2010 average. During the same period, the pump prices of gasoline products have increased by around P6 while diesel, which is used by public utility jeepneys, has seen its retail price grow by almost P5. The retail price of LPG has already increased by P6.95 per liter or P136.76 for each 11-kilogram cylinder tank commonly used by households. (See Table 2)

This week, oil companies have again raised pump prices by P0.75 a liter for diesel and gasoline and P1 for kerosene. Like its immediate predecessor, the Aquino administration claims it is helpless since local prices are supposedly dictated by the global oil market, which has been seeing an astronomical rise in prices similar to the situation in 2008. Apart from publishing on the Department of Energy (DOE) website the formula in computing price adjustments, government has not taken a more proactive stance in ensuring fair oil prices despite persistent allegations of overpricing. While the President has indicated that he is open to amending the Oil Deregulation Law (Republic Act 8479) and study further factors affecting prices, this was not included in the list of priority bills that Malacañang recently bared.

Utility rates

Another aspect of high prices under the Aquino administration is the extraordinary increases in the rates being charged by almost all utilities – from water and power to toll and mass transportation fares. Aquino, of course, can claim that these increases are the result of privatization obligations forged and petitions approved long before his administration came to power. But Malacañang chose to justify these increases, calling for instance the increase in water rates and jeepney fares “minimal”.

The first seven months of the Aquino administration saw the basic charge of Manila Water increase by P3.46 per cubic meter (m³) (There is no published data on the average increase in Maynilad’s basic charge although news reports say that for its customers using 30 m³ a month, the rate hike will result in additional P2.3 per m³). The rate hike was the second tranche of increases in the basic charge arising from the 2009 extension of their Concession Agreement with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). In December last year, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) granted the rate hike petition of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) that raised the average distribution charge by 15.47 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Jeepney and taxi fares have also increased in February amid continuing rise in oil prices. (See Table 3)

But the largest increases are being felt by motorists that regularly use the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX). After a prolonged court battle, the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC), which is owned by Malaysian investors, has finally been allowed by the Supreme Court (SC) to increase tolls at the SLEX by 300 percent. As of February, SLEX toll rates have jumped by 259 to 270 percent from its previous level with the full increase to be implemented by April.

This kind of situation, where investors’ profits are undermined by regulatory intervention such as by the judiciary, is the circumstances that the President wants to address with his so-called regulatory risk guarantee. “If private investors are impeded from collecting contractually agreed fees by regulators, courts, or the legislature, then our government will use its own resources to ensure that they are kept whole,” Aquino said in his speech at the public-private partnership (PPP) summit last year.

LRT, MRT fares

Like in the issue of higher price of NFA rice, fares in Metro Manila’s light rail transit system are also set to go up due to Aquino’s direct order. Seen by critics as a prelude to privatization, the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) and the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) have “provisionally” approved a fare hike of as much as P10 in LRT 1 (Baclaran to Roosevelt line), LRT 2 (Recto to Santolan line), and MRT (along EDSA). (See Table 4)

Aquino first hinted his intention to raise the fares in LRT and MRT in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last year when he accused the Arroyo administration of artificially lowering the fares for political brownie points. Consistent with Aquino’s PPP scheme, the LRTA-DOTC, in a study, has said that the fare hike is intended to “send clear signal to private sector investors that regulatory risks will be minimized in future public-private partnership projects”. Groups opposing the fare hike, meanwhile, have pointed out that the increase is meant to pass on to the commuters an increasing portion of the LRT and MRT’s debt burden, which includes onerous loans and contractual obligations. Despite widespread opposition, as shown during the two-day public consultation, it appears that the authorities will go ahead with the fare hike. More than a million daily commuters – of whom 8 out 10 are ordinary workers and students – will shoulder the fare increase.

Political intervention

There is a clear and urgent need for the Chief Executive to exercise his vast political power and influence to protect the people from the prevailing regime of high prices. Indicators show that the situation will not ease soon. Global oil prices, for example, will continue its uptrend as the world market is again facing massive speculation due to the tension in Egypt (2-3 million barrels of oil pass through its Suez Canal).

Aquino could not rely on his controversial P21-billion conditional cash transfer (CCT) program or the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). This program, which covers only less than half of the poor as measured by government, also excludes millions of families who are not poor by official standards but still feel the impact of high prices. Authorities, for example, are reportedly considering the CCT to cushion the impact of the LRT and MRT fare hike on the poor. However, a great majority of CCT beneficiaries who are extremely poor does not even use the LRT and MRT.

There are immediate solutions which only require political will and genuine concern for the poor. For one, Aquino can withdraw his order to increase the LRT and MRT fares and direct the NFA to roll back the retail prices of its subsidized rice. Another is to impose a price cap on prime commodities, especially food, which the President has the authority to do under the current Price Act (RA 7581). Lastly, he can suspend the collection of the 12 percent value added tax (VAT) especially on oil products and electricity and convince allies in Congress to repeal the Oil Deregulation Law and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA or RA 9136), which allowed utility rates to soar.

These are remedial measures, however, that do not substitute for long-term reforms that address the underlying reasons behind escalating prices and worsening hunger and chronic poverty in the country. Genuine change is truly a long way to go. (end)

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Poverty

North Triangle demolition: a glimpse of what the poor can expect from Noynoy’s PPP

As Pres. Aquino talks about poverty reduction and the MDGs in New York, the urban poor of North Triangle are forced to defend their shanties against demolition (Photos by Associated Press and Boy Santos)

While late because a temporary restraining order (TRO) has already been issued yesterday (Sep. 23) by a local trial court, Pres. Aquino’s order to suspend the forced relocation of residents of an urban poor community in North Triangle must be welcomed if only for the temporary respite it brings. But the issue is far from settled since the suspension simply intends to allow the “orderly” demolition of the remaining shanties.

In fact, the threat of eviction remains not only against residents of North Triangle but against all urban poor families who stand in the way of the administration’s centerpiece economic program – the public-private partnership (PPP). Indeed, the violent demolition of shanties in Sitio San Roque, Barangay Bagong Pag-asa yesterday gives a glimpse of what awaits the poor under the PPP.

(See the short video on Sitio San Roque’s demolition produced by multimedia production group Kodao Productions)

The demolition, which left several people injured, marks the start of the implementation of a P22-billion PPP project in the form of a joint venture between the National Housing Authority (NHA) and property giant Ayala Land Inc. to develop a 29.1-hectare property in North Triangle into the so-called Quezon City Central Business District (CBD). It is similar to another Ayala Land project and PPP initiative – the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig that also displaced thousands of urban poor families.

Based on official estimates, some 9,000 families will be evicted from Sitio San Roque to give way to the NHA-Ayala Land project but urban poor group Kadamay pegs the total number of affected families at 16,000.

This is just the beginning of what promises to be a tremendously and increasingly oppressive times for the urban poor not only in Metro Manila but in other parts of the country as well as the Aquino administration has vowed to aggressively pursue privatized infrastructure development through PPPs. An initial list of 10 priority PPP projects worth P127.78 billion for 2011 has been released by government, with the expansion of the mass rail transit system accounting for 55 percent of the amount.

While the poor of Sitio San Roque were desperately defending their shanties against the Metro Manila Development Authority’s (MMDA) demolition force backed by the Quezon City Police District (QCPD), Pres. Aquino was in New York with other world leaders to talk about progress in achieving the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets aiming to halve poverty by 2015. According to reports, the country’s efforts to reduce poverty have been well-received at the United Nations’ (UN) assembly on the MDGs.

The World Bank even promised to fund government’s MDG efforts because in its view the Aquino administration is “moving in the right direction” with its promotion of PPP and conditional cash transfer (CCT). By the way, it was the World Bank that funded the framework plan of the CBD, which is now being implemented by the NHA and Ayala Land, whose board vice chairman Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala II, incidentally, joined Noynoy in his US trip to help scout for potential American partners in PPP initiatives.

The contrasting image of Noynoy in his neat Americana suit in New York talking about poverty reduction and of men in tattered shirts in North Triangle hurling stones at the MMDA and police in a desperate defense of whatever is left of their demolished shanties captures the hypocrisy of the MDGs and deception of the Aquino administration’s poverty alleviation program.

By promoting pro-business, anti-poor PPP projects such as the NHA-Ayala Land joint venture, government and the World Bank deprive the poor of shelter and consequently of a chance to be productive and get out of poverty. Instead of a decent, accessible, and sustainable housing project and other social services, what the poor get are CCT dole-outs from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to supposedly encourage them to send their kids to school and for pregnant or lactating mothers to have their regular check-up (note: universal primary education and improved maternal health are among the MDG targets).

But how can poor children attend school even with financial incentives from the DSWD when their families have been forcibly uprooted from their community and forever economically dislocated by wrong policies?

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2010 elections, Economy, Poverty

What Gloria did not say in her farewell speech

(Read the transcript of Mrs. Arroyo’s farewell address here.)

In a televised address last night (June 23), Mrs. Gloria Arroyo gave what Malacanang described as her last speech as president. Consistent with the “legacy” propaganda of government, an aggressive and expensive campaign that started last year and has produced numerous advertisements (worth more than P845 million in 2009 alone), a P10-million parade last June 12, and recently, two books, Mrs. Arroyo declared confidence that she is leaving a nation “much stronger than I came to office”.

In her farewell address, Mrs. Arroyo repeated her favorite themes: that she sacrificed popularity to do the right things such as raising taxes (including the notorious VAT reforms); but she only did so in order for government to have more money for education, health and job creation; that as a result we had 37 quarters of uninterrupted economic (GDP) growth; that as a result we had new and better roads, bridges, and other infrastructures; and that 9 million (yes, 9 million) new jobs have been created.

But there are many things that she did not say in her speech. She did not say that while we had 37 quarters of uninterrupted growth, we also had nine years of double-digit unemployment rate which is the longest sustained joblessness in history. Nine million new jobs? A simple comparison of the total number of jobless between the January 2001 and January 2010 rounds of government’s Labor Force Survey (LFS) shows an increase of more than 620,000 unemployed workers.  Such increase captures only a portion of how job scarcity has actually deteriorated as it does not yet account the quality of jobs available in the domestic labor market. (Note also that since its April 2005 LFS, the National Statistics Office (NSO) started to use a new definition of unemployment, which excluded discouraged workers and those not willing or available for work from the labor force. The redefinition had a net effect of “statistically” reducing the number of unemployed.)

She did not say that under her 9-year rule, the absolute number of unemployed workers has been pegged at about 4 million a year, significantly higher than during the time of former Presidents Joseph “Erap” Estrada (3.17 million); Fidel V. Ramos (2.58 million); and Corazon “Cory” Aquino (2.28 million). She did not say that her administration is the biggest exporter of Filipino workers, at about 1 million a year, because the 37 quarters of uninterrupted growth could not produce jobs for the burgeoning labor force.

She did not say that despite three-decade high economic growth, poverty has deteriorated with the number of poor Filipino families (i.e. living on around ₱1,200 a month) increasing from 25.5 million in 2001 to 27.6 million in 2006. (Preliminary data from the NSCB indicate that at best, there’s no substantial change in the 2009 official poverty figures compared to 2006 data.) She did not say that hunger incidence nearly doubled from 11.4 percent in 2000 to 20.3 percent in 2009.

She did not say that as she raised the VAT from 10 to 12 percent, and further expanded it to include power and oil among others, she also pinned government spending on health, education, and housing to their lowest levels while raising payments for government debts, which has also become her administration’s biggest source of corruption.

She did not say that she was the biggest spender on debt servicing but the most frugal on social services among all Philippine presidents. Every year since 2001, the amount of debt servicing has been equivalent to 42.7 percent of annual government expenditures and 67.4 percent of annual revenues. Meanwhile, combined government spending for education, social security, health, land distribution, and housing does not even account for half of what the Arroyo administration was spending for interest and principal payments.

Mrs. Arroyo said that she is leaving behind more roads and bridges, a stronger economy. She did not say that she is also leaving behind a gargantuan budget deficit of P162.1 billion in the first five months of 2010 alone, already higher than the first half deficit ceiling of P145.2 billion, and a 2009 full-year deficit of P298.5 billion, an all-time high in absolute terms. She did not say that from 2001 to 2009, the average national budget deficit was pegged at P148.37 billion while the average deficit as a percentage of the GDP was 2.93 percent, both historic highs.

There are many other things she did not say – how she persecuted her critics, including the 1,000 plus victims of extrajudicial killings, the 200 plus people who were abducted by her security forces like Jonas Burgos, and those like the Morong 43 that they placed behind bars for trumped up charges to silence them; how she called up Garci in 2004 and asked for a 1-million vote lead over the late FPJ; how she, her husband, their relatives and friends milked public coffers and government contracts dry; how her officially declared net worth jumped by more than 114 percent during her presidency; and how she and her friends  dined in New York for almost P1 million.

There are many other things she did not say.

She did not say goodbye, which reminds us that she will still be very much around.

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2010 elections, Agrarian reform, Poverty

Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap: How Noynoy obscured the link between Hacienda Luisita and poverty

“The basic premise of Noynoy’s advocacy conceals the structural roots of poverty. It hides the universal truth that the working people are poor because a very small minority monopolizes ownership over production means and the wealth society produces.”

Save for  the official proclamation, the presidential elections is now over with Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III emerging victorious. Partial and unofficial tallies separately released by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and its accredited poll watchdog Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) show Noynoy garnering at least 40 percent of the votes.

The main message of the Aquino campaign, which apparently captured the sentiment of many Filipinos, is that the people are poor because of corrupt government leaders. Such message not only effectively depicted Noynoy as the anti-thesis of his despised and corrupt predecessor Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It also underscored his only edge (i.e. lacking in competence and experience, he has at least a supposedly untarnished record) over his closest rivals in the presidential derby – convicted plunderer former President Joseph Estrada and Senator Manny Villar, whose presidential bid has been hounded from the start by, among others, the C5 corruption scandal.

It remains to be seen if Noynoy can fulfill his campaign promise of immediately prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo and her cohorts for plundering the country with impunity and on a scale never before seen since the Marcos dictatorship. What is clear is that Noynoy and his handlers misled the people by asserting that without corruption, poverty will end.  This point is crucial because it speaks a lot on what the Aquino presidency has to offer beyond prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo for massive corruption, specifically in terms of economic reforms that will benefit the poor and oppressed.

Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap?

This basic premise of Noynoy’s advocacy conceals the structural roots of poverty. It hides the universal truth that the working people are poor because a very small minority monopolizes ownership over production means and the wealth society produces. It obscures the fact that as long as Aquino’s landlord family exerts effective control over Hacienda Luisita, the farmers and farm workers there will remain poor and their children will suffer even greater poverty even if Noynoy does not steal a single centavo from public coffers.

“Hindi ako magnanakaw” was Aquino’s bold declaration, an assertion he repeatedly proclaimed in his political ads and rallies.

But isn’t the exploitation of the farmers and farm workers of Hacienda Luisita pagnanakaw in its worst form? It may have been legitimized by his mom’s (late Pres. Cory) Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and stock distribution option (SDO) but it is still pagnanakaw. Exploitation steals from the farmers and farm workers their due share of the wealth they themselves produce, and shackles them into perpetual and worsening poverty.

If Noynoy’s vision is walang mahirap, what is needed is not only walang corrupt but more importantly, no Filipino farmer should be walang lupa. Currently, 7 out of 10 farmers are walang lupa and Noynoy must correct this age-old injustice by starting at his own backyard.

Aquino, of course, promised to distribute the Hacienda Luisita by 2014, the deadline of the extended CARP.  But almost half a century ago, his family also promised to distribute the contested landholding to its rightful owners – the farmers and farm workers. More than two decades ago, it was again promised by Pres. Cory. Fourteen people have already been killed in relation to the labor and agrarian dispute at the hacienda in the last five years, including seven who were massacred in November 2004.

Why wait for 2014 when Noynoy, if he truly has the high moral ground compared to his opponents as he claims, can distribute the hacienda immediately? All he has to do is convince his family to withdraw the temporary restraining order (TRO) they sought from the Supreme Court (SC) that stopped farmers from revoking their devious SDO contract with Noynoy and his family.

Unfortunately, Noynoy will not do that. In his first press conference after the May 10 polls, he reiterated that the Hacienda Luisita case is pending at the SC and he is respecting that process. Some have argued that Noynoy’s strong stance against Arroyo’s appointment of the next SC Chief Justice may have something to do with Hacienda Luisita, a contention that is not farfetched.

It is simply not in Noynoy’s interest to give up the hacienda. While Hacienda Luisita makes him vulnerable to political attacks, it is still the material source of his and his family’s clout.

The wanton plunder perpetrated by Mrs. Arroyo is only one of the great injustices that Filipinos suffer today. Corruption certainly aggravates the poverty of the people. While this must be addressed immediately and without compromise, the old and continuing social injustice bred by Hacienda Luisita and lack of genuine land reform must be addressed as urgently and as relentlessly.

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