Attacking rural povertyBy Jose Rene C. Gayo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Recent statistics cited by major daily news are not at all good for P-Noy.
The level of unemployment is at an all-time high, the number of Filipinos who have experienced hunger is at its highest, Filipinos who have considered themselves poor have also broken records.
What has gone wrong?
Obviously, these problems are not just because of low government spending last year but also the result of how things were done for decades.
Thus, it is not fair to put all the blame on P-Noy.
Our development strategy as a country was hinged on export-led growth, which was anchored on industry as the engine of growth that policy-makers then hoped would propel the Philippines toward development.
But these dreams did not happen. Luckily, though, the economy did not crash.
In our effort to develop, much hope was pinned on industry, forgetting that for this to happen, agriculture also needs to be developed.
Students of economic development are taught that there is such a thing as stages of economic growth starting from agricultural development, then industrial development.
Only when these two sectors have been developed can we jump to the third stage, services development.
The “Philippine Dream” has been stifled because we tried to make a shortcut: forget agriculture and go straight to industry and services.
As a result, the underdevelopment of rural (and agricultural) areas created some kind of a dead weight or ballast that prevented the Philippine economy from taking off.
Unfortunately, it seems that we have not learned this lesson.
Can we still catch up with our Asian neighbors and with the rest of the world?
Going back to basics
My travels to various parts of the country and interactions with various actors in development for the past 30 years have led me to conclude that many of the problems we face today, including the longest-running insurgency in the world led by communists, can be traced to the poverty problem in the rural areas.
Even the problem with the Muslim groups that has destabilized some parts of Mindanao can be traced to the same problem.
The wide income gap between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural population, led many idealistic young people to see communism and insurgency as a solution to the problem. This caused the country so many losses in economic and social costs, not counting lost lives and national dignity.
Is P-Noy up to the challenge? I hope our President faces the problem squarely and attack rural poverty.
The poverty that we see in cities made more real by slum areas is just a reflection of this problem.
Where do we start in attacking rural poverty?
Let me cite the experience of South Korea since this case study is very instructive to the Philippines.
In the early 1970s, South Korea was considered a basket case. Yet today, it is one of the most highly developed economies in the world.
In one generation, its people saw the transformation of their lives from peasants to being rich.
How did the South Koreans do this?
It was very clear to them that they needed to develop their industry. However, they did not forget agriculture and the rural sector.
Let me focus on what they did for the latter.
Seeing the need to develop their agriculture and rural sector, they embarked on a program called Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement). It managed to mobilize the population to engage in various activities to improve their own communities. It started by giving each barangay (using our own terms) cement. It was left to the locals to determine what they want to do with it.
Some used it to construct farm-to-market roads, some constructed drying facilities for their produce, while some did not do much with the cement given them for free. For those barangays that managed to use it productively, the government poured in more resources to develop them further. Thus, the first phase of the project was just a test to see which among the barangays would perform. The second phase therefore was to help these barangays do more development planning and project implementation.
The success of the Saemaul Undong was later brought into the cities and other urban areas. The lessons that can be learned from this experience is that people know what they need. The government can just act as the big brother. The government provided training programs, farm extension services, and research in direct consultation with the beneficiaries. This way, the government, with its vast resources, makes the right programs and projects that the various communities need.
To provide coordination with various departments and agencies of government bureaucracy, they created the Rural Development Administration. Though South Korea already attained the status of a highly developed economy, the Rural Development Administration continues this day to make sure standards of living in the rural and urban areas do not differ greatly.
In fact, one it its latest initiatives is to attract urbanites to go back to the rural areas to decongest their cities.
It might be good for P-Noy to visit South Korea and learn directly from the South Koreans how they did it since many of the people behind the Saemaul Movement are still around.
One of the success stories within this movement is the National Agricultural Cooperatives Federation that is now one of the world’s biggest farmers’ cooperatives. The Koreans tell us that they learned about cooperatives from the Philippines. By the way, graft and corruption is nothing new to the Koreans. Remember, two of their Presidents were convicted and jailed. It might also be instructive for P-Noy to know how they did it. Weeding out graft and corruption is of prime importance to start the economy growing. Like a tree or a vine, you need to cut or prune it to become fruitful. As P-Noy aptly put it, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.”
Learn from mistakes
It is not too late and I am not giving up hope that the cooperatives movement can make a big difference in transforming our rural areas and transforming these into economic engines. Though the farmers’ cooperatives have largely been a failure in our country, we can take stock again and learn how the Koreans did it. By the way, the Koreans know that we helped them in their time of need, especially during the Korean War. And because of this, they are very willing to help us in whatever way.
The President can simply make a request. Both the Saemaul Movement and the National Agricultural Cooperatives Federation are models that worked. We can just copy these to transform our agricultural and rural sectors. Why reinvent the wheel?
The challenge is great but the possibilities are there. This is not the time for Noynoying, but rather the time for the President to prove his critics wrong.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is vice chairman of the MAP Agribusiness and Countryside Development Committee, and Dean of the MFI Farm Business School. Feedback at email@example.com. For previous articles, visit www.map.org.ph.
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