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Senatorial candidates: Where is the poverty-reduction agenda?

05:02 AM May 06, 2019

The “masa” elects the senators. No matter how large the taxes you pay, your vote is just one.

The scandalously high poverty incidence in the Philippines (21.6 percent in 2015) is mainly due to the rural poverty incidence of 30 percent. Poverty is a rural phenomenon. Three fourths of the poor (nearly 17 million) are in the rural sector. Most are farmers and fishers.

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This abnormality contrasts sharply with the low rural poverty of our neighbors: Malaysia at less than 2 percent with Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam at barely 10 percent or less.

Since Malaysia has almost zero total poverty in 2016 from 58 percent in 1970, it is good to quote the Malaysian leader for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. Disclosure: I once did agriculture project development work in Malaysia for four years.

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Democracy

In 2012, Dr. Mahathir visited the Philippines to receive an honorary professor title at the University of Sto. Tomas. He noted that democracy was supposed to be the answer to poverty. Yet in many cases, it failed to bring progress. To quote his wisdom:

“Democracy works only when the people understand the limitations of democracy. When people think only of the freedoms of democracy and know nothing of the implied responsibilities, democracy will not bring the goodness that it promises. Instead it will result only in instability and instability will not permit development to take place and the people to enjoy the benefits of freedom and the rights that democracy promises. No sooner is a government elected when the losers would hold demonstrations and general strikes accusing the government of malpractice.”

Mahathir argued that people cannot govern themselves on their own, since not everyone has the competence. “Why has democracy not delivered the good life we expected of it? Simply put, it is impossible for the people to rule themselves. There are too many of them and they cannot agree on anything. Government of the people, by the people and for the people would result in a stalemate, in no government at all, in anarchy.”

Mahathir used this to justify his country’s brand of democracy. “So what do we do? Do we accept the failures of democracy or de we make some adjustments and sacrifice some of the liberalism of democracy so we may extract something from the system? I will admit freely that Malaysia is not a liberal democracy. We see democracy principally as providing an “easy way” to change governments. No revolution, no civil wars, no Arab Spring. Just vote and the government will be brought down or re-elected according to the wishes of the people.” (https://news.abs-cbn.com/-depth/06/11/12/mahathir-questions-filipino-style-democracy).

Moving to the forthcoming May election, the Filipino people want good governance and results. They want judicious use of resources to alleviate poverty and move economic progress. They want to improve their quality of life.

But why are we voting people who should be in the executive branch, in the security forces, in disaster relief, in the movies, and definitely not for the legislature?

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Promises

Candidate A promises: Tuloy ang laban! (Continue the fight!) Laban for what?

Candidate B claims to be the candidate for the “masa”: How will s(he) solve the abject poverty of the masa?

Candidate C says rice price will go down to an abysmally low level that it will cause very low palay price to the detriment of the farmers. If not, a massive government subsidy is required.

Candidate D prides in free college tuition in public universities. While it has its merits, it has also disadvantaged the poor who cannot afford the cost of living in Manila, as they lost the monthly stipends with the removal of UP’s socialized tuition fee scheme. Now UP has no parking space for the rich and middle class.

Candidate E wants to make everyone happy: low price of water, electricity and gasoline? Who pays?

And there are many more.

What is most worrisome is that most of the agenda are populist, in other words, using scarce tax revenues with questionable long-term returns.

Where is the development agenda to solve rural poverty? Where is the policy to attract investments in the countryside, to raise productivity and diversify the rural economy?

Will the song-and-dance numbers contribute to President Duterte’s target to reduce rural poverty to 20 percent in 2022 from 30 percent in 2015? Rural poverty in Asean today is already 10 percent or less. We are losing the race.

Does President Duterte realize the magnitude of the 17 million rural poor? In solving the rural poverty, do we have to reinvent the wheel, or learn from the lessons of our Asean neighbors?

The usual politicians’ solutions—build farm-to-market roads, invest in postharvest facilities, and build more irrigation—are motherhood statements. Investments are not flowing into the countryside due to the agrarian reform’s limitations on land ownership of five hectares and land lease restrictions by the Department of Agrarian Reform. No investments, no jobs and no income.

Do these candidates realize that good seeds and inputs are important to raise productivity? Relatedly, certified planting materials for tree-crops (cacao, coffee, coconut, oil palm, etc.) are vital to long-run income generation? How many small farmers have been duped (deceived) by unscrupulous rubber, coffee and oil palm seedlings providers?

Lessons on development

In his book “From Third World to First,” Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shared lessons on development. He said of the Philippines: “They were two different societies: Those at the top lived a life of extreme luxury and comfort while the peasants scraped a living, and in the Philippines, it was a hard living.”

Some 17 million rural poor are almost the size of a country. They have little purchasing power, malnourished and little social mobility.

Can we expect more common sense from the candidates?

What about the masa? As it is, the senatorial candidates go for populist agenda precisely to capture the masa. How can the masa be made to vote more wisely?

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. The author is the Co-Vice chair of the MAP AgriBusiness Committee and the Executive Director of the Center for Food and AgriBusiness of the University of Asia & the Pacific. Feedback at <map@map.org.ph> and <rdyster@gmail.com>. For previous articles, please visit

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