January 2007
Good (Local) Governance

A province’s plan out of poverty

3RD BIGGEST COCONUT PRODUCER IN EASTERN VISAYAS. Workers in a coconut processing plant in Hernani, Eastern Samar pile the nuts in preparation for processing into coconut virgin oil, coco coir and other finished products. [photo courtesy of Leyte-Samar Daily Express]

IN THE hinterlands of Eastern Samar, many farmers still use a crude planting system that has them guiding five to 10 carabaos, roaming side by side, around wet rice fields. After the trampling — called payatak in Waray — rice is planted and then left alone until harvest time. It’s a system that’s practically as old as time, and anyone seeing an Estehanon exerting so much effort just to coax a decent harvest from his field may not believe the province has actually been doing well in the last few years.

Yet it is a fact that tens of thousands of Estehanons have been plucked out from the quagmire of poverty in the past decade. The latest official statistics even show that Eastern Samar is finally out of the so-called ‘Club 20,’ which is made up of the 20 poorest provinces in the country.

Citing a report released in June 2006 by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), the province’s governor, Ben Evardone, points out that Eastern Samar leaped from rank 17th among the country’s poorest provinces in 2000 to rank 39th in 2003.

The governor attributes the high poverty reduction in Eastern Samar “to the focused and sustained efforts of both the national and local governments to uplift the lives of the people, not to mention the various foreign-funded poverty alleviation projects that are currently implemented in the province.” And while the first-term governor might seem to be indulging in a bit of self-promotion, many Estehanons themselves say the provincial government has been hard at work trying to develop Eastern Samar, with projects going uninterrupted despite the fact that the province has had four different chief executives in the last 15 years.

Even Ian Mosquisa, social action director of the Catholic Social Services Center based in the provincial capital and an occasional critic of Evardone, says, “There are now clear-cut development efforts in Eastern Samar. Economic activities can be felt in the province especially in the capital town of Borongan…although Eastern Samar is (still) perceived as a far and inaccessible place.”

Indeed, the once sleepy provincial capital now boasts of a mall and other big commercial establishments, as well as a standard-class hotel and a private hospital. Guiuan, a coastal town located 110 km south of Borongan and 157 km away from Tacloban City, has also been bustling with activity, particularly in the town proper, since the opening in the late 1990s of the South Samar Coastal Road that cut land travel time to Guiuan by about two hours.

A high-end resort is being developed in Calicoan, an island close to Guiuan proper that boasts of beautiful beaches and a surfing area. The island is owned by a Cebu City-based businessman and some other investors, including a few local businessmen. A World War II vintage airport is being rehabilitated to make the place easily accessible by plane.

It also used to take days of hiking or riding riverboats to travel outside of the province, but concrete roads that now connect Eastern Samar to adjacent Samar province and other places in the country have made journeys shorter and less taxing. Plus, the concrete national and provincial roads, as well as farm-to-market roads, have made the government’s delivery of basic services to many areas much easier.

Location map of Eastern Samar courtesy of Wikipedia

Gone, too, are the days when the first trip was also the last trip of a passenger bus going to Catbalogan, the capital of the island-province then, or to Tacloban City in nearby Leyte Island. There are even buses going direct to Metro Manila, while vans plying the Borongan-Tacloban route have regular trips every hour during daytime.

Danny Mausisa, who works for the Philippine Information Agency in Borongan, now relies on those vans whenever he and his family feel like visiting Tacloban. He says, “Many things have really changed for the better.”

Henry Afable, provincial planning and development officer of Eastern Samar, would probably be pleased to hear that. But he says the best sign of improvement is “the income of the people.”

EASTERN SAMAR has 23 municipalities, with a total of 597 barangays distributed across a land area of 4,640.73 sq. km. In 2006, it had an estimated population of 426,000 people.

Poverty estimates released last year by the NSCB show that the poverty incidence of population in Eastern Samar has been on the decline since 1997, when it was at 67.2 percent. By 2000, the figure was at 55.6 percent, and then 41.1 percent in 2003. The subsistence incidence of population in the province also shows declining figures — from 47.7 percent in 1997 to 32.0 percent and 22.9 percent in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

The NSCB releases poverty statistics every three years; the latest was for 2003, although the figures were issued in 2006. Poverty incidence refers to the proportion of population whose income falls below the poverty threshold, while subsistence incidence means the proportion of population whose income falls below the food threshold. In the case of Eastern Samar, there were159,184 Estehanons considered to be living below the poverty line in 2003, compared to 203,104 in 2000. And even in 2000, says the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, it was estimated that a mere 0.7 percent of Estehanons had makeshift huts for homes.

NSCB figures released last year also show that Eastern Samar and Northern Samar were the only ones among the six provinces in Eastern Visayas to have posted significant progress in terms of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Obviously, all these were the results of development programs implemented even before Evardone became governor in 2004. The good news is Evardone seems to have continued the programs of his predecessors. When the province marked its 41st founding anniversary last Nov. 9, the theme for the celebration was “Unite and Sustain the Fight Against Poverty.”

It probably helps that Eastern Samar has a very active Provincial Development Council (PDC) that is composed of all the 23 mayors, nine accredited nongovernmental organizations, and other provincial and national agencies, aside from the offices of the governor and the congressman. No less busy is the Provincial Planning and Development Office, where Afable has been at the same post for the last 13 years.

Afable says there is a “very high likelihood” that Eastern Samar can achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on poverty reduction by 2015. He points out that while the province’s target annual rate of progress was only 1.9 percentage points, it was able to reach 4.4 percentage points during 1997-2003.

The Philippines was among the 189 countries that committed themselves to achieving by 2015 a set of MDGs that are aimed at combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.

For sure, Estehanons have foreign donors and aid agencies to thank for its more than respectable showing so far, considering these funded most of the province’s development projects, many of which began years ago. Afable cites a water-supply-and-sanitation-sector project that was funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Says Afable: “This resulted (in) most of the Eastern Samar towns having potable water supply.”

The project was started when the governor was still Ruperto Ambil Jr. and continued on during the term of Evardone’s immediate predecessor, Clotilde Salazar. Afable notes, “Maybe one of the reasons why (donors keep on coming) to Eastern Samar — aside (from the fact) that there is a need to help us — is because of our track record in using their funds.”

As it is, Afable says, the province is “on track” with regard to maternal mortality and environmental sustainability, including sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. It may also be able to attain the target on access to universal education, he says, and that may well be largely because of generous funding from foreign donors.

In school year 2004-2005, Eastern Samar had 2,589 elementary school teachers and 896 secondary teachers in more than 500 schools. In 2003, the simple literacy of the population of the province aged 10 to 64 was 91.8 percent. The improvements are also showing in the quality of education: In the 2005-2006 National Achievement Test for high-school seniors, the Eastern Samar schools division placed second.

SHORTLY AFTER Gov. Evardone assumed office in 2004, the provincial government prepared and approved a Provincial Development Investment Plan that it said was in consonance with the executive agenda that include good governance, entrepreneurship development especially to women, health reform, agricultural development, environmental protection and rehabilitation, and poverty reduction, among others.

RIDING THE WAVES OF CHANGE. Eastern Samar is host to a national surfing competition held on October in Calicoan Island of Guiuan town. [photo by Danny Mausisa]

This investment plan will require a public investment of P4.9 billion over a period of three years, covering 2005 to 2007. Afable says funds for the programs and projects will come from the provincial and national governments, and yes, foreign donors.

Foreign private investors are also welcome to the province, particularly to finance development projects. For instance, early last December, the provincial government signed a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese company, which was to finance and construct a hydropower project under the build-operate-and-transfer scheme.

The proposed Amandaraga hydropower plant in Barangay Bolusao, Lawaan, is expected to provide four megawatts of power that could augment the province’s power supply, especially in the southern part. The project’s estimated cost runs up to P762 million.

Evardone also says that he and some top energy department officials have discussed the possibility of developing a small-scale coal power plant near the provincial boundary with Barangay Bagacay in Hinabangan, Samar that can provide alternative power source for the central part of the province.

Although the Eastern Samar Electric Cooperative (Esamelco) supplies power to all Eastern Samar towns and more than 470 out of the total 597 barangays, the province often suffers from long brownouts and even blackouts, particularly during bad weather conditions.

But Afable says any project involving irrigation would probably have a great impact on the lives of Estehanons. “The identified irrigable areas in Eastern Samar is about 20,000 hectares,” he says, adding that even if only 16,000 hectares are irrigated, these would be enough to fill the rice need of the rice-deficit province.

Under the Medium-Term Public Investment Program (MTPIP) for 2007-2010 is a plan to establish communal irrigation projects in Eastern Samar at a total cost of P692 million, and a big irrigation project costing P680 million in Dolores town alone. These projects, Afable says, will probably be also foreign-funded.

AFABLE SAYS that in Eastern Visayas, Eastern Samar can be considered the highest achiever in terms of the MDG goals and targets. But, he confesses, “if the basis of comparison is outside of (the region) we still have much to work on.”

“Our big problem is malnutrition, child illnesses, and child mortality,” he says, although he notes that these are already being addressed gradually by some programs funded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). Official data show that the under-five and infant mortality rates (deaths per 1,000 children per year) in 1995 in Eastern Samar were 95.10 and 65.84, respectively, and that the prevalence of underweight children zero-six years of age was 19.29 in 2005.

In late 2006, though, a five-year, P655-million-plus Health Sector Investment Plan for the province was approved. The plan, which aims to ensure access by the people to sustainable, quality and affordable health care services, will be financed by the provincial and municipal governments, the European Commission, German Technical Cooperation, Unicef, the United Nations Population Fund, Plan Philippines, the Department of Health, and the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., among others.

As of 2005, Eastern Samar had 26 health centers and 97 barangay health stations. It may still be having problems with its child mortality rate, but at least its maternal mortality rate (the number of deaths resulting from childbearing per year, per 100,000 live births) has been decreasing in the last 15 years or so. In 1990, the maternal mortality rate in the province was 246.2. By 2003, this was down to 112.2 — far lower than the regional figure of 231.3.

One doctor in Borongan even says that perhaps the reason why she and her doctor-husband are seeing less patients in their private clinic is because “they are already healthy.” But she also says, “Maybe the patients are going to the provincial hospital because consultation is free.”

But Ian Mosquisa of the Catholic Social Services Center believes there is still much to be done to really improve the quality of life of the Estehanons who remain impoverished. His organization, which deals mainly with the poor in the province, is among the accredited groups that are part of the PDC. Says Mosquita: “Of course, there are things being done, but these fall short of expectations.”

Among the problems, he says, is the lack of support to local farmers, who he says cannot engage in sustainable livelihood endeavors like backyard hog-raising because the province’s major meat suppliers come from other places like Davao. And while government health services may be available, Mosquisa says the poor cannot pay for the medicines and other needs like cotton and gauze.

He also points out that many roads in the provinces are now in need of repair. Many Estehanons are complaining about these deteriorating asphalt roads, particularly along the route from Borongan to Taft, he says.

Mosquisa likens the worsening condition of the roads in the province to having development that is not sustainable. He says that if problems like those of the roads and lack of access to health services would be fully addressed, “we can expect (the people’s) productivity to rise.”

Vicente Alejandro is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Tacloban City.