April-May 2008
2015 or bust?

Whither the MDGs?


For the last several months we have been swimming in an alphabet soup of acronyms — NBN, ZTE, NEDA, FG, FGI, to name a few. And more keep pouring in; these days, the most oft-repeated one is NFA, or the National Food Authority. Yet what we should have been repeating like a mantra is MDG and its plural form, which stands for Millennium Development Goals. In 2000, the Philippines became one of the signatories to the Millennium Declaration, thereby sealing its commitment to meeting by 2015 eight goals that address development concerns worldwide. Last year marked the midpoint in the period allotted to the achievement of these MDGs.

In its progress report on the MDGs that it launched last October, the Philippine government said there may be trouble ahead regarding targets for achieving universal primary education (goal number 2), as well as those on improving maternal health (goal five), specifically improving the maternal mortality ratio and increasing access to reproductive health services. But it also said that there was a high probability of meeting most of the other targets for the rest of the goals, which are: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger (goal 1); promoting gender equality and empowering women (goal 2); reducing child mortality (goal 4); combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases (goal 6); ensuring environmental sustainability (goal 7); and developing a global partnership for development (goal 8).

Even in October, the Philippine midterm progress report made economists and development experts blink and purse their lips. Today, just a few months later, the furrows on their brows have also deepened.

THE ambulant and transient poor are excluded from official poverty estimation. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

On January 31, 2008 the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) reported an increase of 7.3 percent in the GDP for 2007. Less than two months later, the NSCB said that poverty had worsened between 2003 and 2006. During the recently concluded Philippine Development Forum, representatives of donor institutions and countries asked repeatedly: “How come there is rising poverty and hunger in the midst of growth?”

Before the statistics on worsening poverty broke out, rosy projections about the future and the MDGs were also threatened with fears about a looming U.S. recession and increases in the price of oil. These developments cannot help but have a profound impact on the attainment of the MDGs by 2015.

TO BE fair, the high probability of attaining most of the targets hold true for national figures. But the picture changes dramatically when data are broken down to the local level. The wide disparities among regions, provinces, and municipalities are vast and seemingly insurmountable. The Philippine midterm report itself recognized the yawning gaps across regions. Among the challenges it identified were the high population growth rate, the low performance of the agricultural sector, the weak implementation of basic education and health reforms, and lax enforcement of laws. It also noted the problems with the financing gap, the capacity of local governments, transparency and accountability, peace and security issues, public-private partnerships, and targeting, database, and monitoring.

But perhaps what has to be scrutinized first is the mystery of worsening poverty amid supposed economic growth. After all, eradicating poverty is Goal No. 1, with its more specific targets being to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day, as well as those suffering from hunger. The level of success in achieving this goal has a profound impact on the rest of the MDGs.

Yet no less than government statistics confirm the worsening of poverty. The twin threats of a looming rice crisis and global warming also do not warrant the happy prediction of a high probability of meeting the goal in nutrition — and especially not when surveys of the Social Weather Stations reflect persistent high levels of hunger, particularly in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In 2003, the government counted four million families as poor. By 2006, that figure had gone up to 4.7 million. This translates to 27.6 million wretched souls. The poverty threshold for the same year went up from P12,309 per capita annual income to P15,057.

Even worse, the number of the subsistence poor or absolutely poor has been rising. There are now 11 million families or 14.6 million individuals who belong to this category.

To quote the NSCB, “In terms of poverty incidence among population, out of 100 Filipinos, 33 were poor in 2006, compared to 30 in 2003.” This means a full third of the population! No wonder even the usually sedate and diplomatic representatives of foreign institutions and donor countries expressed utmost concern and repeatedly raised the issue during the Philippine Development Forum.

Here are more depressing statistics: In 2003, official figures indicated that 56.9 percent of households have per capita intake below the 100 percent dietary requirement. Given the other economic data, it is likely that proportion has become bigger. In more pedestrian terms, more than half of households are not getting adequate nutrition.

Yet the government keeps on saying that the country is experiencing unprecedented economic growth.

What officials may be refusing to see is that growth can only be meaningful if it results in increased incomes, more jobs, and stable prices for the man on the street. Among the initial questions that should be asked then are: Where is the growth coming from? Who are the main beneficiaries? These are crucial queries because the state of the economy cannot be separated from the state of social development, particularly the MDGs. Like the MDG numbers, while the national totals look good, they raise worries when disaggregated.

WE NOW see that the agriculture, forestry, and fishery sector registered the lowest rate of growth at 5.1 percent. Unfortunately, most Filipinos, particularly the poor, are in this sector. In the meantime, the rate of growth of industry is at 6.6 percent while the service sector is highest at 8.7 percent. Unfortunately, the poor are not necessarily in this sector.

The rate of growth of the subsectors presents a sobering picture. The forestry subsector has a very high growth rate of 12.2 percent, with agriculture lagging far, far behind. This has implications for Goal No. 7 on ensuring environmental sustainability. Global warming and massive flooding are wreaking untold damage in Quezon, the Bicol provinces, Leyte, and Samar.

In the industry sector, the subsector of mining and quarrying registered the all-time highest growth of 25 percent. Which leads to another important question: “What precautions have been taken about the environment?”

The subsector of manufacturing has the lowest rate of growth at 3.3 percent. Ironically, it is this subsector that employs huge numbers of workers. The drop in rate is probably due to the closure of many export-oriented firms across the country, including in the export-dependent province of Cebu.

The attainment of the MDG on poverty cannot be separated from issue of unemployment and underemployment. It is alarming to note that the NCR, which has the densest population in the country, has the lowest employment rate at 89.4 percent. Put in another way, the NCR has the highest unemployment rate at 10.6 percent. Once one realizes that, then it is no longer a surprise that the NCR has high levels of hunger. What the government should keep in mind, though, is that hunger and unemployment form a very dangerous and volatile combination.

Put graft and corruption into that mix and one would have a ticking social bomb. But since the release of the Philippine midterm report on the MDGs, the issue of combating has become even more urgent. The scandal-ridden national broadband network deal alone has shown how billions of pesos can be lost to corruption.

Corruption is no different from a social cancer that eats away at institutions, destroys the credibility of the government, and diverts huge sums of money from public services to the pockets of a few. In the process, it also diverts funds that should have gone into meeting the MDGs.

Corruption is not only rampant in economic development expenditures. It is also prevalent in MDG-related activities. The biggest corruption scandals that have rocked the country are about funds that could have been used for MDGs, particularly poverty reduction. Take the P769-million fertilizer scam that began as an attempt to increase agricultural productivity. Take the P34 billion recovered (and now missing?) Marcos money that could have been used for agrarian reform. Take the series of textbook scandals and the nauseating corruption in drug purchase and distribution. Imagine the number of lives that could have been saved and lifted from poverty had these funds been used properly. A war on corruption is a war for the MDGs.

AS IT is, funds for the MDGs are often lacking, a fact that obviously poses yet another obstacle in achieving the goals. Since 2006, Social Watch Philippines has been coordinating the Alternative Budget Initiative (ABI), which is presently composed of 48 civil-society groups, along with supportive legislators from both Houses of Congress. At present, civil society participation in the budget process is recognized in two House resolutions. During the deliberations for the 2008 budget, the alternative budget was duly presented and discussed by the Appropriations Committee. (Truly, a first in the history of Philippine budgeting!)

The initiative, which was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), succeeded in increasing allocations for MDGs by P5.3 billion in the 2007 budget and P5.9 billion in the 2008 budget. The latter does not include additional allocations for state colleges and universities, but the extra billions of pesos are still a plus for the MDGs.

Still, hurdles upon hurdles keep appearing on the road toward achieving the MDGs. The capacity of countries to achieve development is constrained by issues related to trade, debt, and new technologies, as well as decent and productive work for youth. Unless firm and decisive action is undertaken, the Philippines will not have enough funds and technology to cope with the threats and challenges to the MDGs, as well as changing needs for these.

The capacity of developing countries like the Philippines to attain the MDGs is also largely dependent on how global partnership develops. Very often, the question is asked: why can’t the MDGs be attained? A great part of the answer lies in Goal No. 8, which is on developing a global partnership for development.

During the early years of implementation of the MDG campaign, a simplistic division of labor was established informally: The first seven goals are the responsibility of the developing countries while the last goal is that of the developed countries. Goal No. 8, however, has neither firm targets nor fixed timetables. How then can progress be tracked in its implementation when there are no benchmarks and measures to go by?

The nebulous nature of Goal No. 8, however, should not be used by the government as an excuse for falling short of the targets for the rest of the MDGs. Indeed, among the most urgent tasks at hand is revisiting the projections and identifying the regions and provinces where poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are most prevalent.

This is no time to be complacent; whatever gains that have been attained in the last seven years can be wiped out by the onslaught of challenges facing the MDGs. It may even well be that instead of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, the government may end up eradicating the extremely poor and the desperately hungry.

Tempus fugit.

Leonor Magtolis Briones was formerly the country’s national treasurer. She is currently a professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, and co-convenor of Social Watch Philippines, which is part of a global network that monitors the implementation of government commitments to social development.