Last week Social Weather Stations reported survey results showing that as of the last quarter of 2016, about 11.2 million Filipinos were jobless—the worst in two years. The survey also revealed that some three million became unemployed in the last quarter of 2016 alone—the highest such figure since December 2014. The annual average unemployment rate of 22.3 percent hardly changed from the 21.9 percent recorded in 2015.
Any administration confronted with such figures would surely know what its priorities should be: generate jobs, stimulate growth, expand opportunities, and tackle the social and structural infirmities that have prevented true economic freedom so far. A committed campaign against poverty would also improve the outlook in many other areas: housing, healthcare (especially among mothers and children), education, crime—a host of ills that, collectively, have resisted attempts by successive administrations to tame them, and have led to a widespread sense of hopelessness and cynicism among the citizenry.
Or perhaps it’s not so much that the problems themselves are too intractable as that the administrations we’ve had so far chose to look elsewhere. The longest sustained years of economic growth under the administrations of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III saw the Philippines’ economic fundamentals becoming more stabilized—but the yawning social divide between the wealthy few and the impoverished teeming masses was hardly addressed.
Income inequality in the Philippines is the highest among the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to a study. Imagine if that reality had spurred, say, the new administration of President Duterte to take a long, hard look at the shocking gap between rich and poor in the country and declare that its chief agenda—as a force of change elected to disrupt the system—is to wage war on poverty and institutional inequality. Imagine if that had been the rallying cry of a new administration with tremendous political capital, and a leader enjoying wide persuasive appeal among citizens who have felt neglected by the system for far too long.
But over the last seven months of Mr. Duterte’s presidency, hardly anything has been said about an overarching program launched to improve the lot of impoverished Filipinos. The President’s cornerstone campaign against drugs and crime—now shown to be based on dubious, shifting data at best about the rampancy of the drug menace in the country—has consumed the lion’s share of this administration’s energy, spleen and resources. That seemingly misplaced zeal, against the backdrop of far more urgent societal needs, has spawned a rash of alarming new complications such as the rise in extrajudicial killings and the steady erosion in human rights and democratic norms.
It has also divided the nation as it has never been in the post-Edsa years. On the 31st anniversary of the revolt that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy to the land, when the administration should have led in the ritual remembering, the stark division among Filipinos was further stoked by Malacañang’s move to diminish Edsa by organizing its own show at the Luneta. Government vehicles and resources were used to truck people in, as an accompaniment to the official memo “encouraging,” and not compelling, them to attend. And Mr. Duterte’s justice secretary was heard asking the crowd who next he should go after, in a perverse display of rabble-rousing and the threat of prosecuting political enemies by mob rule. (Like a “perya barker” was Sen. Grace Poe’s pithy observation of the man’s dangerous, divisive behavior.)
Fellow Filipinos are not the enemy. Poverty and social injustice are the enemies—and a war against them would unite the citizenry in a truly consequential struggle. Over 11 million Filipinos remain unemployed—so why is Malacañang’s gaze directed elsewhere?
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