The Aquino administration flooded the media last week with the report that the economy expanded 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, lifting the full-year growth to 6.6 percent.
Government economists and statisticians claimed the full-year gross domestic product (GDP) growth had surpassed their 5-6-percent growth target for the past year.
The result was not good enough to have any significant social impact on alleviating poverty and reducing the wide wealth chasm between the rich and the poor.
Growth in the past two years of the Aquino administration has not translated into creating enough jobs for the poor that will allow them to break out of the poverty trap.
President Aquino, who had alerted the public to expect “impressive” growth data, followed up the euphoric claims with a speech at the conference in Manila on Thursday of an organization of global parliamentarians.
Mr. Aquino credited the “gains and reforms” made by his administration in promoting transparency and accountability in government for the economic expansion.
Many left behind
Nongovernment economists have emphasized that transparency and good governance are not sufficient to drive up economic growth.
The President, however, acknowledged that “the gap between the powerful and the powerless” has become too huge. Too many people are being left behind and it has also become clear that inequity is borne of corruption.
“The few at the top have been allowed to run roughshod over the many and have [manipulated] the system to benefit themselves, while the rest wallow in poverty,” the President told the global parliamentarians.
“The greatest challenge for any modern society, then, is how to stem the corruption that has feasted on the very moral fabric of our society,” he added.
Mr. Aquino did nothing more than merely echo studies on the economic toll of corruption.
In welcome remarks at the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (Gopac), Naser Al Sane, outgoing chair of Gopac, cited a World Bank financial study that quantified the “devastating effect” of illicit financial flows through corruption at $1.3 trillion a year.
The World Bank Financial Integrity 2011 Report said “corruption feeds poverty and seeds violence and illicit trade.”
“Illicit financial flows, including corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion, cost developing countries $1.26 trillion per year, which is equivalent to the economies of Switzerland, South Africa and Belgium. This amount of money could lift the 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day above this threshold for at least six years,” the report added.
Countries with weak governance have a 30-45 percent higher risk of civil war, according to the World Bank Development Report 2011.
In his keynote speech at Gopac, during which Vice President Jejomar Binay and the leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives were present, Mr. Aquino said “corruption cannot be eliminated by sending a few offending officials to jail … or by removing them from office.”
He was apparently referring to the dismissal of Chief Justice Renato Corona through an impeachment trial and the filing of plunder charges against former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The President offered nothing more concrete to stamp out corruption than calling for long-term structural reform, the details of which he didn’t specify.
Mr. Aquino claimed that under his watch, the government had “no doubt taken huge strides toward establishing a culture of fairness and accountability when no less than a former president was charged with plunder, among other things.”
The hollowness of Mr. Aquino’s report on the 2012 economic growth was exposed by Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan at a Senate hearing where his appointment as director general of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) was awaiting confirmation by the Commission on Appointments.
In response to grilling by senators, he said the “impressive” 6.5-percent growth for 2012 should be sustained for several years to allow its effects to filter down to the grassroots and benefit ordinary Filipinos.
Don’t expect miracle
Asked about how long would it take for the broad section of the population to benefit from the growth, Balisacan was evasive.
“It should be happening, but don’t expect a miracle [where poverty would be] wiped out or substantially reduced,” he said.
The 6.5-percent growth figure reflected “only one year” performance of the economy. “If you note experiences of countries around us, it takes several years of sustained … or rapid growth before you can reduce poverty, say by one-half for the population,” Balisacan said.
How the poor can relate to and be overjoyed by the government’s euphoric announcements is hard to see. There’s nothing in it for them in the immediate term—except pie in the sky.
A comparative assessment of growth rates in the region has no meaning for Filipinos who have been left out of the growth’s windfall.
According to median forecasts from the World Bank, growth was 5.9 percent for the fourth quarter and 6.4 percent for the full year—slightly lower than that of the Neda and the National Statistical Coordination Board.
The Aquino administration went out of its way, with trumpets blaring, that the growth was “exceptional.” It claimed that the growth was proof of the economy’s ability to move toward “equitable progress” on the simplistic policy of good governance.
Despite the drumbeating, some independent sectors are not impressed. For example, while Benjamin Diokno, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ School of Economics, agreed that 6.6 percent for 2012 was “a strong growth,” he expressed doubt that the growth rate would be sustainable.
Diokno pointed out that based on the October labor statistics, the recent growth may be characterized as “labor-shedding growth. Close to 1 million jobs were lost.”
Most Filipinos still depend on agriculture and related sectors for a living, he said.
How can the Aquino administration claim that its strategy for growth—long on sermons on good governance and short on investments in economic infrastructure—is an engine of “equitable progress”?
How can an administration claim equity in growth without jobs?