President Aquino unceremoniously jettisoned Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan from his 51-member delegation to the Association of Southeast Nations summit in Brunei on April 24 shortly before the entourage flew out, and not because it was top-heavy.
A key member of the Cabinet’s economic cluster, Balisacan was originally listed among the officials accompanying the President to the summit. But when the chartered Philippine Airlines flight took off, Balisacan’s name was not on the official manifest.
When reporters sought an explanation, Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Balisacan’s presence was no longer needed because the Brunei meeting was “more of Asean and trade topics.” His deputy, Abigail Valte, seconded: “The topic will be more of Asean and … so he didn’t come along.” The reporters sensed something wrong in the head of the Cabinet’s economic cluster choosing to miss out on the Asean summit.
Asked if the dumping of Balisacan had something to do with the poverty report of the National Statistical Coordination Board, which is attached to the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda), Valte said: “Not at all.”
Neda chief Balisacan, one of the more cerebral members of the Cabinet, had enough self-respect to know when he is not needed. When asked why he was not joining the trip to Brunei when almost everyone else was dying to be part of the junket, he said: “I had just come back from the [International Monetary Fund]-World Bank meeting in the United States the midnight before our press conference on poverty statistics.” He was implying that he was suffering from jet lag.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the day before the President’s departure for Brunei, the NSCB released a report that said economic growth over the past six years had hardly made a dent in poverty incidence, with the percentage of Filipinos living below the poverty line remaining virtually the same between 2006 and 2012.
According to NSCB statistics, poverty incidence stood at 27.9 percent in the first semester of 2012—“practically unchanged” from the same period in 2009 (28.6 percent) and 2006 (28.8 percent). Although poverty incidence was unchanged in the past six years, the number of poor people was expected to be higher in 2012, in the midterm of the Aquino administration, because of the growing population. The Inquirer reported that Norio Usui, senior country economist for the Asian Development Bank, pointed out that the government must solve the problem of jobless growth if it hoped to reduce poverty.
“I am not surprised at all,” Usui told the Agence France-Presse. “The benefits of strong economic growth have not spilled over to the people because they still cannot find a job.” He added that the Philippines’ economic model was dependent on consumption, stronger remittances from its large overseas work force, and the business process outsourcing industry, which employs college graduates. However, the country’s weak industrial base has stood out in the region. “Why do you need a strong industrial base?” he said. “To give jobs not only to the highly educated college graduates, but also to high school graduates.”
The Philippines, which has a population of 97 million, mostly poor, posted 6.6-percent GDP growth. How do these figures translate into poverty conditions? NSCB Secretary General Jose Albert told reporters at a briefing that during the first semester of 2012, a Filipino family of five needed P5,458 to meet basic food needs every month. Families earning that amount were considered to be living in “extreme poverty.” The proportion of extreme poverty among families was largely unchanged from 10.8 percent in 2006, 10 percent in 2009, and 10 percent in 2012.
With these grim statistical data, Balisacan became a bearer of bad news. As the messenger of ill tidings, he took the brunt of presidential displeasure and so was bumped off the entourage to Brunei as excess baggage.
In Brunei, the President raised doubts on the accuracy of the NSCB statistics that showed that 28 of every 100 Filipinos were poor. “I have my doubts,” he was quoted as saying. “Did they not make a report on the population?” He was referring to an error by the National Statistics Office (NSO) in which the wrong population data were used for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2009. Solita Monsod, a former socioeconomic planning secretary, was reported in the Manila Standard Today as correcting the President by saying that he may have been referring to erroneous population data used by the NSO, not the NSCB, issued in 2009.
According to the newspaper’s report, Bernadette Balamban, chief of the NSCB division that released the poverty statistics, confirmed that the NSO, and not the NSCB, released the erroneous study of the past, but that the poverty statistics had no relation to the wrong NSO data. The NSCB stood its ground.
Even so, the President questioned the timing of the release of the poverty statistics. “Neda released it just about the same time a copy was given to me,” he said. “They did not even give me 24 hours to study the report.”
But Balamban said the release of official statistics is scheduled in advance. “We have a practice of submitting a report on national accounts and poverty incidence to the Neda only the day before it is released to the public,” she said. “So far, we at the NSCB have never been accused of skewing or doctoring data.”