Geography as destiny


Suppose our 80 provinces were countries. How would we compare with 185 other nations, say in increasing life expectancy? What about improving health? Or keeping kids in school longer, plus tamping down gender bias?

The Philippine Human Development Report (PHDR) 2013 raises those issues in a country reeling from legislators slurping at the pork barrel. That detracts attention. This eighth PHDR probes how hazard-studded geography can cripple people’s access to health clinics, schools and jobs. Is geography destiny?

The PHDR first came off the press in 1994, crafted under then National Economic and Development chair Solita Monsod’s no-nonsense leadership. The 1997 report tracked gains, by women, in education, jobs—and constraints. As insurgency flared, the 2005 report dealt with “Human Security and Armed Conflict.” The 2009 theme examined how institutions and politics impact on human development.

The latest study continues a 19-year effort, to shatter one-dimensional yardsticks. Gross Domestic Product divides national wealth by population, and shoves the beggar, in tattered hand-me-downs, alongside  83-year-old Imelda Marcos wailing over President Aquino’s plan to auction the confiscated Roumeloites jewels.

Conventional gauges reveal “what sets toothpaste prices,” the late Mahbub ul Haq of the World Bank noted. Are these the “right questions”? No, responded 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Focus instead on life spans, hunger, primary schools, and human aspirations, too. “We need a measure that is not as blind to social aspects as ‘GNP’ is.”

Would that include toilets? Sen triggered an international uproar in July when he wrote in his new book “An Uncertain Glory”: “Half of all Indians have no toilet.”

At the UN Development Program, Sen and Haq crafted human development indices. HDIs measure average performance, by a country, in terms of longevity, knowledge, and decent standard of living. HDIs were deployed for the first time in the 1990 global Human Development Report. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” the lead sentence read.

Twenty-three years later, the PHDR found the topnotchers here clustered in Luzon: Benguet, Batanes, Rizal, Cavite, Bulacan, Bataan, Laguna, Nueva Vizcaya, Ilocos Norte, plus Pampanga. Life expectancies were almost  two decades longer than those in conflict-ridden provinces. Those who lived in Benguet had 74-year life spans. It’s a truncated 57 in Sulu.

Seen in an international matrix, the life span for a Filipino is 69 years—similar to Indonesia but behind Thailand’s 74. The Philippines is wedged as No. 114 among 186 countries in terms of human development, says the UNDP’s “The Rise of the South.” We’re sandwiched between Moldova and Uzbekistan. Malaysia is way ahead at Slot 64.

Lagging provinces, as in the past, included Lanao del Sur, Masbate, Zamboanga del Norte, Saranggani, Davao Oriental, Agusan del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Tawi-Tawi, and Maguindanao. In the bottom five provinces, kids dropped out of school after six years—compared to almost 11 years for the top five.

As in earlier PHDRs, the “Provinces Versus Countries” analysis provides insights by comparison. Achievements in Benguet and Metro Manila, for example, are bracketed between Singapore on one end and Kazakhstan on the lower end.

Cebu, Zambales, Cagayan, Nueva Ecija and Davao del Sur are boxed in by Paraguay on top and Africa’s Moldova below. The performance of Guatemala and Equatorial Guinea compress that of nine provinces: Camarines Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Western Samar, Romblon, Mountain Province, Northern Samar, Sultan Kudarat, Palawan and Basilan.

Jose Rizal’s epigraph is relevant to issues that PHDR 2013 addresses, writes University of the Philippines economist Emmanuel de Dios, who heads the Human Development Network. Some are happy in their place of stay or even have the luxury of choosing it. “Others are simply condemned by their circumstances to endure it.”

Geographic inequality impacts economic growth and interlock “basins of attraction” like cities and mass markets. But “social and political barriers can frustrate people’s efforts to better their own lot,” the PHDR stresses. Still, “uneven, unbalanced growth is not incompatible with inclusive human development.”

Sure. But current public policy falls short. Overcentralized government programs tailor a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Disease-specific health campaigns skip neglected tropical ailments. Transport reforms are piecemeal. A “silo” complex buttresses an unresponsive bureaucratic framework that locks out human needs.

Improvement of the HDI has been slow but steady. It masks the oscillating performance in some provinces that haven’t closed the gap in human development. These provinces are locked into the vicious cycle of falling incomes and slumping health and education outcomes.

No effective political authority today tracks the record of human development at a province’s level. Hence, response is scattershot to cities and farms are strapped with leading or lagging areas.

There is need to change the current citycentric emphasis. A maze of laws and planning practices guts provincial tax bases and powers. A window of opportunity is opening in public sentiment to revisit the Local Government Code (1991) after more than two decades of implementation.

Provinces need elbow room, in law and budget allocations, to plan and implement programs with the democratic accountability that autonomy entails. As philosopher George Santayana groused: “It seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.”

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  • josh_alexei

    Mr Mercado, in our system of Federalism we classify the Provinces into the Haves and the Haves NOT and the Federal Government will allocate the Federal fund accordingly and we call it Equalization Downloading…Its main objective is to make the benefits especially the Federal sponsored Universal Programs in equal footing among all Provinces and Territories and discourage the involuntary settlement of one Province’s residents to another in search for better and brighter future. And by the way our Life expectancy is getting better and longer and somewhere in the top like over 80, that the Federal is adding Two more years for Qualifying for OLD AGE SECURITY by 2023 from 65 to 67 years old for anyone who had legally Resided continuously within the country for 10 years upon reaching that age…(no matter if one has work a day in his life)

    • RayP1766

      Dear me!! Equalization Downloading!! I’m guessing you’re a Government economist – hehe!

      Now let me remember how this works.

      Evidence shows that deprivation in the poorest provinces, let’s take Maguindanao as an example, is almost entirely attributable to the behaviour of successive thieving families, like the Ampatuans, who have been able to simply misappropriate federal allocations for their own personal benefit with impunity!!
      And you want to distribute more??!!

      Fix the corruption first by dismantling their feudal fiefdoms, and let them rot in jail!

      • josh_alexei

        That is another issue that needs another remedy, but the principles of Equalization remain the same.

    • ed_nique

      is this OAS limited to citizens only as others have told me?

      • josh_alexei

        No, it is for all Legal residents whether they choose to become citizens as long as they can prove Ten Years continuous Residency before reaching the Qualifying age. The sum total or broken Ten years can not qualify since this benefits is tax payers funded and also includes Supplemental Income and housing subsidies as needed…(guaranteed minimum income) But there in now a Claw back to the OAS as certain Income Threshold which increases every year..this year it could be like $80 thousand and the clawback will start.It was universal years ago.

      • josh_alexei

        And by the way, the benefits is suspended and will re-activate after 3 months if the beneficiary is out of the country for more than 6 months and a little longer if the country is the USA…And that also includes the Health Care and Drug plans.

    • Eustaquio Joven

      The Local Government Code is supposed to take care of this Equalization stuff. A certain portion of the national income is apportioned to local government units based on population and land area. But as this Article pointed out, this Code needs to be visited after more than 20 years in existence. I think that local autonomy as provided for in the constitution is a development tool that has been barely tapped. Sayang naman. Nauubos ang panahon ng mga mambabatas sa PDAF.

      • josh_alexei

        Exactly…not only that It needs revisited but also needs a regular refresher..We HAVE R That process we call First Ministers’ Conference and for a few good years now it is Obligatory..It is meeting of Provincial and Terrotorial Premiers and the Prime Minister and since l950 have typically been held annually…
        The conferences are important for a number of reasons. A sizable Portion of PROVINCIAL FUNDING (referred to as Transfer payments) comes from the Federal Government..the Conferences are an opportunity for the Premiers to lobby for more money..Today it is common for the Premiers to Meet beforehand to plan and present a Common Front to the Federal Government.. And since all Leaders of Provinces and Territories are Present during the Conferences. each will know where they all offering an apple for the other and orange for the other or half of each for the others or none if the Feds will deal to each on a one to one basis…

  • brunogiordano

    Mas angkop ang sinabi ni WARREN BUFFET –


    • Fulpol

      Henry Sy might say,

      “If I stayed in China, I wouldn’t be this rich.. I was destined to live in the Philippines and do business here..”

      “Another one, I am smarter than the Ayalas”…

      luck plus being savvy..

  • Edgar Lores

    Geography is NOT destiny. There are a handful of provinces outside of Luzon in the top twenty. In the top ten, Batanes sits at number 5 and Cebu at number 10. Further down, there are Misamis Oriental and Iloilo (=11), and Bohol (19). These provinces lie north, south and in the middle of the archipelago. They may be the exceptions to the rule, but they still prove the point that destiny is not foretold by location. Perhaps culture is a better indicator of destiny if one looks at the provinces at the bottom of the rankings.

    • Fulpol

      they have better lives if only they are lucky to work in the US rather in the Middle East as nurses..

      both nurses with similar skills.. but working in different geography..

  • Fulpol

    human development (financial and social) is the motivation for people to seek better jobs, get better education.. the reason for massive migration, from farm to poblacion, to poblacion to cities, to cities to megacities, to megacities to other countries..

    only those who left behind because of uncontrollable circumstances like deep poverty hardly meet the expected level of development.. this is where the national government could help, if the local government lacked resources.. CCT program, can do some help but just to a level that sustain survival. other than CCT, no other programs that directly affected the poor.. except for legitimate NGO’s..

    the national gov’t I believed can hardly meet the demand.. can hardly helped.. not only it lacks resources but it was plagued with corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, favoritism and powerful political dynasty that control local gov’t economy.

    I compared this imbalance human development scenario to a pyramiding scam… only the 1-5 top level lines received the wealth.. the lowest line.. the least compensated.. even get zero income.. that is what happening to geographical imbalanced in terms of wealth and human development.. the top provinces will get more and more wealth because it is where the position that gravitates wealth.. gravitates investment.. gravitates skills.. gravitates spending of the gov’t… billions of money were spent to Metro Manila alone by the national gov’t.. see, the imbalance.. see the pyramiding scam scenario..

    I am just thinking for a long time how to solve this.. and the solution is so simple: invert the pyramid.. the question is how?? I made a formulation for that, a matrix, a theory.. and at this moment, I won;t share it.. well, inverted pyramid is the ideal, of course..

    • bertrand

      I wonder if your formulation, matrix, theory …whatever you call it
      for inverting the pyramid is as earth – shaking as mine.

      Or akin to giving birth.

    • Eustaquio Joven

      Yes, the cct sustains the survival and popularity of the Aquino regime. But… How much of the loan incurred for said program reaches the intended beneficiaries? How much goes to administrative expenses? How much goes to corruption? How much will it be at payback time? At whose expense will fall this monstrosity created by an unimaginative and wasteful leadership? It is said that God helps those who help themselves. Shouldn’t the government take a cue from this? There are many sensible programs that can directly help the poor. In the long run, CCT is definitely not one of them.


    It is the social environment that decides the prosperity of a geographic location. . Cagayan Province is generally peaceful although it has a hazardous environment which men can conquer or adapt to. Then naturally it would have a higher life expectancies and educational levels of its people and GDP in comparison with Sulu and Maguindanao which are always under siege.

  • susanahjoy

    So how do you compare development between island provinces like Cebu, Palawan etc. and inland provinces like Ilocos down to Bicol and the whole of Mindanao. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference in approach to growth and development sa mga geographical areas /islands na ito?

    Ano ba ang plan/strategy? Will the govt. please tell us how they link us together as one country…

    Saka, paki-update nga ng mapa. Intsik na ba tayo…..

    • Eustaquio Joven

      Saka, paki-update nga ng mapa. Intsik na ba tayo…..

      It’s precisely why we protest China’s nine-dot line. Bakit wala tayo sa loob? Hindi ba minsa’y nadalaw si Cory sa bansang kanyang pinanggalingan?

  • fpc

    “Those who lived in Benguet had 74-year life spans…” Now about life
    expectancy, if we have affordable and cheaper vegetables and fruits,
    this might be it (instead of chicken and mound full of rice). Hygiene in
    slums and tropical diseases too are the main culprit in reducing life spans.

  • Eustaquio Joven

    A window of opportunity is opening in public sentiment to revisit the Local Government Code (1991) after more than two decades of implementation. Provinces need elbow room, in law and budget allocations, to plan and implement programs with the democratic accountability that autonomy entails.

    Yes. Devolution of agriculture should be provincial based, not municipal, for better cooperation, coordination and prioritization in planning and implementing programs. And, funding should be devolved accordingly. The DA is awash with funds for programs, but doesn’t have enough people to implement them up to the grassroots level. LGU’s have too many technicians with too little money for programs assigned to them.

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