The state of our regions
A federal form of government in the country, proponents argue, will narrow the long-standing inequalities across regions of the country, especially the dominance of “imperial Manila” or “imperial Luzon.” And yet the same argument is being used in reverse. One of the compelling arguments against federalism, especially if the existing administrative regions of the country will largely define the federal states, is how it could precisely perpetuate and widen the gaps across the regions even further.
If the opposing sides are both using the same issue as an argument, then one of them must have it wrong.
At the outset, it seems to me rather odd that we would seek to draw bolder lines to separate our various subnational divisions, when countries and economies across the world have seen merit in erasing the lines that divide them, through closer integration. In our part of the world, the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have already established the Asean Economic Community, Asean Socio-Cultural Community and Asean Political-Security Community.
A key motivation for this had been the traditional observation that there are wide differences and disparities across the region’s economies, cultures, social conditions, and political and governance systems. The expectation is that, with closer integration, the region’s member-states could better move toward narrowing such disparities.
Within the country, those disparities are even wider and more marked across our 18 regions. Population shares range from the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) at one end, accounting for a mere 1.7 percent of all Filipinos, to Metro Manila (National Capital Region or NCR), Calabarzon and Central Luzon, accounting for well over 10 percent each. Factoring in geographic area, population densities (measured as number of persons per square kilometer) range from a sparse 87 in CAR to a jampacked 20,785 in NCR, with a nationwide average of 337.
Based on these natural attributes alone, we have a whole wide range of regional sizes spanning from tiny to huge. Across them, other natural endowments similarly vary widely.
Economic and social conditions mirror the same wide disparities. Contributions to the country’s total economic output (measured as gross domestic product or GDP) range from a miniscule 0.6 percent for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to Metro Manila’s hefty 36.4 percent—nearly three times its share of the population (12.8 percent). Together, Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Calabarzon account for 62.9 percent of GDP, while accounting for only 38.2 percent of the population.
For many regions, this relationship is reversed: Their share of output (hence incomes) is only half or less of their share of the population. Eastern Visayas, for example, has 4.4 percent of the population, but only 2.2 percent of GDP. Caraga has 2.6 percent of the population, but only 1.2 percent of GDP. The Bicol Region has 5.7 percent of the population, but only 2 percent of GDP. The ARMM has 3.7 percent of the population, yet only 0.6 percent of GDP.
All these translate to wide disparities in average incomes and poverty incidence. In 2017, average income (GDP divided by the population) in Metro Manila was three times the national average of P151,000, while that in Bicol was only one-third, and only one-fifth in the ARMM. Only 2.7 percent of Metro Manila dwellers are classified as poor, while Eastern Visayas and the Mindanao regions, except Davao, count more than 30 percent of their residents as poor. The ARMM has the worst, with nearly half the population (48.2 percent) poor. The pattern of child stunting due to severe malnutrition follows closely.
Will turning the regions into federal states narrow these disparities? Federalism advocates tell our regions that they will “get to keep what is yours,” as if forgetting that the wide disparities I’ve described precisely make it essential that well-endowed regions share their bounty with the lesser-endowed ones. It seems wishful thinking to expect that, once given greater autonomy, the haves among our regions would more willingly give up what they have to share it with the have-nots.
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