Unsought constraint | Inquirer Opinion

Unsought constraint

Do economics textbooks ask the right questions? Can they muster tangible measures for the desperately poor? Two Cambridge University dons debated on the issue in autumn 1953. Their chat led to the crafting of what we know today as the “Human Development Index” (HDI).

HDIs go beyond one-dimensional yardsticks. Divide national wealth by population. That churns up Gross National Product. A crude yet useful yardstick, GNP also smudges stark disparities. GNP brackets, for example, a beggar shuffling in worn-out flip-flops with, say, Imee Marcos.


The Ilocos Norte governor stashed secret holdings in Sintra Trust, formed in June 2002 in the British Virgin Islands, according to a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism report. Trust resources are not reflected on 10 of 13 statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth that she filed as a congresswoman—where her reported wealth almost tripled.

GNP doesn’t capture human options or freedoms. “Conventional economics can set toothpaste prices,” noted  Mahbub ul Haq, the young Cambridge student from Pakistan. But the compelling issues were about education, health, security, life spans and human aspirations, stressed Amartya Sen of India. “We need a measure that’s not as blind to social aspects as GNP is,” said Sen, who later won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences.


At the United Nations Development Programme, Sen and Haq led scientists to produce the maiden “Human Development Report” (HDR) in 1990. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” their lead sentence read. Each annual  report since marshals data on people issues.

Today’s 22nd-anniversary issue of HDR reiterates these key  themes in a swiftly changing context. The 2013 edition is titled “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World.” Forty developing countries achieved significant progress in human development, it reports.

“By 2020, the combined economic output of three leading developing countries—Brazil, China and India—will surpass the aggregate production of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. Much of the expansion is driven by new trade and technology partnerships within the South itself,” UNDP administrator Helen Clark writes. By 2030, the southern countries will host at least 80 percent of the world’s middle class.

In the Asia-Pacific region, HDI indices of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have surged. The region lags still behind  the northern countries’ middle class. But it has “billions of people becoming increasingly educated, socially engaged and internationally connected.”

Where does the Philippines—which must feed, clothe, and educate 126.3 million Filipinos by the year 2030—find itself in this rapidly altering landscape?

Of 194 countries and territories studied, we’re wedged at No. 114. Moldova brackets us on one end and Uzbekistan on the other. China is at No. 101 and Indonesia No. 121. We make up a group titled “Medium Human Development.” Ahead is the “High Human Development” bracket. Malaysia is at No. 64. And in the “Very High Human Development” cluster is Singapore at No. 18.

What goes into our HDI index that makes for this less-than-adequate performance?


“Life is at the threshold at which all other hopes begin.” Overall life expectancy in the country is at 69 years. And the shorthand comparison is 83 years in next-door Hong Kong. There are, however, telling internal disparities. La Union, for example, now has the longest life expectancy at 74.6 years. Life is “nasty, brutish and short” in Tawi-Tawi at 53.4 years.

“Elites in our country live, on average, almost a generation longer than the poor,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali wrote 20 years back. “Many ask the bitter—but justified—question: Have the affluent acquired a franchise to life?”

In a country of economic taipans, almost one out of five scraped by on $1.25 a day from 2011 to 2012. One out of 10 is vulnerable to poverty while 5.7 percent live in severe poverty. Schooling is the escape hatch from penury. Education spending averaged 2.5 percent of the GDP from 2005 to 2010—half what other Asean countries spend.

Servicing debts, incurred massively first by the Marcos administration, accounts for 6.5 percent of the GNP. “Will Sintra Trust of Imee Marcos bury the embalmed corpse in Batac in the British Virgin Islands?” e-mailed engineer Leonor Lagasca of Iloilo. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The in-between years spun off more than 600 national HDRs. Spark-plugged by  economist and Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, the biennial Philippine Human Development Report first came off the press in 1994. Its  seventh report was titled “In  Search of a Human Face.” The study stitched in a “Human Poverty Index” that revealed Masbate wedged as No. 72 out of 77 provinces in “human poverty.” The theme for the next

PHDR is “Geography and Human Development.”

“If an indie film were to be made on Philippine human development, what would be the story line and images?” National Scientist Gelia Castillo once asked. PHDR must address “the hidden accouterments of absolute control by those in power over the local populace, with support of the highest central authority…”

In efforts to reverse decades of plunder, President Aquino will discover that time will be a constraint. Time will peter out faster than the task requires, even without the unsought  interference from those Marcos fund stashes in “faraway places with strange-sounding names.”

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: business, HDI, Human Development Index, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Viewpoint
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