Rebirthing Eastern Visayas | Inquirer Opinion

Rebirthing Eastern Visayas

/ 09:39 PM December 26, 2013

I hope Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery Panfilo Lacson does not take his designation literally. God knows it’s not just rehabilitation that Eastern Visayas needs.

Before “Yolanda” struck, my home region was already the country’s second most impoverished—next to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. According to 2012 government figures, two of every five Eastern Visayan families (37.4 percent) had less than the most basic food and nonfood needs.


And that’s the pretty picture. The true picture is much uglier: In Eastern Samar, where Yolanda first hit land, the poor and very poor accounted for more than half of households (55.4 percent); in Samar and Northern Samar, more than two-fifths (43.5 percent); in Southern Leyte, a third (34 percent); in Leyte, slightly less than a third (31.4 percent). Even our “best” province, Biliran, had more destitute families (20.9 percent) than the national average (19.7 percent).

Now, who wants our condition restored to that?


What I hope Lacson takes literally is the part of the memorandum creating his position that says “and development of the affected areas including an overall strategic vision and integrated short-term, medium-term and long-term programs.” God knows it’s visionary leadership that Eastern Visayas has never had.

Oh, we have had very powerful leaders. One Samarnon, Jose Avelino, was Senate president; two Leyteños, Daniel Romualdez and Nicanor Yñiguez, speakers of the House of Representatives; and a Leyteña, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, minister of human settlements and governor of Metro Manila.

But, baby, look at us now.

Imelda’s 20-year stint as the most powerful woman in the land did bring some goodies to Eastern Visayas, notably San Juanico Bridge and, more importantly, the Leyte Geothermal Production Field, whose generating capacity is now 700 megawatts. But the largeness of those projects has only demonstrated the smallness of the vision behind them.

San Juanico Bridge was followed by large-scale irrigation projects in Leyte, and wholesale neglect of the farmlands in the three Samar provinces. The resulting imbalance in productivity led to an imbalance of trade, naturally, making that bridge a boon to Leyte’s farmers, and the bane of their counterparts in Samar.

We Samarnons wouldn’t have minded much if they had built factories in Leyte. We thought they would when they built those geothermal power plants in Tongonan and, later, Malitbog. We would have gladly crossed that bridge from Samar to work each day.

But it’s factories and commercial centers in Cebu that are using the electric power being produced in Leyte now. The main consumers of power in Eastern Visayas are households, so electricity costs more in Samar and Leyte than in Cebu. How can households provide the economies of scale to defray distribution cost?


Now, if our regional leaders had been vision-blind, our provincial leaders had been just plain blind. In the mid-1990s, the Department of Trade and Industry sponsored an investors’ conference for Eastern Visayas’ six provinces. All of them solicited investments in agriculture, and none in manufacturing or services.

At the end of the conference, the guest speaker—a trade undersecretary whose name I can’t recall—remarked that every province had claimed to have an English-literate labor force. So why not business process outsourcing? If the region already had the labor pool and the electric power source, he said, why not go after investors in telecom infrastructure to complete the backbone of a BPO industry?

At the time, India was the world’s leading provider of BPO services. The Philippines overtook India in 2010. This year, almost a million Filipinos are employed in call centers nationwide. Only 1,000 of them—or 0.001 percent—are in Eastern Visayas.

So much for the past. Now the world has come to our aid. The outpouring of empathy from people of every creed and color has been as intense as Yolanda’s winds, and our gratitude is deep. But with all due respect, it’s not so much aid that we need as trade.

Eastern Visayas is no stranger to aid. I myself had done some social marketing work for a European Union-funded development program in Samar and an Australia-funded one in Northern Samar. To my shame, those programs had enriched consultants like me and not a few nongovernment organizations—but not their clients’ lives. (“Clients” is NGOspeak for beneficiaries.)

Which is not to say those programs were graft-ridden. Like most other aid-funded programs, their fundamental purpose was just plain wrong—which was to alleviate rural poverty. So, instead of making their clients productive, they just provided them with livelihoods—which could only be sustained while the programs’ funds lasted.

You alleviate poverty by making poor people productive. When they become productive, they eradicate their own poverty, and not just alleviate it.

If the rich nations want to help Eastern Visayas, let them build factories there. We have the power, and it’s geothermal—and therefore Earth-friendly. U2’s Bono proved with Product Red that societally-conscious manufacturing is very good business. The region can be a haven for green factories of the world’s greenest brands.

We have the people, and we’re so eager for work. So much of our brawn power now is either waiting for coconuts to ripen or, in the rice fields of Samar’s three provinces, waiting for rain. China has shown how rural muscles can be transformed into a manufacturing powerhouse.

We have the harbors where port factories can be built, and spare us the expense of building bridges and roads. And they are some of the best harbors in the world. Why do you think the Spaniards built a royal port for their galleons on Samar’s Pacific coast? And Douglas MacArthur, a navy base in Leyte Gulf?

What we don’t have now are local governments that can inspire foreign-direct-investor confidence. Maybe it’s Lacson who can do something about that.

Romeo D. Bohol is a retired advertising copywriter.

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TAGS: Calamities, disasters, Eastern Visayas, Government, panfilo lacson, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’
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