Balisacan cites ‘social outcomes’ gap in antipoverty plan
The dramatic surge in the number of unemployed Filipinos to more than 12 million in the last quarter of 2013 sent the Aquino administration scrambling for an explanation for the spiral despite its claim that the economy grew 7.2 percent last year.
It so rattled the administration that President Aquino was forced to call a rare meeting of the entire Cabinet in the Aguinaldo State Dining Room of Malacañang, to get to the bottom of this phenomenon that contradicted the conventional dictum that economic expansion creates jobs, rather than stifles the growth of employment opportunities.
The administration was shocked by a Social Weather Stations survey showing that the unemployment figure had risen to 27.5 percent, up by almost six points from 9.6 million Filipinos recorded in September last year. The December unemployment rate was the highest since August 2012, when the jobless rate reached 29.4 percent.
How could this happen? puzzled administration officials asked themselves. The question drove them in search of scapegoats; the President’s spokesperson, who, with nothing more useful to say, offered the knee-jerk nonsense that the unemployment spike was due to the three calamities that devastated the country during the last quarter, including Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The newspapers quoted him as saying that the unemployment rate increase was “understandable.”
But this nonsense was too much for even Mr. Aquino to take. So he called for a full Cabinet meeting for the first time in nearly four years. The long interval between meetings is such that the members of the Cabinet have almost forgotten that such a body exists. They needed reintroduction to one another. Under the Aquino administration, the Cabinet is so inconsequential that, except for a handful of key senior members, it has hardly been consulted. The Aquino Cabinet is not famous for being a forum for rigorous debate.
My point in citing this incident is to illustrate Mr. Aquino’s absentee style of running the country, marked by a lack of work ethic bordering on chronic laziness—an administration of spasmodic fits and starts.
The President called the meeting after the SWS released the results of the survey conducted from Dec. 11 to 16 showing the sharp jump of the level of joblessness across the country.
Alarmed by the impact of the unemployment figures on the already declining ratings of his administration’s performance in opinion surveys, the President grilled the members of his entire Cabinet, pressing them with the question: What went wrong? He was worried that his administration’s action plan of making economic growth an agent for creating jobs, reducing poverty, and, consequently, narrowing the wide gap between the rich and the poor. Important questions were raised, such as what sectors had gained from the high growth rate, why the benefits of a strong economy were eluding the middle class and the poor, and whether the goal of “inclusive” economic growth that leaves no sector behind was being met.
At the meeting that tackled the so-called “action plan for poverty reduction,” the administration came to terms with the hard issues that it has avoided for the past four years. The meeting blasted the delusion that it takes much more than strong growth to make the benefits of growth filter down to the poor classes. In this sense, the meeting was an encounter with economic and social reality.
The administration’s point man in this encounter was Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan. He admitted to the full Cabinet that the administration had a dismal performance in creating jobs and arresting poverty. In his presentation, he told the President and the Cabinet that they had been living in a world of make-believe prosperity disguised by figures on high economic growth that left many sectors
It took courage for Balisacan to present a midterm administration’s performance relative to the targets and objectives of the Philippine Development Plan. What he said was not music to the ears of the President and the Cabinet. He played a sour note when he said, “We are on track with respect to our economic targets, but we lag with respect to our social outcomes.” He was referring to poverty incidence and the growing level of joblessness despite robust economic growth.
But the candid presentation was spoiled by the buffoonery of Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma who, at a briefing, tried to explain the glaring disparity between the 7.2-percent growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the rising unemployment rate. He said that the 2013 GDP growth was within the 7-8 percent annual growth rate.
But on the unemployment rate, he cited a much lower figure without providing a source for the data—7.1 percent in 2013, compared with a forecast range of 6.8 to 7.2 percent.
He should have been muzzled at that moment—before he could do further damage to the administration’s credibility.
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