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Analysis

Glaring omissions in last Sona

President AQUINO’S last State of the Nation Address was riddled by glaring omissions, chief among which was poverty, which has fueled social unrest and insurgency in the country since it gained independence in 1946.

The Sona swept poverty under the rug, the most critical issue, worse than corruption, that has blighted the republic for more than six generations.

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The Sona was top-heavy with the administration’s claims of accomplishments during its five years in office, ignoring the assessment that it has failed to deliver on many key promises made by the President in his previous Sonas, including one on eradicating widespread poverty among Filipinos.

There was not a single word of reference to the state of poverty in the 27-page text that took more than two hours to deliver. The Sona also omitted mention of some of his earlier promises, including the completion of the redistribution of land from the 4,000-hectare Hacienda Luisita owned by the Cojuangco-Aquino clan in Tarlac to its farmers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.

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Social-reform legislation took a back seat in the Sona. There was heavy emphasis on economic gains during the past five years, as the President is struggling to leave an enduring legacy in order to ensure the election in May 2016 of a successor that would institutionalize his reforms on good governance.

In the Sona’s selected presentation of accomplishments, there was absolute silence, if not indifference, vis-à-vis an accounting of the issue of poverty. In particular, it evaded telling the people whether it had significantly reduced the number of Filipinos living in wretched conditions below the poverty line during the past five years, despite the government claim of fostering 6.2-percent average annual economic growth.

This claim has raised questions such as: In what way did this growth translate to eradication of poverty? Or, to put the issue more bluntly, what social classes benefited from these gains? What benefits filtered down to the poorer classes?

The answers to these questions may provide us an idea of the social compassion of the administration and a basis for determining whether the poorer classes have been left behind in the enjoyment of the gains from growth. This issue raises questions related to equitable distribution of gains: Has the economic policy underlying the growth strategy led us back to the old developmental paradigm of the 1970s—that is, growth without redistribution of wealth? Has the growth  strategy pursued by the administration resulted in the case of the rich getting richer and the poor, left behind in the enjoyment of gains from growth, getting poorer?

These issues take us back to the accomplishments claimed and highlighted in the Sona—the legacy of the Aquino presidency. The inventory of accomplishments enumerated in the Sona highlighted no less than three dozen claims, the most important of which may be reduced to a short list, including:

• Appointment of people of integrity and independence to head oversight agencies such as the Office of the Ombudsman, the Supreme Court, the Commission on Audit, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Department of  Justice.

• Increase in Bureau of Internal Revenue collections to P1.3 trillion.

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• No more reenacted budgets.

• Better international perception of the Philippines, as “Asia’s rising star.”

• Increased foreign  investments totaling P6.2 billion in 2014, the highest in our history.

• Increased local investments of P2.9 billion.

• Eight-percent growth of the manufacturing sector.

• Lower unemployment rate at 6.8 percent, the lowest in the past decade.

• Expanded beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program to 4.4 million households.

• Seventy-eight percent coverage of the rural electrification program.

• Modernization of the armed forces as a credible defense/response to China’s territorial expansionist threat in the South China Sea.

• Fifty ongoing public-private partnership projects in infrastructure development.

Against these claims, a group of civil society activists, the multisectoral Movement for Good Governance (MGG), came up with an assessment of government performance ahead of the Sona. The MGG rated the government’s performance as below expectations, especially in areas of managing the economy, public finance, health and agriculture. The President was rated 5.9 for 2014 on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest). Based on the MGG report, the grade in his fifth year was below the minimum score of 7.5 for the promises he made at the beginning of his term. Although the grade is above 5, it was described as “something has been accomplished but it is lower than expected.”

Although the MGG report commended the government for “significant strides in the fight against corruption,” and recognized the benefits of the conditional cash transfer program to the poorest households, it gave lower scores to the government’s performance in the economy, due to the drop in gross domestic product growth in 2014 and inability to increase exports relative to target, alongside “the increase in poverty incidence from 24.7 percent in 2013 to 26.8 percent in 2014.”

On economic management, the President scored 5.96 in 2014, compared with 6.58 in the previous year. Although the Philippines remained the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia, the GDP growth softened to 6.1 percent in 2014, down from 7.1 percent in 2013 and 6.7 percent in 2012.

“It is clear that sustained high growth has not occurred,” the report said.

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