BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN â€” President Aquino doubts the accuracy of poverty data provided by a government agency but says he is willing to adjust anti-poverty measures to benefit more Filipinos.
He questioned data from the National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB) showing poverty levels were unchanged despite economic growth.
â€œI have a bit of a doubt since they used the wrong population data, which is the basis for computing per capita income,â€ Aquino said the other night, midway through the regional summit here of ASEAN leaders.
â€œHow then can you properly compare 2009 and 2012? The (NSCB) might feel bad, but these are off-the-cuff remarks that were on top of my mind.â€
Poverty incidence - or the percentage of the population living below poverty line - stood at 27.9 percent in the first semester of 2012, virtually unchanged from the 28.6 percent in 2009 and 28.8 percent in 2006.
Aquino chairs the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board.
The NSCB and the National Statistics Office (NSO) are attached agencies of NEDA.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda and Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, accompanying Aquino in Brunei, belied reports that Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan was excluded from the delegation to the 22nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, fueling speculation that it might be related to the poverty report.
â€œNEDA is normally not very active in ASEAN because itâ€™s about negotiations with equivalent line ministers such as trade, finance, etc.â€, Almendras said. â€œAlso, (Secretary) Balisacan just arrived from a foreign trip.â€
Lacierda also said the main topics for discussion are primarily ASEAN matters and trade.
â€œIt is not related whatsoever with the poverty survey,â€ he said.
In a press conference on Wednesday night, Aquino said he and his administration were open to ideas and â€œeverything that will accelerate inclusive growth.â€
However, he does not believe that immediately pouring billions of pesos into a certain program could actually effect change in poverty ratings overnight.
â€œWill we tweak it (anti-poverty programs)? Of course, weâ€™re open to all... everything that will accelerate inclusive growth. But... itâ€™s not as if we invest so many billions now and in one monthâ€™s time you will see a reversal,â€ he said.
Aquino said the Department of Social Welfare and Developmentâ€™s 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) has been receiving yearly budget increases due to its effectiveness in lifting people from misery and spurring economic growth.
â€œNow, I think what we should pay attention to is this: All our interventions for instance, example the Pantawid Pamilya Program... the DSWDâ€™s budget increased over 200 percent,â€ he said.
â€œIf we look at the economic activity in the areas where many households are beneficiaries of this, when you talk to the local businessmen, they will tell you there is a dramatic increase in economic activity in their areas.â€
Lacierda said the government remained focused on generating jobs for Filipinos in urban and rural areas to mitigate poverty.
The Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet cluster had come up with an action plan to generate jobs, he added.
Various programs to support the farmers are now in place to improve the agricultural sector, Lacierda said.
Aquino said he never had the chance to study poverty incidence thoroughly, but that 2009 population numbers were â€œquestionableâ€ and thus could not be compared to the 2012 figures.
â€œSomebody said there was really no change, whatsoever, and I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s what the statistics said,â€ he said.
â€œExcept for two regions, everybody else had... Obviously, they want dramatic changes. But there is reduction in the poverty levels in the rest of the regions. Now, whatâ€™s difficult here is to predict (changes), it takes time to gather statistics. But there are times when you ask for a particular quarter and the results that will come to you are two quarters after that.
â€œBut, sorry, I just have to emphasize: The whole country is not composed of two regions. There are only two regions that had dramatic increases in poverty levels. May I point out that one of them is ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) and the ARMM, if you include 2009, how reliable are (the figures)? Are you comparing apples to apples?â€ the President asked.
Aquino said projects for the ARMM had been considered â€œghostsâ€ or nonexistent and even the population figure had to be corrected.
The ARMM is the region with the highest poverty incidence nationwide at 46.9 percent of families living below the poverty line in the first semester of 2012.
Another region that saw an increase in poverty incidence was SOCCSKSARGEN with 37.5 percent of families living below the poverty line.
Hunger incidence worse in Phl
Aurea Miclat-Teves, National Food Coalition (NFC) convener, said hunger incidence in the Philippines is 1:5.88 or almost 1:6, worse than the global average of 1:8.
â€œOne in every six Filipinos is experiencing daily the worldâ€™s number one health risk - hunger,â€ she said.
Teves said 870 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat based on an infographic of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
â€œIt is worse in the Philippines,â€ she said.
Teves said FAOâ€™s estimate is still conservative, considering the third quarter findings of the Social Weather Stations last year showed 21 percent or an estimated 4.3 million households or one in every five persons experienced having nothing to eat in the last three months.
â€œAt the rate this election campaign is going, we have yet to hear concrete proposals from the candidates in addressing the hunger problem,â€ she said.
Teves, citing data from FAO, said among the countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Cambodia are tied at 2nd with 17 percent prevalence of undernourishment.
In terms of actual number, the Philippines has 16 million undernourished persons, while Cambodia has 2 million, she added.
Teves said one major reason why the Philippines has high incidence of hunger is the lack of a comprehensive national food policy.
â€œShould they get elected, incoming members of the 16th Congress must prioritize the crafting of a national food policy that will rectify incoherent, non-complementary and conflicting legal mechanisms,â€ she said.
â€œIf they are really sincere, as how they project themselves during the campaign, then they must enact a framework law on the right to adequate food of every Filipino.â€
Senatorial bets react
San Juan Rep. JV Ejercito said the NCSB report should prod the government to buckle down to work.
â€œThe Aquino administration can start by investing heavily in quality education and make it accessible to all,â€ he said.
â€œThe government should also work with various economic sectors to address job mismatches and focus on the development of the manufacturing sector to increase jobs.â€
Ejercito said the countryâ€™s supposed economic gains have failed to lift the millions of Filipinos out of poverty.
â€œThe lack of productive jobs caused by the governmentâ€™s failure to implement the necessary economic reforms is one of the major reasons why many have remained mired in poverty,â€ he said.
Ejercito said implementing a stop-gap measure like the conditional cash transfer program will not resolve the social and economic ills.
â€œWorkers are also deprived of the opportunity to earn enough due to widespread underemployment especially in the agriculture sector,â€ he said.
â€œThe poor can no longer afford basic goods because of the continuous increase in prices.â€
He and the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) will pursue programs and a legislative agenda focused on giving the poor the means to ensure their children will not inherit poverty, Ejercito said.
Former senator Migz Zubiri said only 40 families are getting richer in the country.
â€œOnly 40 taipans are making money,â€ he said.
â€œThe six percent economic progress translates to nothing to the millions of poor Filipinos. There has been no trickle down effects to our people. What should be done, with the increase of profits of businessmen, the blessings should be shared by the employers to their employees by giving them higher pay rates rather than fattening their own accounts.â€
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara said the government needs to focus on providing quality education accessible to all and generate jobs to alleviate poverty.
â€œThe latest data on poverty make us realize the need for more comprehensive and far-reaching solutions,â€ he said.
â€œPoverty deprives Filipinos the opportunity to achieve their full potential to play a vital role in nation-building. We should immediately advance reforms and implement measures that would make the poor feel the gains of the growth of our economy.
â€œIn order to get Filipino families out of poverty, we must push for drastic reforms on education and employment generation,â€ said Angara whose platform is anchored on education and jobs.
Former senator Jamby Madrigal said the public must not blame President Aquino if the poverty incidence remains the same since it has only been three years of his administration.
It is not that easy to cure the nine years of corruption under of the Arroyo administration, she added.
Madrigal said efforts to alleviate poverty are not expected to be felt this early in the Aquino administration.
If re-elected, she will file bills of national significance to hopefully address problems of the poorest of the poor now benefiting from governmentâ€™s conditional cash transfer, she added.
Former lawmaker Risa Hontiveros said that the administration should be credited for making a dent on poverty.
â€œItâ€™s like a rally cry that we have to be even more relentless in implementing these programs because we are on the right track,â€ she said.
It should serve as a wake-up call to everyone in government, Hontiveros said.
Sen. Franklin Drilon said poverty incidence has dipped a bit since the Aquino administration took over.
â€œThat only means that we have been successful in alleviating poverty,â€ he said.
Drilon said the growth in population must be taken into consideration when discussing poverty alleviation.
The number of Filipinos has increased significantly from six to seven years ago, he added.
Drilon said the administration has implemented several reform measures like the increase in the coverage of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. or PhilHealth, as well as the beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
â€œReduction of poverty takes time,â€ he said.
â€œBut because of the reforms done by this administration, it has paved the way for substantive poverty reduction through socio-economic reforms like for example the 4Ps program, the increase in enrolment of the poor in the PhilHealth program.â€
Drilon said the allocation of P25 billion for PhilHealth this year and another P40 billion for 3.8 million Filipinos under the National Housing Poverty Reduction Program were unprecedented.
â€œThat is precisely the point in this campaign,â€ he said.
â€œThis is a referendum of the performance of this administration. The past two and a half years, the Aquino administration has shown its capacity to govern properly.
â€œWe will continue to address poverty in this country and weâ€™re confident that under the leadership of the President, we will succeed. But you donâ€™t lick poverty at the levels that this administration inherited in two and a half years time.â€
-Aurea Calica, Rhodina Villanueva, Jose Rodel Clapano, Delon Porcalla, Marvin Sy