> Gloria and her SONAs: Long on show, short on substance – PCIJ

Gloria and her SONAs: Long on show, short on substance

TITA C. VALDERAMA, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

07/25/2009 | 05:26 PM

Her handlers portray her as a hardworking president, but after eight years in power, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is looking more like being long on show and short on substance.

Indeed, while critics and observers alike acknowledge specific successes by her administration, they point out that more fundamental concerns were neglected in the pursuit of achieving these.

The emphasis on high-profile projects and ‘feel-good’ programs became even more pronounced after the ‘Hello, Garci’ scandal broke out in July 2005 and lent credence to allegations that massive cheating, vote-buying and other poll irregularities had marked the 2004 elections. Critics say this led Arroyo to become more preoccupied in proving her administration’s legitimacy.

As a result, economists Benjamin E. Diokno and Solita C. Monsod, both of whom teach at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, gave Arroyo an overall failing mark in the 10-point agenda she set out to accomplish between 2004 and 2010.

Using the University of the Philippines grading system, in which 1 is “excellent” and 5 is “fail,” Diokno gave the president an average of 3.86, rounded off to 4, for Conditional Failure. Monsod, in a 1 – 100 rating, gave Arroyo an average of 47.17 where 50 percent is the passing mark.

But Diokno and Monsod differed in grading Arroyo – who earned her PhD in economics at UP — on her goal to achieve a balanced budget. Diokno, who was the budget secretary of Arroyo’s immediate predecessor, Joseph Estrada, gave the president a failing grade of 5 for the large deficits from 2001 to 2005 and ending her term with record-high deficits of at least P250 billion by yearend and another P200 billion plus in 2010. By contrast, Monsod generously gave her administration a perfect 100 rating for being on track on its deficit projections in 2007 and 2008.

Beat odds or beaten?

One hundred days after she was sworn into office anew in 2004, Arroyo unveiled her Medium-Term Philippine Development Program (MTPDP), the road map to realize her 10-point agenda presented in the catchphrase: “BEAT THE ODDs.”

Each letter stood for a goal, thus: B – balanced budget; E – education for all; A – automated elections; T – transportation and digital infrastructure; T – terminate hostilities with the MILF and NPA; H – heal the wounds of EDSAs I, II, and III; E – electricity and water for all; O – opportunities for livelihood and 10 million jobs; D – decongestion of Metro Manila; and DS – develop Subic and Clark.

J. Nereus Acosta, a former congressman and now a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government and the Asian Institute of Management, says that the administration “can rightfully boast” of a few areas where it can claim moderate to large success: a balanced budget, some big-ticket infrastructure projects, and the meeting of some targets for education, such as more computers in schools and the construction of new classrooms and school buildings.

But the former three-term congressman who was on Arroyo’s side during her first three years in office also notes that the administration’s infrastructure projects have been plagued by overpricing and corruption.

Economist and Freedom from Debt Coalition Vice President Rebecca Malay meanwhile criticizes what she says is Arroyo’s “obsession” to balance the budget by reducing expenditures for basic social services like health and education and increasing the “easy” taxes, particularly the Reformed Value-Added Tax (R-VAT) that raised billions of pesos for the government since 2005.

During the Estrada administration, the per capita expenditure for health was at P201. Under the Arroyo presidency, it went down to P184. On education, annual per pupil expenditure was at P5,830 under Estrada, and down to P5,467 under Arroyo. According to Malay, the effect could be nothing less than “deleterious.”

Education is central to development and a key to attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Education For All (EFA) commitments to the United Nations. It is deemed the most powerful instrument for reducing poverty and inequality.

Unfortunately for the president, even some of her allies in the House may agree with Malay’s assessment.

‘Academic crisis’

Quezon Rep. Danilo E. Suarez, who chairs the House oversight committee that monitors and reviews the president’s SONA commitments, for one says that while Arroyo may have met her targets on construction of classrooms and reducing the density between classrooms and students and the number of teachers per students, her efforts to address the “academic crisis” are far from what is desired.

If funds are not forthcoming, you can never improve the quality of education

Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos M. Padilla

This is particularly true in the area of access to information technology, says Suarez, who points out that only 20 percent of the population is computer literate. “If you have 80 percent illiteracy in this particular field,” he says, “you have an academic crisis.”

He clarifies though that the fault is not entirely Arroyo’s, since she inherited the problem from previous administrations.

Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos M. Padilla, for his part, says that prioritization of limited state resources is key to meeting the country’s targets on assuring access to education to all children of school age.

“If funds are not forthcoming, you can never improve the quality of education,” says the former educator, noting that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) sets the minimum share of education in the national government budget at six percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In the 2009 budget, the allotment for education grew by almost P20 billion from the previous year. In terms of share of the national budget, however, the amount received by education actually shrank to just 11.87 percent, from 12.2 percent in 2008. This represented a drop to only 2.36 percent of GDP, from 2.5 percent in the previous year. On a per student basis, the investment on education has been declining in real terms.

Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools grow at an average of 1.8 percent a year, but per student budget declines by an average of 0.3 percent, according to the 2008 – 2009 Philippine Human Development Report.

A study commissioned by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) says that the government needed to infuse P44.2 billion more to education this year to be able to meet the EFA goals.

To Padilla, ensuring quality education means providing sufficient funds for quality instruction, facilities, and curriculum. But he says, “The situation we have now is that we can’t even provide for higher salaries for teachers to be able to attract the best talents to the teaching profession. We can’t capture the best minds among our high school graduates to take up education course and become teachers because of the pitiful salary rates.”

Alarming drop

HARD LIFE. An estimated 1.3 million Filipinos work in Saudi Arabia, mostly in jobs deemed by many Saudi nationals as too menial and demeaning. GMANews.TV

Enrolment on education courses has dropped from 19.3 percent in school year 2000 – 2001 to an alarming rate of 15.3 percent in 2004 – 2005.

The entry level pay for public school teachers is at a range of P10,933 to P12, 997 a month, which is way below the poverty threshold income of P16, 380.

The low salary rate and the current economic situation are among the primary reasons why some of the country’s best teachers are leaving for the United States, the Middle East, and other Asian countries.

Data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) show that 1, 666 teachers left the country in 2007, most of them trained in specialty subjects like Math, Science, and English. The number does not include those who did not pass through POEA, those rehired, and those who found other employment such as caregivers and domestic helpers.

The same data show that more than 4,000 newly-hired teachers have left the country, majority of whom went to the United States. Teachers began leaving the country in significant numbers in 2000. A total of 241 teachers opted to seek better employment overseas that year, according to POEA records.

While President Arroyo has repeatedly said deployment of Filipinos overseas is not her government’s policy, one of the reasons she has given for her frequent travels abroad was to help enhance the overseas market for Filipinos.

Jobs: Goal failed

NATION OF SLAVES. Filipino migrant groups assert that the Philippines sends out thousands of Filipino maids abroad yearly in the absence of local employment. GMANews.TV

Creating at least one million jobs a year is another goal the Arroyo government has failed to achieve. If at all, what has been generated were temporary employment and in small-scale businesses under programs called OYSTER (Out-of-School Youth Serving Towards Recovery) and CLEEP (Comprehensive Livelihood and Emergency Employment Program).

According to National Statistics Office (NSO) Administrator Carmelita N. Ericta, employment rate stood at 92.5 percent in April 2009, a slight improvement from 92 percent in April last year. By comparison, unemployment decreased from eight percent last year to 7.5 percent this April. This was based on the quarterly labor force survey that placed the number of employed persons at 37.8 million out of 59.1 million in the labor force who are 15 years old and older.

But the assertion raised several eyebrows at the House, especially the data showing the highest employment rate of 98.5 percent and the lowest unemployment rate of 1.5 percent in the poorest region in the country, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Metro Manila had the lowest employment rate of 86.5 percent and the highest unemployment rate of 13.5 percent.

Paranaque Rep. Roilo Golez was even moved to remark that the poorest region in the Philippines has a far higher employment rate than the whole of the United States, where the corresponding national figure is at some 10 percent amid the global economic crisis.

In truth, there seem to be several sets of “official” labor numbers floating around, all of them depending on how a particular agency defines or sets the parameters of terms like employment, unemployment, and underemployment.

Even Congressman Padilla has apparently become so confused that he is now questioning the huge disparity in the number of jobs created between 2004 and 2008 as it appears in the reports of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) and NSO.

Discrepancies in stats

According to the PMS, 11.4 million jobs were created in the last five years. The NSO report, however, puts the figure at less than four million. Comments Padilla: “I would have let it pass if it was just a difference of, say, up to10 percent, but the disparity is almost three-fold. It really puzzles me.”

I just want them to explain why they have this claim

Rep. Carlos M. Padilla

“I am not trying to be malicious,” he says. “I don’t want to embarrass the president if she says there were 11.4 million new jobs created since 2004. I just want them to explain why they have this claim.”

Congressman Suarez, though, says that the congressional oversight committee reviewing Arroyo’s SONA commitments would use the NSO data. He says these are consistent with the figures from the labor department and the pension agencies. The PMS data, says Suarez, took into account jobs generated in the small and medium enterprises that obtained loans from government financial institutions.

The PMS may have also factored in other data, if figures given by Trade Secretary Peter Favila are to be considered. According to Favila, the government’s lending program for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) has lent some P305.57 billion to some 5.6 million beneficiaries since 2004 and in the process created 2.5 million jobs. If that figure is added to the NSO statistics, that would still mean the PMS new-job count is in excess of some five million.

To some, however, such statistical discrepancies are par for the course for an administration that has long been accused of glossing over its shortcomings and creating diversions instead of squarely facing the mounting allegations of fraud, graft, and corruption. In the process, the search for real solutions to the country’s many problems has been forgotten altogether.

Governance sacrificed

Opposition Senator Benigno C. Aquino III, who says the Arroyo administration has “sacrificed” governance “for political expediency and sheer survival,” cites one particular example.

“In the four years since renewable energy was used to smokescreen the ‘Hello, Garci’ issue, and the country’s well-being was sacrificed, it is only reasonable to expect that the government has accomplished its goal of turning renewable fuels as a sustainable source for our energy needs,” says Aquino. “However, the government opted for solutions, such as the use of the jathropa plant as a source of renewable fuel, which ended up needing further study.”

Acosta’s assessment of the Arroyo presidency is more biting: “No amount of BEAT THE ODDS variable successes can compensate for the larger ‘political economy’ sins of the present administration: far-reaching institutional damage across government and an overall, nationwide sense of malaise and social distrust.”

“The latter, I believe, is foundational,” explains Acosta. “Social trust is fundamental when we particularly speak of governance. Programs and projects can be individually celebrated, and subject to ‘spin’ for media mileage and political capital, as it were. But if the government is distrusted, institutions are instrumentalized for political gain, and and leadership labors under a persistent cloud of doubt over its legitimacy, it cannot be judged as having served the public weal.” – PCIJ

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