“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – Charles Dickens
On July 22 President Aquino will deliver his State of the Nation address.
In fact the SONA is a tale of two nations: The first, Nation A, belongs to the 1% of the population who own 99% of the country; the second, Nation B, belongs to the 99% who own the rest. Which one will the President address?
The President could talk about the successes of Nation A of which there are many. In the last 3 years it has grown by 7% p.a. –the highest in the region-, it has been awarded an investment grade, its stock market has risen by 94%, urban real estate has rocketed, inflation is in the low single digits, the budget deficit has been reduced from over P300 billion to P250 billion, tourism is up 10% and the peso has strengthened by 6.5%. Nation A has been cited as the new economic tiger. In Nation A inhabitants easily pay P25,000 –twice the country’s average monthly wage- for a ticket to JLo’s concert. Yes, the 1% are happy campers. I should know, I am one of them.
The President could talk about the disappointments of Nation B of which there are many. Unemployment has increased to 7.5% -the highest among our neighbors- from 6.9% a year ago. There are over 9 million households living below the poverty line of P5,560 a month, the same figure as in 2006 and 2009. The U.N. Human Development Index ranked the Philippines 114th of 187 countries in health, education and infant mortality, down from 105 in 2007. In Nation B 98% of applicants are unqualified for call center jobs, a position manned by high school graduates in the U.S. In Nation B, Kristel Tejada, a UP scholar, took her life because she could not afford P6,300, her share of her tuition fee.
President Aquino has reason to brag. His Daan Matuwid is the single largest reason for our achievements. Hopefully, however, he will also define the depth of our problems not as an admission of failure but as a recognition of the work that still needs to be done. It is important 99% of Filipinos know he understands their plight and will do all within his means to address them.
Item One is livelihood. By NEDA’s own admission, the country’s growth has not created any meaningful employment outside of urban construction. Industry grew 10% in the last year but this was driven principally by a 34% increase in construction, principally if one looks at the metropolitan landscape, in residential condos and malls. Exports are down by 11% while agriculture barely kept up with population growth. The absence of local jobs has driven over 7 million Filipinos offshore, 17% of the work force. The social impact of the exodus is already being felt in families and loss of dignity in our female OFWs.
Item Two is to broaden the economic base to agriculture, tourism and exports. The country needs an Agro-Industrial Grand Plan that will cover infrastructure, market access, financing and know how. This will reverse the rural migration to cities which is straining their capacity with consequences on crime and social unrest. The cost of one month’s urban congestion is estimated at P72 billion or 1.6 times our annual education budget.
Item Three is social justice. Despite the reforms in the Supreme Court, very little has been done to correct the corruption in the lower courts and prosecution process. The Supreme Court must now deliver its share of nation building and fulfill the promise upon which the Chief Justice was selected.
Item Four is a redistribution of the nation’s wealth. The country’s growth is not sustainable unless it is inclusive. This not only involves jobs but also adequate health care, shelter and education, the cornerstones of the human condition. The education budget is now only 2.4 % of the national budget compared to three times that figure in developed nations. Other items for review should be the Conditional Cash Transfer program, universal healthcare, affordable housing and student loans.
Item Five is political reform. There is something wrong when the top 18 Senatorial candidates spent an average of over P100 million to run for office. That marginalizes new leaders and reinforces the power of family dynasties, entrenched interests and the rich in national decision making. There is something wrong when a President must annually dole out P25 billion in pork barrel just so he can govern. The President should mount a viable political party which can pursue his efforts beyond 2016.
This country cannot subsist as two uneven nations in one. The challenge of the President in the next three years –which he should lay before us on July 22- is how to unify these two states, so we are one, one Republic of equal opportunity and common purpose.