Food for every table? Far from it

By Maria Althea Teves, abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Jul 30 2009 04:19 PM | Updated as of Jul 31 2009 11:39 PM

18th in a series on GMA's 9th State of the Nation Address

MANILA - When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was running for vice president in 1998, one of the major planks of her platform was, “pagkain sa bawat mesa” (food for every table). She reiterated this promise during her first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2001 and again during the 2004 presidential campaign.

She was off to a good start, said former budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno.

Eight years after she took over Malacañang, however, hunger still persists and the president’s promise seems far from fulfilled.

While there were stop-gap measures to immediately address growing number of growling stomachs, other elements of the economy were worsening. Hunger has been growing since poverty increased, there was lack of available of and declining quality jobs, and food became less affordable.


Self-rated hunger

Surveys by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed that Filipinos who claimed they were hungry remained at double-digits since June 2004.

Hunger levels peaked in November 2008 with 23.7%. The latest figure from SWS (February 2009 survey) pegged hunger levels at 15.5%.

The SWS survey was based on self-rated hunger, or claims by respondents that they suffered from involuntary hunger at least once in the past 3 months.

Against other countries, Philippines’ global hunger ranking was as alarming. According to international research organization Gallup International, the Philippines ranked 5th among 56 countries.

The study, released in early November 2008 as part of Gallup’s World Food Day survey, showed that 40%, or 4 in 10, Filipinos reported that they experienced hunger “often or sometimes” in the last 12 months.

Other countries that topped the list was Cameroon (55%), followed by Pakistan (53%), Nigeria (48%) and fourth was Peru (42%).


Worsening Poverty

Growing hunger could be attributed to worsening poverty rates, according to SWS.

SWS Deputy Director Gerardo Sandoval said that there is a high correlation between poverty and hunger. When poverty increases or decreases, hunger follows.

Self-rated poverty has gone down to 47% in February 2009 from 59% in June 2008, but the figures have fluctuated over the past eight years.

The proportion of Filipinos who considered themselves poor under the Arroyo administration ranged from 46% to 66% in SWS surveys from March 2001 to February 2009.

Resolving the food shortage
MANILA - To deal with the soaring price of rice in 2008, the government decided to heavily import. Economists, however, say the practice of government importing rice did more than good.

Data from the government agency, National Statistical Coordinating Board (NSCB) complemented the SWS surveys.

NSCB data showed that while poverty rates declined in 2003, the gains were wiped out in 2006 when it hit almost the same level as that of 2000.

At the rate the government is going, it is not likely that government will meet its targets under the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to cut poverty in half to 20% from 1991’s 40%, according to Diokno.

He added that economists project that poverty would worsen in 2009—“even worse than year 2000.”

However, global economic slowdown that started last year—an external factor beyond President Arroyo’s control—exacerbates the ability of the government to get more people out of poverty.

Economist Arsenio Balisacan said this could also mean hunger could worsen.

Poor quality, lack of jobs

To some extent, economists say, hunger is understandable and not something one can totally blame on the current Malacañang occupant. After all, “hunger is a perennial struggle,” and a consequence of many factors, Balisacan explained.

Balisacan, who was a former agriculture Secretary, said another reason why Filipinos go hungry is unemployment, which is strongly intertwined with poverty.

The sequence leading to hunger is rather simple, said Diokno. “If you don’t have work, you don’t have money. You go hungry.” Simply put, if the number of individuals who are unemployed increases, then poverty and hunger also increase.

The key to fighting poverty is therefore by making sure that jobs are available, economists said. And in her first SONA speech, President Arroyo also said as much, as she promised to create a million jobs every year.

To begin with, the number of jobs the administration claimed it has been creating every year is not even enough to provide jobs to those currently unemployed. “Our economy is not able to generate productive employment for our growing labor force,” Balisacan explained.

Although it seems that in 2005, the unemployment rates dropped, “This is not to the credit of the Administration,” noted Diokno.

Mitigating hunger
The Accelerated Hunger-Mitigation Program (AHMP) employs a two-pronged strategy to address hunger: by increasing food supply and by implementing poverty alleviation programs. For instance, the Department of Agriculture’s micro-financing program lends farmers and family members P3,000-P5,000 pesos at concessional rates to put up small business or develop their livestock and crops. Seeds were also distributed to local government units.

The drop is a result of the National Statistical Coordination Board’s adaptation of Res. 15 on October 20, 2004 that adapted a new definition of unemployment. (Read: Arroyo missed own jobs target)

Balisacan also pointed out that even though a million jobs may have been generated yearly to hopefully usher all those who are unemployed and new participants in the labor force, they are poor-quality employment.

Labor force surveys tend to mask the true character of employment in the country, both economists said. Trends indicate that the numbers of self-employed workers are increasing. This, they said, means that the number of poor-quality jobs is rising.

According to Diokno the service sector, which accounts for the biggest chunk of labor force (more than 50%), is not really large because of the BPO industry but because the number of repair shops and pedicabs that have mushroomed over the years (19.1% of total labor force as of April 2009).

“People are moving from good quality jobs and shifting to [self-employment],” Balisacan explained. He said this “is an indication of growing poor quality employment opportunities,” which usually accompanies being fired from stable, more productive jobs.

While being entrepreneurial is generally perceived as a positive development, the lack of skills and training to be on one’s own often led to alternative income sources that are less productive than their previous ones. These include ventures that have low entry barrier, including opening repair shops or being tricycle drivers. With growing unemployed Filipinos mushrooming into similar ventures, income opportunities fall.


Food prices

Another factor that contributes to poverty and hunger is the rising prices of commodities.

In her 2004 SONA, PGMA said inflation was under control and the ordinary housewife was able to buy rice and fish at stable prices.

That was when average inflation rates were in low single digits.
Four years after, inflation rates skyrocketed. In July 2008, prices of goods reached a 3-decade high of 12.5% following price increases in rice, a staple in Filipino meals.

During the year, we also saw peak prices for wheat, a key ingredient in bread, which is an alternative to rice for those in lower income levels. Global prices for fossil fuels also reached record highs, hitting up to $147 a barrel in July 2008.

At the time, the Philippines even became a case study of how an import-dependent nation could be vulnerable to volatile prices in global commodities. This was best dramatized in our dependence on imported rice.

The Philippines has become the world’s biggest rice importer.

While this stark reality—far from the decades when we used to export rice to neighbors—did not happen only during the Arroyo administration, perpetuating the practice did not help address the food prices and supply in the Philippines.

Efforts to address this with government subsidy of rice costs and through modernization were still influenced by tendencies to prioritize short-term results.

Balisacan noted that “government was in a hurry to show results.” (Read: Resolving the food shortage)

It did not help that allegations of corruption in the agriculture sector could have robbed Filipinos of their chance to get out of poverty -- By Maria Althea Teves, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak