Note: I wrote the following commentary for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“If the ‘matuwid na daan’ continues, in a generation’s time we’ll be a First World country,” an emotional President Aquino said in his final State of the Nation Address last July. More of the same rhetoric on our “great leap forward” to modernity will surely make it to the airwaves as the Aquino administration hosts the Economic Leaders Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Manila on Nov. 18-19.
Skeptics can easily poke fun at such wishful thinking. After all, we have an international airport that has become notorious for bullets planted in the bags and baggage of unsuspecting travelers, the world’s worst traffic, a train system literally on the verge of collapse, and the most sluggish Internet despite having the highest income tax rate in the region.
But then every president starting from Ferdinand Marcos has made a variation of this spiel, from the dictator’s “New Society” to Fidel Ramos’ “Philippines 2000” to Gloria Arroyo’s “Strong Republic.” The problem is that they all come down to the same set of neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation, liberalization (or the removal of all capital controls and obstacles on the influx of foreign goods), reduced social spending, and prioritization of debt payments.
It’s a dogma that preaches the rejection of all government intervention beyond what is required to ensure the sanctity of so-called “free markets,” by which what is really meant is the profit of powerful countries and big corporations.
First imposed through the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund during the waning years of the Marcos dictatorship, these policies were preconditions for new loans and for entry into institutions like the World Trade Organization.
The Apec Summit that was first held here in 1996 prescribed the same formulas with the promise of transforming the Philippines into a newly industrializing country.
The results have been catastrophic. Instead of bringing about prosperity in which everyone enjoys “inclusive growth,” the Philippines remains saddled with the highest poverty rate in the region at 26 percent, according to the World Bank.
The share of agriculture in the GDP drastically shrank from an average 21.3 percent in 1991-2000 to the lowest in Philippine history at 10.8 percent by 2011-2014, according to the independent think tank Ibon—making the country even more dependent on imports, to the detriment of local farmers and businesses.
Far from creating jobs, the frantic drive to draw foreign investors has led to more workers becoming contractual or temporary employees without benefit of unions, job security and benefits. Like the 72 workers who were burned to death in a fire in the Kentex slipper factory in Valenzuela City last May, many Filipino laborers not only suffer low wages but also live a precarious existence in hazardous work spaces.
Unemployment and underemployment have increased from 7.5 million in 1996 to 12.2 million in 2014, based on figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
The Filipino diaspora continues, courtesy of the “labor export policy” of a government increasingly reliant on dollar remittances to keep the economy afloat. More than 6,092 Filipinos leave the country every day to work abroad, according to data from the Department of Labor and Employment.
Lack of access to social services has become the norm as budgets for state universities and colleges, public hospitals, railways and utilities are slashed year after year.
Privatization now comes in the fancy name of public-private partnerships: The government continues to abandon its responsibility of providing the people with education, healthcare, water, electricity, transportation, etc. so big business can take over.
And yet each Filipino is indebted to the tune of P61,205, per estimates from the Department of Budget and Management, which places the national outstanding debt for 2015 at P6.1 trillion. Debt payments continue to trump social services, as shown by the high credit ratings given by international financial agencies to the country, something ironically flaunted by government spokespersons as a proof of progress.
One point that will be showcased in the Apec Summit is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that is pushed by the United States and that promises to erode whatever remaining economic independence poor countries in the region have. For example, membership in the TPP will certainly be used to push constitutional amendments concerning foreign ownership in the country.
Another round of economic “reforms” in the wake of this year’s Apec will only unlock new areas to foreign companies—more public assets to privatize, more resources to plunder.
It remains to be seen how the 65 million Filipinos living on less than $2 a day will benefit from another expensive and ostentatious showcase for top dignitaries who will be endorsing more of the same policies impoverishing the rest of us.
A “First World Philippines”? The Aquino administration’s real legacy may be the perpetuation of a development model handed down from one administration to the next that has only further enriched the few and made the poor even poorer.