No reason to be complacent

No reason to be complacent

(Part 1)

With a GDP growth rate of 5.9% in the third quarter of 2023, the Philippines is one of the fastest growing economies not only in the Indo-Pacific region but in the whole world. In fact, in an economic forum organized by this paper, the Philippines received kudos from multilateral lenders such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

One of them, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand Ndiame Diop was quoted as saying: “the Philippines have all the structural drivers that are very favorable and that’s why we’re quite optimistic about this. But given the state of the global economy, even 5.6% is a really decent growth rate. And I think if the global economy improves going forward, the ceiling grows even higher.” In my own observation, having traveled extensively to many regions outside the NCR over the last two weeks giving economic briefings, I forecast that the fourth quarter will see a GDP growth rate of at least 6.5% as there will be an acceleration of consumption and government spending.

There is no room for complacency, however.

The growth we are experiencing is far from being inclusive. Philippine poverty incidence continues to be the highest in the East Asian region at 13%. There is much to do to ensure that the growth trickles down to the masses, especially to the rural areas which still account for 70% of the poor. The multilateral lenders who spoke at the BusinessWorld Forum emphasized the need to boost labor productivity, infrastructure competitiveness, and climate resilience to ensure that growth remains robust. For growth to be inclusive, I would single out higher agricultural productivity and food security. If I were to identify a single bullet approach to significantly reduce mass poverty, I would choose agricultural development and would focus on food security.

We cannot just point to the Government to do the job of reducing the number of people in the Philippines living in dehumanizing poverty. All of us who have the means have to do whatever is in our hands to help reduce poverty in our country. On Nov. 19, Pope Francis issued a message on the World Day of the Poor. He quoted from the Book of Tobit of the Old Testament, exhorting each one of us: “Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor” (Tobit 4:7). What he said applies to the Philippines to the fullest degree: “Our daily efforts to welcome the poor are still not enough. A great river of poverty is traversing our cities and swelling to the point of overflowing; it seems to overwhelm us, so great are the needs of our brothers and sisters who plead for our help, support, and solidarity…”

He then described the exemplary life of Tobit who showed by words and deeds what it means to help the poor. He told his son Tobias: “To all those who practiced righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it.” Our concern for the poor (of which there are more than 10 million in our country) should not end with lamentations and exhortations. They should be shown by concrete corporal and spiritual works of mercy such as feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick and the prisoner, burying the dead, instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, etc. Tobit made it clear to his son that from his youth he had devoted his life to works of charity: “I performed many acts of charity for my kindred and my people who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh in the land of the Assyrians… I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it.”

What was even more admirable in the life of Tobit was that he did not turn away from God even if, despite all his good works, a tragedy struck him. Returning home after burying a poor man who was murdered, he fell asleep in the courtyard and some bird droppings fell on his eyes and he became blind. Pope Francis comments that the blindness of Tobit was to become his strength, enabling him to recognize even more clearly the many forms of poverty all around him. Like Tobit, we should recognize all our brothers and sisters in need of help. We are called to acknowledge every poor person and every form of poverty, abandoning the indifference and the banal excuses we make to protect our illusory wellbeing.

We may rejoice with the news that the Philippines is transitioning from a low-middle income economy to a high-middle income one in the next two or three years. That means that there will be more and more of us who will aspire for the material comfort associated with a middle-income lifestyle. The danger is that we may fit the description of Pope Francis as we become richer: “We are living in times that are not particularly sensitive to the needs of the poor. The pressure to adopt an affluent lifestyle increases, while the voices of those dwelling in poverty tend to go unheard. We are inclined to neglect anything that varies from the models set before the younger generation, those who are most vulnerable to the cultural changes now taking place. We disregard anything that is unpleasant or causes suffering, and exalt physical qualities as if they were the primary goal in life. Virtual reality is overtaking real life, and increasingly the two worlds blend into one. The poor become a film clip that can affect us for a moment, yet when we encounter them in flesh and blood on our streets, we are annoyed and look the other way. Haste, by now a daily companion of our lives, prevents us from stopping to help care for others. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not simply a story from the past; it continues to challenge each of us in the here and now of our daily lives. It is easy to delegate charity to others, yet the calling of every Christian is to become personally involved.”

To counter this trend among middle- and high-income families for their members, especially the centennials, to “look the other way” when they encounter the face of poverty, it is a very good practice for parents and the older members of a family to bring the younger children regularly to visit families in squatter areas, bringing some material gifts like food or clothing, and spending some time conversing with the poor on a person-to-person basis. It is not enough just to dump the goods. Even more important is the interaction with the poor, treating them on an equal basis as human beings, not just recipients of charity. It is also a good practice for some schools or youth clubs, organized by the parents themselves, to arrange what are known as “work camps” in some poor areas in the countryside (in which there is the highest rate of poverty) during the summer. These camps can last for a week or so, and these young people from well-to-do families can sleep in modest quarters and during the day help build or repair classrooms, toilets, socialized housing units, sources of drinking water and other public utilities that are lacking especially in remote areas. These experiences not only toughen the character of children of the rich, but also make them more sensitive to the needs of the poor so that when they become professionals they will never be tempted to “look the other way” when faced with dehumanizing poverty of others. These work camps can also be occasions to give talks on values or virtues formation to the youth.

(To be continued.)


Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.