SONA: Unaddressed policy issues

The SONA of PBBM was a relief. It was  delivered in a non-rambling manner sans insults and threats being hurled to enemies, real and imagined. The Marcosian baritone voice was pleasantly not grating to the ears.

President Marcos also spouted a number of policy promises, a number of which have huge budgetary implications for a debt-saddled economy. One notable pledge is the commitment to upgrade the country’s health-care system and bring health care down to the community level through the full staffing of RHU clinics (with a doctor, nurse, midwife and medtech). This seems to be patterned after the globally successful Cuban model, which promotes preventive and restorative primary health care in every “barrio.”

Another notable policy thrust: all-out support to the operationalization of the Department of Migrant Workers and its myriad programs for the benefit  of the OFWs and their families. DMW Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople, an ardent advocate of migrant workers’ rights, is an enemy of human traffickers and bureaucrats who make the life of OFWs miserable through time-consuming rules and procedures in the  processing of outbound/inbound OFW papers.

There are other positive policy promises. On education, the President highlighted the need to  strengthen “connectivity,” meaning providing the students access to the Internet and digital materials. However, he failed to address some weaknesses in education such as the failure of the system to inculcate nationalism and sense of history. His proposal to strengthen the  teaching of English as a medium of instruction is also contestable because students learn fastest through the use of the national language.

On agriculture, the President seeks a condonation of the debts of agrarian reform beneficiaries and the all-out development of value chains between the farmer and the consumer. However, he is obviously not  fully apprised of the reasons and circumstances why so many ARBs are  drowning in debt and why the farmer-consumer value chains have not been developed despite decades of DA-DAR “modernization” programs involving billions of budgetary allocations. Up to now, there  are no clear and sustained programs in the  transformation of ARBs and small farmers to become the modern agribusiness leaders for the country. Please—not the giant agribusiness companies, not the multinational input producers-distributors, not the big agri smugglers-importers.

On energy, President Marcos is a well-known advocate of green or renewable energy. After all, Ilocos Norte is the pioneer in the establishment of wind mill farms in the country. However, his proposal to “re-examine” the nuclear option is questionable given the unsettled issue of safety in an earthquake-prone country. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, fully paid (over $2 billion) without generating a single watt of electricity for the country, is a symbol of corruption and a monument to incompetence in energy planning.  

As to his program to provide incentives to natural gas development, this is also contestable. The development of natural gas is contrary to the program of going green and clean because natural gas is an emitter of methane, a major greenhouse gas that is causing global warming. 

Now on the unaddressed policy issues.

First  and foremost among these is the lack of quality and sustainable jobs for more than half of the labor force. As of January 2022, the unemployed numbered around 3 million, or roughly 6.5 percent of the labor force. Among the unemployed are the graduates of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.

And then there are millions of inadequately employed. Among them are those considered officially as underemployed because they lack sufficient hours of work (6.3 million or 14 percent of the labor force as of April 2022). 

However, the inadequacy of jobs should not be measured only in terms of hours of work.  There are millions of informal workers and micro entrepreneurs who are unable to find better jobs or businesses or work with adequate compensation. A big number are hardly surviving on a day-to-day basis. 

The inadequately employed include the contractuals, project hires and even regulars, who have been placed in rotating no work-no pay work schedules by companies that are also struggling to survive in a depressed economy. All these workers suffer from the precarity of work—lack of job security, lack of  certainty on the continuity of work/business and lack of  social protection.

It appears that the President has been assured by the newly-appointed economic technocrats that things will be better for everyone should the economy register 6-7 percent annual growth. However, such growth is not an assurance that everyone shall get good quality job. This kind of economic thinking represents trickle-down  economics. In 2018, then DA Secretary Manny Piñol presented in a Senate hearing how the high growth registered in 2016-2017 was not cascading down to the benefit of the farmers.

Clearly, the government should be able to  craft a more concrete and reliable program of generating jobs in a post-pandemic period characterized by so much uncertainty and volatility in the world economic order. Please, not a repeat of the 2011-2016 and 2017-2022 Philippine  Development Plans, which give rosy economic growth forecasts, as if such forecasts are automatically translated to reality and automatically lift millions of jobs and lives.

And then there are other unaddressed policy issues. More on this in the next column.

Dr. Rene E. Ofreneo is a Professor Emeritus of the University of the Philippines.

For comments, please write to reneofreneo@gmail.com.