Let them eat 'spin' (Qu'ils mangent de la merde):
National Social Welfare Program, Noah's Ark, and the so-called strategic responses to the national crisis
Official pronouncements coming out so far claim: 'SONA 2008 government targets on track.' For this year's state of the nation address (SONA), the plot thickens and twists abound, with a despised president speaking before a discredited congress amid a backdrop of widespread hunger, skyrocketing prices, and escalating discontent. Confronted with a plummeting -38% net satisfaction rating, 11.4% inflation rate, and 16.3% hunger incidence, Gloria Arroyo will be brandishing before Congress and the rest of the nation her accomplishments and forthcoming programs, anticipating applause for every point and pause. (Photo: GMA, http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0egJ95R5ltgn6/340x.jpg)
According to the Philippine Information Agency, "the SONA 2008 will revolve on investments made, investments being made and investments to be made by the government to ensure long term development for the nation." This shall highlight so-called achievements in 2007, including perhaps the passage of the Cheaper Medicines Law (RA 9502), the creation of 53,026 teaching positions (2002-2007) and provision of scholarships to 563,906 students, the allocation of P1 billion to TESDA for its PGMA Training for Work Scholarship program in 2007, an emergency employment program to provide employment to out-of-school and out-of-work youth, subsidies and the conditional cash transfer program, as well as the completion and opening of Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3.
National Social Welfare Program and the Noah's Ark
GMA is also expected to put forward her blueprint to address the current economic crisis, as she expounds on the National Social Welfare Program and her administration's attempt to address the devastating 'impact of the adverse global environment.' By virtue of Administrative Order No. 232, government agencies, such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Health (DOH), Department of Education (DepEd), Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), and the Social Security System (SSS), have been clustered to facilitate more cohesion and interagency coordination in carrying out social welfare programs, with the SSS administrator at the helm of this interagency initiative. AO 232 does not enumerate specific projects, however, the Noah's Ark framework, which has been 'approved in principle' according to proponent, Gov. Joey Salceda, reveals particular thrusts for the remainder of GMA's term.
Noah's Ark, an allusion to the vessel that protected and saved humanity from the great flood, is being presented as a strategic and consolidated response to the fuel and food crisis. "Social protection, in contrast to growth impetus as instrument of poverty reduction, has now become the foremost undertaking of the national government. Thus, we propose to the President and to our policy makers this social protection plan to build a Noah's Ark of basic needs to shelter the poor so no one would be left behind once the surging waters of economic adversities sweep over our shores," according to former presidential chief-of-staff and current Albay Governor, Joey Salceda.
The multi-year social protection plan is reportedly backed by a P 316 Billion budget to be funded by domestic borrowing and loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It aims to augment incomes of poor and middle class families and increase public goods spending on agriculture, education, health and housing. Several reports identify the following elements of the Noah's ark: conditional cash transfers targeting 4.7 million impoverished households, with an allocation of P84 billion for three years, or 28 billion annually; P36 billion for Commission on Higher Education scholarships and training vouchers from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority; P 58 Billion incremental budget for the Department of Agriculture; RICE SUBSIDY P 90 Billion; and P30 billion for NFA budget to build up a strategic rice reserve by buying from local farmers, according to reports.
The components of this strategic response appear to be patterned after various interim initiatives put forward with the onslaught of the multiple crises of unemployment, prices, hunger, and energy, such as the Katas ng VAT, Pantawid Kuryente and the conditional cash transfer program, which have been criticized for being short-term, 'band aid', populist measures. In the first quarter of 2008, additional revenues generated from consumption taxes have been funneled into 8 Billion pesos worth of subsidy, relief and dole-outs handed out to lifeline users of electricity, poor households with young school children, wives of public transport drivers, and calamity victims. (Photo below: (Photo: Mahabang pila sa Commonweath Av, "Rice crisis worsening" http://www.abante-tonite.com/issue/apr1108/index.htm)
Similarly, for this multi-year plan, cash subsidies and direct transfers comprise a major bloc. With the intensification of hunger and poverty, poor households would certainly welcome the dole-outs. However, criticizing these initiatives as populist palliatives is not really off the mark. For one, dividing up P 28 billion to 4.7 Million impoverished families would only amount to a meager P 5,957 per household per year, clearly below the annual per capita poverty threshold of P 15,057 set in 2006 (the latest Family Income and Expenditure Survey), and this does not even capture the inflation surge in 2008. This hardly constitutes 'pantawid gutom', juxtaposed with the Family Living Wage (FLW), the official rate, comprised of food and non-food expenditures needed to sustain a family of six, set by the National Wages and Productivity Commission, which for NCR (June 2008) was pegged at P 894, or P 326,310 per family per year. (http://www.nwpc.dole.gov.ph/pages/statistics/stats_estimates.html) In fact, the recent SWS survey on hunger indicates an increase in and intensification of hunger, with 200,000 more Filipinos experiencing severe hunger compared to last quarter, even after the cash transfers and dole-outs were carried out.
A central part of this so-called social protection framework is simply just an extension of an unsustainable, dole-out regime. The problem with a 'pantawid gutom' strategy is that hunger is a symptom not the disease. How this can be considered a strategic response, without addressing the chronic problem of joblessness, precarious livelihoods, and low-paying, unsteady work, not to mention the glaring disparities in assets, resource endowments and income distribution, is something that only the creative imagination of this administration can fathom. Or perhaps these inherent contradictions are being deliberately ignored to evade the tough decisions that have to be made to ensure thorough going growth and development? The other thing is that these efforts of the administration are concentrated mostly in NCR, where public, media attention is focused and dissatisfaction is greatest, which raised a lot of questions on who's being targeted and why. The question to ask then is this-- pro-poor or pro-pogi points?
It's really not surprising that strategies are inadequate and misdirected, considering that this administration does not really acknowledge the full extent of the crisis and the reasons behind it. In their books, the whole crisis is brought about by external factors beyond our control. "As a country, we are all suffering from the world economic downturn. Factors beyond our control have seriously assaulted our economy and our way of life. The sound economic and fiscal program of government has provided us with the necessary buoyancy that has so far kept us afloat in these rough seas," says deputy spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo.
She adds, 'if not for the Arroyo administration's strong economic fundamentals in the past years', "we can only imagine how devastating the world fuel price crisis would have affected us."
Notice how Fajardo pins the blame on the world economic downturn, gives GMA the credit for purportedly keeping our head above water, but forgets to mention the liberalization and deregulation thrusts that slaughtered domestic agriculture and industry, and rendered our economy even more vulnerable to the swings and shocks of the world market; or this administration's failure to provide the necessary social investment and asset reform infrastructure to prepare us for the impending deluge. Claims of sound economic fundamentals are belied by data that show us trailing behind our neighbors. As Walden Bello emphasized in an earlier article, the recent UNDP Human Development Report show that while our economy was growing, Philippine per capita income growth was the 'worst in Southeast Asia' at an average 1.9% growth between 1990-2005, in contrast with Vietnam (5.9%), Thailand (2.7%), Laos (3.8%), Cambodia (5.5%) and Myanmar (6.6%) The truth is, benefits of moderate economic growth under GMA failed to trickle down to the poor; and in fact poverty incidence increased from 30% in 2003 to 32.9% in 2006, according to the National Statistics Coordination Board.
Moreover, glaring disparities in income distribution continue to persist, with the poorest families (decile) getting a meager 2.16% of the total annual family income growth, while the richest families (decile) got 34.26%. Under an economic regime where distribution of resource endowments and access to opportunities to earn are skewed and limited to precarious livelihood, with low, unsteady incomes, it is not surprising that the incomes of the richest grew 16 times more than the incomes of the poorest. Given a limited framework that refuses to recognize (or insists on ignoring) these contradictions in our economy, the nation is bound to be stuck with mediocre mitigation measures rather than strategic solutions.
A country in crisis, a president-in-distress
Instead of an admission of accountability and a more truthful assessment of the situation, GMA's crew offers us consuelo de bobo and asks us to take comfort in the fact that we have a 'a very dedicated and hardworking president', "a very active performing achiever, performing political leader, performing President," who would rather "buckle down to the nitty gritty of seeking ways to help cushion the effect of the world economic situation and just see to the immediate and effective implementation of programs to benefit our people." These are the lines given by Cerge Remonde, Eduardo Ermita and Lorelei Fajardo, respectively, who came to GMA's defense after her ratings plunged to -38%, an all-time record low, crowning Gloria Arroyo as the most unpopular president in history, disliked by at least 60% of the people, in all regions, across the archipelago. Survey or no survey, the whole image of a leader, bent to carry out necessary, tough, unpopular measures, is negated by her waffling position on urgent and critical legislation such as the CARP extension and the Reproductive Health bill.
What we have before us at this point is a flawed framework (insufficient and shortsighted) hyped up by an intensified propaganda offensive carried out by Arroyo's spin doctors. What's being fed to us, branded as strategic solution, is essentially a populist politician's propaganda; and What's lacking in substance and sincerity is fervently filled up with a heaping shit-load of spin. Ultimately, what we're being asked to count on is a politician in distress steering this so-called ark at a time of dire crisis.
The problem here is that GMA has her eyes set on mitigating her own crisis, the lack of legitimacy, confidence and mandate that besets her regime, rather than the larger crisis that holds the nation hostage. A closer look at her propaganda drive, her political appointments and subsequent plays at a programmatic response actually betrays a blueprint for GMA's shelter and not ours. The recent round of political appointments completely erodes her posturing and pretense of a well-meaning, well-thought out strategy, with Arroyo's handpicked allies and cronies being given key positions in crucial agencies, such as the National Economic Development Authority, the Energy Regulatory Commission and the Social Security System, all critical in determining the outcome of the current crisis. Certainly, Recto wasn't chosen for his track record in socioeconomic planning, but more likely for his participation (and failed bid) in Team Unity and his proximity to possible vice presidential candidates being eyed by the administration.
Further, the political appointment of Romulo 'executive privilege' Neri, who will be at the head of the social welfare cluster, coordinating efforts under the National Social Welfare Program, including the infusion of funds toward direct cash transfers, could very well be a step toward assuring GMA's sustenance as they pave the way for the road beyond 2010. Possibly, we are looking at the groundwork for yet another ZTE-NBN or Bolante fertilizer scam. It really doesn't help that the key actors in this crisis situation are the same ones who have orchestrated large-scale, perpetual plunder, deception and fraud. (Photo below; Marie Antoinette execution, http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/marie_antoinette_execution.jpg)
At this stage of the crisis, survival clearly is the name of the game. But whose survival and at whose expense, that is the nagging question. Meanwhile, with GMA on top of the food chain, the 14.5 Million who are hungry and the 60 percent who are dissatisfied will have to make do with a rehash of the Marie Antoinette quip 'qu'ils mangent de la brioche!' (let them eat cake) Of course, what GMA and her gang are in fact saying at a time of grave crisis is this: 'Qu'ils mangent des mensonges, qu'ils mangent de la merde!'
But then again, as history tells us, there's always the option to collectively cry out, "off with their heads, off with their heads!" ##
Multi-billion sa FIELDS, 5 libong km na daan at subsidies, aasahang ibibida ni PGMA sa SONA - special report