Nowadays, we frequently read and hear lamentations about why our country, the Philippines, has fallen to the bottom in terms of per capita GDP among the Bigger 6 ASEAN countries from our top position some fifty years ago.

We dropped down the ranks over the course of many years despite having tried to do several significant things to improve the economic condition of the country and the lives of the Filipino people.

The country was placed under martial law for a prolonged period of 14 years to make dealing with the conditions then prevailing manageable. The People Power Revolution ended it with the hopes of much improved political and economic conditions for the nation. In this connection, we changed our Constitution, the fundamental law of the land.  We implemented a land reform program which has now been declared complete. We decentralized public governance to give more power to the local government leaders by devolving some government services and allocating much more national funds to the LGUs. We revised the education systems a few times to improve them and raise their effectiveness. We founded a nationwide vocational training program for unemployed youth. We established a universal health care program. We adopted a form of cash transfer for some selected poor citizens. And a few more.

More directly on the economic front, we tried to attract larger amounts of foreign investments by giving liberal tax and other incentives and creating more economic zones and undertaking international trade and investment promotion; for the same reason, we even amended a restrictive Commonwealth-era law to leave out certain business activities so that these are not considered as public utilities and, as such, foreign investors can take controlling interest on them; we tried to develop more infrastructures and, to increase such activities much more, we incentivized the private sector to participate in this development program; we made changes in the agricultural sector to make it more productive; we kept on revising our tax laws to attract investments and raise more taxes.

To support all these activities, we borrowed more – from foreign governments and financial institutions and from local sources. As a result, the national debt has increased to the point that it is now 61% of our GDP (based on 2023 Q2 data).

Sadly, all these efforts, and more, did not help us stop our descent in per capita GDP in comparison with our foreign country peers. In other words, the level of economic well-being of the average Filipino is currently the lowest among the average citizens of each of the other ASEAN Bigger 6 countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines).

But much more than this, and for which we do not need to add more statistical data, the internal evidence of the poor results of all our efforts for countless years is so visible, saddening, and frustrating. The physical evidence of widespread poverty is clear to anyone who cares to know. The underemployment rate, if not the unemployment rate, is exceedingly high. Millions of our people work abroad to support the family they left behind, but in doing so, the family must deal with the trying social problems that necessarily result from such family separation. The quality of education is so poor that interest groups keep mentioning and discussing it at every opportunity. The agricultural sector is in such bad shape that it has been a subject of constant debate. Food prices and the cost of electricity are higher than those of our neighboring countries, which makes interested parties keep on asking why. The picture of wide economic inequality is so clear that it cannot be denied.

Very obviously: either we are not doing enough of what we are already doing; we are doing the wrong things; we are doing the right things wrongly; we are not doing the right things we must do; or all the above.

But why is that?

It is obvious that the No. 1 cause is the lack of strong, dedicated, and effective leadership that knows what to do and knows how to do it. But sadly, we cannot pull such desirable kind of leadership and bring it to center stage. We are caught in a trap. Majority of the Filipino electorate has been captured by about 100 or so families. This condition prevents highly qualified and eager-to-serve outsiders from competing for national and local leadership. Indeed, we have a very  limited choice at election time. Now and since a long time ago.

The culprit? I would rather call it the enabling tool: vote-buying.

Vote-buying has become endemic and deeply entrenched in our society. Many of us may not be aware of this prevalent condition; or may know it but do not want to be concerned with it. Those who may disagree with this comment should ask around. Even the election of a municipal councilor does not escape this election practice.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that the ordinary citizens can do to abolish this injurious election practice for the foreseeable future. For as long as most of our electorates are poor or near poor and are not better educated, this sad condition will continue to persist. We are therefore in a seemingly unending vicious cycle. Unending, because it would be foolish to expect the present privileged and powerful few to give up their continuing strategic position and considerable advantage.

Without any substantial change to such widely prevailing political practice, I believe we are in for a very long haul, without any workable solution in sight.

Or maybe we do not need to try despairingly to find one. It may become unnecessary.

If the prediction of some of the climate change experts would prove true, an expectation that  the current efforts of the international community to contain the current global warming event will fail, in a couple of generations or so (one generation is currently defined as 25 years), the Philippines will increasingly experience intense death-causing heat, flooding caused by the rising sea and great storms, and devastating fire. If we cannot find ways to mitigate the adverse effects of these phenomena directly on people’s lives and agricultural production, much, if not almost the entirety, of the Philippine geography will be uninhabitable.  If so, there would be a Filipino mass migration, managed or unmanaged, moving towards the far global north or towards the far global south. But in any event, the Filipino nation will be scattered, and each scattered part will be governed by somebody else. Except for those who could and would remain and therefore would have to reorganize themselves.

I might have painted some very bleak pictures. But these are extremely serious problems currently facing us as a nation.

What do we do? Where do we go?


As published in BusinessWorld, dated 24 October 2023