‘What could have been, what can be done’

Former socioeconomic planning secretary Pernia says the Philippines ditched its population management policy in the ’70s. —PHOTOS BY TJ BURGONIO

If given a three-minute audience with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., said former health secretary Jaime Galvez Tan, he will make a strong case for the development of the young population to make the Philippines at par with the fast-growing economies in Southeast Asia.    

This will be his recommendation to the President: Synergize education, health, agriculture, food production, food security and economic policy in “priority regions,” and “show that it can be done in less than a year, or even two years.”

“The problem is equity,” Galvez Tan said at the open forum that followed the lecture of former socioecon0mic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia on Nov. 17 at the University of the Philippines’ School of Economics. 

“ … The areas of inequities in the Philippines have already been identified, and yet we are not there,” Galvez Tan said, citing the case of the island of Guiuan (formerly Homonhon) in Eastern Samar that, he observed, lacked good health care and education systems.   

He added: “If we want to act on human capital, the quality of human capital, address the issues in the priority regions. Converge synergistically health, education, nutrition, food, security.”

‘On the cusp’

In his lecture titled “PH: What could have been, what can be done,” Pernia said the Philippines was “on the cusp” of becoming an upper-middle-income country in 2020, but was set back by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Pernia, who served in the Duterte administration as director-general of the National Economic Development Authority from 2016 to 2020, blamed this setback on the government’s “mismanagement” of the health crisis. 

Showing graphs on screen in his presentation, he also traced the country’s current socioeconomic woes to a missed opportunity at population management which its neighbors in Asia began to implement from the 1970s onward.

He said the Philippines was among the first to adopt a family planning program in the region in 1970 until then President Ferdinand Marcos, the incumbent’s father, scrapped it “to accommodate the Roman Catholic hierarchy for political expediency.”

“Thus, with a failed family planning program, declining fertility and necessary condition for demographic transition towards faster economic growth, higher employment and poverty reduction could not be achieved,” Pernia said.

From the 1970s onward, the Philippines’ Southeast Asian neighbors sustained their population management, with good results.

Thailand achieved replacement fertility—2.1 children per woman—as early as 1990, followed by Vietnam in 2006, and Brunei and Malaysia in 2013, according to Pernia. In the Philippines, the total fertility rate of women aged 15 to 29 declined from 2.7 children per woman in 2017 to 1.9 children per woman in 2022. 

In 2020, when the pandemic struck, the Philippine economy sank to 9.6%. Around this time, Vietnam overtook the Philippines and reached the status of an upper-middle-income country, Pernia said.

He said the Philippines could have also achieved this status had it handled the pandemic better.

Human capital development

In terms of budget allocation, human capital development should be prioritized, followed by social infrastructure and physical infrastructure, according to Pernia.  

“The budget for physical infrastructure often visibly dwarfs those for human and social infrastructure,” he said. “Yet in terms of priority of nature, and priority of order, human capital development is still needed.”

Pernia added that the strategy for sustained economic development should be focused on health and education rather than physical infrastructure, “which, unfortunately, seems to resonate more under the current administration.”

Pernia and Galvez Tan
Former health secretary Jaime Galvez Tan (left), Adoracion Navarro (fourth from left) and Domini Velasquez (fifth from left) share their insights on human capital development during the open forum moderated by Karen Davila (middle).

Galvez Tan, who chairs the nonprofit organization Health Futures Foundation Inc., said the government must focus on developing the most productive workforce aged 15 to 35.

However, he observed, the young workforce is facing a host of health issues. “So how can we develop our human capital if they’re all sick with HIV, stunting, and then tuberculosis, plus, of course, teenage pregnancy?” he said.

Pernia said in his presentation that one-third of Filipino children aged 0 to 5 are stunted or underweight due to malnutrition. Quoting a study by Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., he said 95 children die from malnutrition every day, or 34,657 a year. 

At the open forum, Adoracion Navarro, a senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, said Filipinos could avail themselves of private companies’ offer of apprenticeship under a voucher program. 

“For those who are already of working age, they should be made employable through skills upgrading and hopefully through the participation of the private sector,” she said. 

Domini Velasquez, vice president, chief economist and head of the economic and market research division of Chinabank Corp., agreed with Navarro. 

“I think one of the things—though I’m not an expert here in education and social policies—is that we do under-appreciate technical and vocational trainings and courses here in the Philippines,” Velasquez said at the open forum, adding: 

“Sometimes employers look for college graduates. I think maybe [there should be] a change in mindset in terms of the skills that are needed, and not really the diploma that the students have.”

Social infrastructure

In terms of social infrastructure, more than 40% of barangays lack “decent” health stations. Worse, according to Galvez Tan, the ratio of hospital bed to population does not meet the World Health Organization’s standards. 

In 2018, the ratio of government-owned hospital beds to population stood at 1:2,300, per the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. 

Galvez tan said that of the President’s 194 flagship projects under its “Build Better More” program, only five concern health.

Navarro also weighed in on the matter of building social infrastructure in the context of public-private partnerships.

She said the government could tap the private sector to fund the construction of school buildings and hospitals, and then “amortize the payments” under a build-transfer scheme. 

“That will be less burden for the government,” she said, recalling that the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III succeeded at doing this for education, but not for healthcare, mainly due to critics’ warnings against the “privatization of a social service.” 

For her part, Velasquez pushed for increasing the gross national savings rate that is still way below that of the Philippines’ Asian peers. 

She said through financial literacy and a lower deposit requirement, more Filipinos can be encouraged to open bank accounts. But the first step is to establish a national ID system, she said.

Read more: The greatest source of economic and social inequality

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