SONA Postscript: Re-reading the numbers in the President’s report

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo boasted of her administration’s achievements and slammed her critics in a display of fighting stance because of it.

The former economics professor at the University of the Philippines sprinkled her speech with numbers or statistics to prove her 5-point summary, which she used to claim that:

“1. We have a strong economy and a strong fiscal position to withstand global shocks.
2. We built new modern infrastructure and completed unfinished ones.
3. The economy is more fair to the poor than ever before.
4. We are building a sound base for the next generation.
5. International authorities have taken notice that we are safer from environmental degradation and man-made disasters.”

But Filipinos have grown critical of mother hood statements and expect no less than clear and meaningful quantification from a governance report.

In her so-called valedictory address, the 2009 SONA, she used numbers in about 26 paragraphs or 1, 034 out of her full-length speech’s 4, 424 words.

But just as numbers fill the speech, does it also create clarity and assure accuracy?

The figures came generously but largely are reeking with ambiguity and unclear meanings.

Here is a quick run through of each paragraph in the SONA decorated with numbers, and some points to ponder:

Credit rating

“A few days ago, Moody’s upgraded our credit rating, citing the resilience of our economy. The state of our nation is a strong economy. Good news for our people, bad news for our critics.”

What does a credit rating show? Is it a gauge of a strong economy? What does an upgrade in rating means to the common people?

BPO as sign of competitiveness and productivity

“Kung noong nakaraan, lumakas ang electronics, today we are creating wealth by developing the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) and tourism sectors as additional engines of growth. Electronics and other manufactured exports rise and fall in accordance with the state of the world economy. But BPO remains resilient. With earnings of $6 billion and employment of 600,000, the BPO phenomenon speaks eloquently of our competitiveness and productivity. Let us have a Department of ICT.”

Competitiveness talk requires comparison with the numbers in the rest of the market. The figures for earnings and employment need to be placed in the context of the market figures.

Tourism doubles

“In the last four years tourism almost doubled. It is now a $5 billion industry.”

Quickly this means in 2005, it was $2.5 billion. The common way to present improvement in tourism is based on tourist arrivals. The $5 billion quantification refers broadly to the industry. There can be specific indicators that would show, rather than hide more.

Affirmative action

“Cash handouts give the most immediate relief and produce the widest stimulating effect. Nakikinabang ang 700,000 na pinakamahihirap na pamilya sa programang Pantawid Pamilya.”

As a one-time dole out, how much was given, and was it given equally? Is the 700T recipients, the whole size of the “poorest families” or only a portion of it?

Agrarian reform and IP ancestral domain

“Sa pagpapamahagi ng milyun-milyong ektaryang lupa, 700,000 na katutubo at mahigit isang milyong benepisyaryo ng CARP ay taas-noong may-ari na ng sariling lupa. Hinihiling ko sa Kongreso na ipasa agad ang pagpapalawig ng CARP, at dapat ma-condone ang P42 billion na land reform liabilities dahil 18% lamang ang nabayaran mula 1972. Napapanahon, it’s timely because it will unfreeze the rural property market.”

How many land titles or ancestral domain titles does the number of beneficiaries translate to? Regarding the P42 billion loans supposedly incurred by farmers from Land Bank of the Philippines, how much of it was really incurred by poor farmers? Did anyone check if the 82 percent who supposedly did not pay actually got the loans?

Micro-finance loans

“Nakinabang ang pitong milyong entrepreneurs sa P165 billion na microfinance loans.”

Basic Math would show if divided equally this would mean each entrepreneur got close to P24,000? Were the loans recovered? What kinds of enterprises were entered? Did it improve the situation? How?

Inflation rate down

“Our average inflation is the lowest since 1966. Last June, it dropped to 1.5%. Paano?
Proper policies lowered interest rates, which lowered costs to business and consumers.”

Talking about inflation means checking the rate prices of some core commodities have increased or decreased given two periods. When speaking of lowest inflation rate since 1966, it doesn’t mean prices were as low as it were in 1966, then when cans of sardines were as cheap as 50 cents.

It means slower rate of increase, but still increasing. A 1.5% rate of increase this year is slower compared to a 3 % rate of increase, say last year.

Cheap government rice

“Dahil sa ating mga reporma, nakaya nating ibenta ang bigas NFA sa P18.25 per kilo kahit tumaas ang presyo sa labas mula P17.50 hanggang P30 dahil sa kakulangan ng supply sa mundo. Habang, sa unang pagkakataon, nagawa nating itaas ang pamimili ng palay sa mga magsasaka, P17 mula sa P11.”

Government imported rice as a subsidy and sold it at P18.25 per kilo with a limited distribution scheme. This special price rice was not available in the open market as consumers have to fall in line for limited supply provided to distribution points in and out of the public market.

Farm to market roads, irrigation

“Nakagawa tayo ng libu-libong kilometro ng farm-to-market roads at, kasama ng pribadong sector, natubigan ang dalawang milyong ektarya.”

This could be translated as “thousands” of farm to market roads, two million hectares of irrigated farms. If this was set beside the targeted length or area and the actual length of roads and area for irrigation this would make more sense.

Mariculture

“Mga Badjao gaya ni Tarnati Dannawi ay tinuruan ng modernong mariculture. Umabot na sa P 180,000 ang kinita niya mula noong nakaraang taon. Congratulations, Tarnati. We will help more fisherfolk shift to fish farming with a budget of P1 billion.”

How many fisher folk are subjected to this? Does the assistance include capital, training, production, marketing, and other support services?

Cheaper medicines
”Mula pa noong 2001, nanawagan na tayo ng mas murang gamot. Nagbebenta tayo ng gamot na kalahating presyo sa libu-libong Botika ng Bayan at Botika ng Barangay sa maraming dako ng bansa. Our efforts prodded the pharmaceutical companies to come up with low-cost generics and brands like RiteMed.”

Are these medicines the essential ones that are inaccessible to the poor?

Health insurance

“Sa health insurance, sakop na ang 86% ang ating populasyon.”

What are the 86 percent of the population enjoy that the 14 percent don’t? How does this fare with the targets set by the government?

Rent control
”Sa Rent Control Law ng 2005 hanggang 2008, di pwedeng lumampas ng 10% ang pagtaas ng upa taun-taon. Ayon sa kakapirma nating batas may isang taong moratorium, tapos hanggang 7% lamang ang maaaring pagtaas. Salamat, Kongreso.”

Side by side with this, what is the government’s accomplishment in low-cost housing?

Power subsidies
”Noong isang taon, nabiyayaan ng tig-P500 ang mahigit pitong milyong tahanan bilang Pantawid Koryente sa mga small electricity users.”

The 7 million households cited here is only what percentage of how many “small electricity users?” Columnist Winnie Monsod cited that there are at least 4.1 million families in the country under poverty line. How is this?

Less dependence to imported fuel

Samantala, umabot na sa halos lahat ng barangay ang elektrisidad. We increased indigenous energy from 48% to 58%. Nakatipid tayo sa dollars tapos na-reduce pa iyong oil consumption. The huge reduction in fossil fuel is the biggest proof of energy independence and environmental responsibility. Further reduction will come with the implementation of the Renewable Energy Act, and the Biofuels Act.

Energy “independence” certainly means more than just 10 percentage changes in the reliance to indigenous energy. So what about the present 42 percent not used up by indigenous energy? Energy “independence” is one thing. But meeting the energy demand is another.

Cut in debts

“The next generation will also benefit from our lower public debt to GDP ratio. It declined from 78% in 2000 to 55% in 2008. We cut in half the debt of government corporations from 15% to 7%. Likewise foreign debt from 73% to 32%. Kung meron man tayong malaking kaaway na tinalo, walang iba kundi ang utang, iyong foreign debt. Those in the past administrations conjured the demon of foreign debt. We exorcised it.”

This doesn’t mean, however that debt servicing still eats the bigger chunk in the government’s budget. In the opposite, an increasing public debt to GDP ratio either means the government is insolvent or is doing credit rationing. So lower ratio means the government is solvent and able to pay! How the Arroyo administration did exorcised foreign debt? Altering debt structure is a possibility on this. It might have shifted to domestics debts. The Freedom from Debt Coalition has expressed that public debt to GDP ration alone will not give the accurate picture on the state of Public debt.

This should be put into context. Does a ratio reduction means lower foreign debt, too? What about the news last year that the Administration has higher foreign debts than all of those in the combined figures of her three predecessors?

Non-performing loans

“We worked on the Special Purpose Vehicle Act, reducing non-performing loans from 18% to 4% and improving loan-deposit ratios.”

What does this mean to the ordinary citizen?

Built classrooms, hired teachers, funded trainings

“Nagtayo tayo ng 95,000 na silid-aralan, nagdagdag ng 60,000 na guro, naglaan ng P1.5 billion para sa teacher training, especially for 100,000 English teachers.”
“Isa sa pinakamahirap sa Millennium Development Goals ay iyong Edukasyon para sa Lahat pagdating ng 2015. Ibig sabihin, lahat ng nasa tamang edad ay dapat nasa primary school. Halos walang bansang makakatupad nito. Ngunit nagsisikap pa rin tayo. Nagtayo tayo ng mga paaralan sa higit sanlibong barangay na dati walang eskwelahan upang makatipid ng gastos sa pasahe ang mga bata. Tinanggal natin ang miscellaneous fees para sa primary school. Hindi na kailangan mag-uniporme ang mga estudyante sa public school.”

“We have provided college and post-graduate education for over 600,000 scholars. One of them, Mylene Amerol-Macumbal, finished Accounting at MSU-IIT, then she went to law school, and placed second in the last bar exams – the first Muslim woman bar topnotcher. Congratulations!”

“For professions seeking international recognition—engineering, architecture, accountancy, pharmacy and physical therapy—it recommends radical reform: 10 years of basic education, two years of pre-university, before three years of university.”

We have to check the numbers of schoolrooms built, additional teachers hired, needed budget for priority teacher upgrades, etc. Citing the figures alone without reference to the bigger picture doesn’t mean much.

How far has the Philippines been into achieving the MDG on education?

OFW remittances

“Sa hirap at ginhawa, pinapatatag ang ating bansa ng ating overseas Filipinos. Iyong padala nilang $16 billion noong isang taon ay record. Itong taon, mas mataas pa.”

This is a good sign. We have heard this in the news. But again,we need to check this with exchange rates shift. This might mean only mean a better exchange rate environment (such that the OFWs dollars can buy more peso). How is this with the reports of retrenchment and unemployment of OFWs due to the global meltdown?

Pardon of jailed OFWs

“Pagpunta ko sa Saudi, pinatawad ni Haring Abdullah ang pitong daang OFW na nasa preso. Pinuno nila ang isang buong eroplano at umuwi kasama ko.”

This is one of the more dramatic accomplishments she has cited. How many other Filipino OFWs have remained in jails around the world and are their needs attended to?

Did the government do enough to keep them away from prisons as it is working on cutting their stay inside?

Foreigh investment

“Our vigorous international engagement has helped bring in foreign investment. Net foreign direct investments multiplied 15 times during our administration. Kasama ng ating mga Together with our OFWs, they more than doubled our foreign exchange reserves. Pinalakas ang ating piso at naiwasan ang lubhang pagtaas ng presyo. They upgraded our credit because while the reserves of our peers have shrunk this past year, ours reserves grew by $3 billion.”

This is quite an achievement the Arroyo administration has been boasting. It is noteworthy, however, if the skirmishes over Germany’s Fraport on the NAIA 3 terminal controversy and the World Bank revelations on corruption ever did impact on foreign investment.

The Arroyo administration has cited “vigorous international engagement” often. Even in grant’s such as AusAid’s Provincial Road Management Facility, a grant with provincial governments.

Resiliency and economic growth?

”In 2008 up to the first quarter of 2009 we stood among only a few economies in Asia-Pacific that did not shrink. Compare this to 2001, when some of my current critics were driven out by people power. Asia was surging but our country was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Since then, our economy posted uninterrupted growth for 33 quarters; more than doubled its size from $76 billion to $186 billion. The average GDP growth from 2001 to the first quarter of 2009 is the highest in 43 years.”

Thanks to the OFWs?

Poverty incidence

“Bumaba ang bilang ng mga nagsasabing mahirap sila sa 47% mula 59%. Maski lumaki ang ating populasyon, nabawasan ng dalawang milyon ang bilang ng mahihirap. GNP per capita rose from a Third World $967 to $2,000. Lumikha tayo ng walong milyong trabaho, an average of a million a year, much, much more than at any other time.”

This was based on a survey and basically on perception. Did the poverty situation really improve? Certainly a public opinion survey won’t churn out an accurate assessment. It is noteworthy also that the President did not cite points of reference. GNP per capita also has not been proven to indicate the quality of life of citizens in an economy. On the 8 million jobs created, how many of this lasted for months when the contracting scheme is the name of the game?

So what?
We didn’t expect the President to answer all of these questions in her SONA. Definitely, she put her best face on her final statement of the nation’s situation. Her statements were probably based on the reports from her Cabinet.

As President and as a politician, she has the discretion on which issues she will update and what. Like in the whole speech there in now no mention of her “strong republic” vision and her “Super regions” although the indicators have remained the same.

The President can choose to emphasize on the brighter side and shun the undesirable.

But we expect the listening public, who will consume the information from the SONA, to be more critical and circumspect. (Walter I. Balane)

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About mindanaw

A Journalist from Mindanao

One response to “SONA Postscript: Re-reading the numbers in the President’s report”

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