Suggestions to beat ASEAN poverty faster

1 October 2017 Southeast Asia

A GOOD number of scientists, rural development workers and opinion writers have been publishing their positions on how to uplift the world’s poor since World War 1 ended in 1918. World War 2 which started in 1939 and ended in 1945 resulted in massive rehabilitation but the increase of the global “poor” was bigger. And the United Nations failed to attain its 2015 “millennial goals”.

The original eight objectives it listed to achieve two years ago was expanded by 10 more; eradication of “extreme poverty “ remains on top of its agenda and the timeline has been extended to 2040.

Researches have shown one of the probable reasons is the poor are less educated and do not have the means to empower themselves nor the access to financial resources to pull themselves out of the poverty quagmire. And only a few governments have successfully ruled—regardless of their ideologies—to lift their poor up.

Dr. Benigno D. Peczon, president of the Coalition for Agricultural Modernization of the Philippines (CAMP, chaired by former UP president and scientist Dr. Emil Javier) and his fellow CAMPers recently conducted a conference on increasing Philippine agriculture production and productivity and financing the small farmers in Bay, Laguna. By government figures, the Philippine “poor” farmers has grown to 20 million as of 2015.

Dr. Peczon has written a piece I consider to have well-thought of solutions to our rural poverty as part of his communication to another interested party. With his permission, I am quoting it in the following paragraphs:

Frank Hilario is correct on several points.

Alleviation, or better if admittedly all but impossible, elimination of poverty must become the national focus. Poverty imprisons a man. A poor man is not free. Without freedom from want, a man is denied various opportunities to provide body and soul with the wings that total freedom requires.

A case can be made for the assertion that poverty is the root of various ills. Impoverished persons can resort to—and actually, repeatedly, have in desperation resorted to—acts which are not acceptable to the people with whom they co-exist. When enough such poor, dissatisfied people recognize their status, they band together to address common woes, i.e., a social volcano is created. Thus, homegrown insurgents attract new recruits much like they do in our country, like Naxalites do in India and similar groups in many other economically disadvantaged groups elsewhere.

The Philippines, being an agricultural society while still transitioning into an industrial and post-industrial (knowledge-based) country, must have a solid footing in agriculture if it has to foster inclusive growth and sidestep the poverty trap. There is just too large a percentage of Filipinos engaged in agriculture to ignore this segment of society.

The country must find a leader or a group of leaders to create a vision for agriculture and set out to implement strategies to make that vision a reality. The ultimate goal is creation of a state where everyone is free of want. Two goals stand out. First, food security must be achieved for our country to provide independence from the vagaries of foreign food sources and fluctuations in valuation of the peso relative to other currencies. Second, and equally important is freedom of farmers and fisherfolk from grinding poverty. It is not enough that farmers and fisherfolk (they may at certain times be the same person) produce for their food requirements. Farmers and fisherfolk must produce much more to meet other equally essential human needs. The two goals delineated differ. The national need for food security differs from the vision of farmers and fisherfolk living free from want. The country may well secure food security at the expense, and through the exploitation, of farmers and fisherfolk. Both goals must, however, be met.

The strategies to lift farmers and fisherfolk out of poverty require modernization. These strategies do not require rocket science.

At the top of the list is marketing whereby farmers and fisherfolk get an equitable share from their efforts. That middlemen, processors, and retailers earn much more than farmers is validated by the observation that abject poverty visits these contributors to the value chain much less often than farmers and fisherfolk. Large-volume, well-established markets have been developed only in pineapple and poultry markets and only in smaller quantities in other agricultural and fisheries sectors. Small-holder vegetable and fruit producers and small-volume fisherfolk generally are at the mercy of middlemen.

Closely related to having a sure market at equitable prices are effective mechanisms to bring agricultural produce to market. Sans an effective rail system and an economical cold chain, and hampered by the archipelagic nature of the Philippines, the means to maximize utilization of produce cry out for solutions.

Quality requirements to both preserve and to produce goods suitable for export mandate reduction of the risk of food borne diseases, spread of pests and diseases and delay or elimination of sprouting and ripening. This is best addressed by food irradiation. The Philippines does not possess a single commercial-scale food irradiation facility.

Improved agronomic factors include growing material (seeds) quality, the growing cycle, radiation, temperature, rooting, aeration, water availability and quality including salinity, nutrition (fertilization), pH, micronutrients and toxic conditions, pests, diseases and weeds, response to flooding and minimization of losses due to climatic conditions (including global warming).

While meeting the universal need of farmers to own the lands they till, land reform whereby land is owned by farmers, absent primogeniture laws which mandate that only the first-born son keeps all the land, with the passage of time, farms become progressively smaller. There comes a point where small plots just no longer best serve the needs of farmers. A vexing issue is that the current agrarian reform system does not permit utilization of the land title to borrow money.

Access to funds for effective farming remains a challenge. Laws mandate that 25 percent of bank holdings are lent out for agriculture. Only about half of bank money mandated by law to be lent to agriculture is actually lent out. Banks, particularly large commercial banks, would rather pay penalties than lend out to farmers and fisherfolk, principally because of the unacceptably high default rate from loans given to farmers and fisherfolk. Fresh, workable solutions to address access of farmers and fisherfolk to loans are needed.

Other issues which require better ideas and/or execution are: effective extension which may include professional management; mechanization; intercropping and diversification; effective R&D and implementation of results with but little time lag; effective and socially acceptable utilization of the coconut levy funds; corporate farming; village level processing; one town one product concept; minimization and elimination of smuggling; and policies to protect farmers and fisherfolk as trade liberalization becomes a way of life.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report for 2017-2018, Vietnam has surpassed the Philippines in competitiveness. Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam made the biggest strides. The Philippines has seen its score decrease.

“We need to do better. Can we do it?”

My answer is: yes we can. The entire Asean10 can. But we need the efficient communicators to explain the complexities of agricultural and fisheries management, financing, marketing, information and global competititon—in their own tongues in the most simple terms for the “poor” to understand.

Only then will our marginalized populations understand and adapt their own modernization and push the national and regional economies in this globalization century.