Monday, November 27, 2006

The clue is in Leyte

WE have found some vital answers to the constant dilemma over the country’s poor educational system and they’re not in the glitzy, expensive, air-conditioned rooms of exclusive schools here in Metro Manila and other urban areas. It’s in the remote town of Tomas Oppus in Southern Leyte where visitors have to travel hours of unpaved roads just to get to Rizal National High School that recently topped the National Achievement Test for Freshmen Students.

Based on the story of this paper’s reporter Rommer Balaba, Rizal National High School (RNHS), being a public school, has nothing to show in terms of fancy gadgets and technology. But its teachers, parents and community leaders have the will and concern to ensure that students get to school and are taught properly despite the limited resources they have.

Asked about the reasons for the school’s success, Violeta Merin-Alocilja, Leyte’s division superintendent, had a short, self-explanatory answer: “Stakeholder participation, which includes the barangay leaders, parents, and local government executives, coupled with teacher dedication. There is a strong linkage between the school and the community. Parents, in particular, realized they have to give support either technically or financially so that teachers can focus on teaching.”

Now that—“stakeholder participation”—is really nothing. We often hear this word being mouthed by do-gooders and people who dream for change. The only difference is that people in Leyte took it seriously and voila, they got the high scores in areas such as English, mathematics, science, Filipino and social studies. It helped that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided soft loans in terms of teacher’s training, textbooks and new learning interventions. But that simply proves the point that given a little more resources and a lot of innovative community involvement, it’s possible for any school in the Philippines to raise its quality of education. There must be a way for the Department of Education to distill the lessons from this social experiment and upscale the efforts to the larger educational system so we could achieve drastic improvements in the quality of education in the Philippines.

We say we need drastic improvements in the country’s educational system because the Philippine economy, nay the entire world, is changing fast. In the last three years, the Philippine economy has been growing quite decently at 5 percent to 6 percent and there are indications it might yet achieve 7 percent a few years from now, and yet unemployment rate in the country has remained high at more than 8 percent. Why?

The usual reason is about “jobless growth” or the inability of the economy to generate enough jobs for the new entrants to the labor force, despite expansion in economic activities. Others say we are producing overqualified college-degree holders when all the economy needs is an army of skilled labor trained from vocational and technical schools.

Sounds valid enough but recent trends in the economy tend to show that these assumptions are no longer valid. Human-resource practitioners these days swear that jobs, whether abroad or within the country’s borders, are being created fast but employers are finding a hard time finding the people “with the right package.”

Main drivers of growth (like electronics and cyber services) these days require more flexible-knowledge workers that are not being provided by the country’s school system in greater numbers despite the rising number of students entering and leaving the school system. It’s not only that we are running short of skilled welders and pipe fitters; we are also running short of call-center agents, accountants, mining engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, information-technology professionals, among many skills that require four or five-year college degrees or training.

The country will increasingly feel this problem as the Philippine economy goes up the value chain toward the “five-star outsourcing,” which includes analytics, market research, valuation research, investment research, online teaching, patent filing and media content supply.

And why this new trend? It’s because globalization has significantly transformed the workplace. Employers these days are increasingly dealing with global clients in a business environment that is changing fast and has become so diverse. Customers, most of them well-informed, are demanding. Organizational structures are flat, meaning that employees are expected to engage or get involved in decision making as corporate organizations compete and innovate.
That is why—according to the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP)—the standards by which employers make hiring decisions have increased significantly. At the very least, they need three core competencies including excellent and written English, analytical and conceptual thinking, and initiative.

Employers, according to PMAP, need people who can write and speak excellent English with confidence, employees who can make presentations, and can understand foreign accents. They need people who can break down problems systematically, process large amounts of information, see consequences and implications, connect the dots, and make logical conclusions. In a highly competitive and fast-changing world, they need staff who persist in problem solving—people who do more than what are expected of them, and address problems before they are asked to.

In short, employers these days increasingly need dynamic-knowledge workers which the country’s school system is not providing in adequate numbers. For long, this country has suffered underinvestment in education. That’s the reason why we can’t seem to address unemployment amid economic expansion.

It is within this context that the Sogod experiment in Leyte is very important. Certainly, we need more schools with sophisticated facilities and highly trained teachers. But that takes a lot of resources and time. But we could still fast track the upgrading of the country’s educational system by learning what the people of Southern Leyte have done and take them to heart the way they did.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Here's to women

Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

THE Philippines is probably the only country in the world where men call their women “commanders.” We thought all along that this is just a ruse by husbands to get into the kulambo after coming home reeking of booze until the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its gender gap report on Wednesday saying the Philippines ranks high—the only developing country—with those countries who give power and equality to women. And it’s a distinct honor for a country that has always been ranked lower in other measurements related to “competitiveness,” “economic freedom,” and “ease to do business” by several international institutions.

Besides the Philippines (ranked No. 6), countries in the top 10 include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Denmark, United Kingdom and Ireland, in that order. These countries are on the honor roll for closing the gender gap between the sexes in four areas—namely, economic participation and opportunity (the outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment), educational attainment (access to basic and higher level education), political empowerment (representation in decision-making structures), and health and survival (life expectancy and sex ratio).

In short, while the Philippines is not as rich as these Nordic and European countries, our country has come a long way in terms of economic, political, educational and health opportunities to both men and women. In that aspect of life, the Philippines has come of age.

It used to be that parents would only send their boys to schools and the girls to the marriage altar. Not anymore. In fact, there seems to be more girls than boys in high-school and college campuses. An initial assessment of the country’s chances for attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015 has shown that it is in gender equality in school where the Philippines has excelled, even before reckoning time. Moreover, women are now represented in all levels of government and layers of the corporate world.

At the same time, women live longer than men these days!

WEF’s Gender Gap Index report, therefore, is a fitting tribute to Filipino women, who, for a long time, have been carrying the heavier burdens of saving this country from economic damnation.
Now, to say they are carrying the “heavier” load would probably make the Filipino machos in our midst shudder. But statistics do support this assertion. If one looks at our economic statistics more closely, one would realize that more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is accounted for by the “globalized” sector of the Philippine economy.

We are talking here of the export sector (the bulk of which is electronics), outsourcing and overseas employment that have been propping up consumption. Many of the warm bodies in these economic sectors are women.

In the last decade, the Philippines has been sending more and more skilled professionals, which account for the double-digit growth rates in remittances. More than 60 percent of these newly deployed overseas workers are women essentially because developed countries need an ever-increasing number of nurses, caregivers and therapists (careers still dominated by women) to care for their graying population.

If one looks closely at the country’s national income accounts, one could see that “personal consumption expenditure” accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s GDP or the value of goods and services produced, traded and paid for within the country’s borders.
Inasmuch as the Philippine overseas employment has been “feminized” it’s easy to assume that women have significantly helped in sustaining the jobs in factories, offices and shopping malls.
Indeed, the authors of WEF’s gender gap report did not write the report out of sheer sentimentalism. They prepared it with real economic sense in mind.

Said Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School and one of the principal authors of the report: “Our work shows a strong correlation between GDP per capita and the gender gap scores. While this does not imply causality, the possible theoretical underpinnings of this link are quite simple: countries that do not fully capitalize effectively on one-half of their human resources run the risk of undermining their competitive potential. We hope to highlight the economic incentive behind empowering women in addition to promoting equality as a basic human right.”

It’s one facet of our economic development that the Philippines needs to nurture. And it’s not only because we love our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, but also because it makes so much economic sense for all men and women to do so.

And certainly, despite the plaudits given us by WEF, we need to do more to address the remaining gender gaps especially in issues like domestic violence and rape, among others.
The past few years we have made great strides in legislating better protection for women—against sexual harassment in the workplace, against domestic violence, and against discriminatory provisions in civil law.

Yet by the very nature of our economic strategy of encouraging the wholesale export of workers, we still have to mainstream protective measures for Filipino migrant women. Trafficking in women, especially in minors, becomes easy because of weak enforcement despite tougher laws against trafficking per se and against passport falsification. Each day hundreds of minors are lured by syndicates to nonexistent jobs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, especially, given falsified passports to hide their true age, and then shipped off to brothels—from where, often, the only way to freedom is a perilous escape. No wonder they come back with broken bones, and worse, broken spirits, if not in boxes.

Unless we can address fully these outstanding issues, we cannot completely bring out the champagne over the WEF report. Yes, we’ve joined the ranks of First-World countries, but we keep dark secrets that must be purged decisively.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Philippines needs a new economic story line

THE National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) and the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) will announce the third-quarter performance of the Philippine economy on Wednesday, November 29. But don’t expect any surprises there. Romulo Neri, Neda’s secretary-general, is going to say that the Philippines has achieved a higher GDP growth rate—probably 5.8 percent—fueled by OFWs’ remittances, consumption, higher exports and good farm harvests.

It’s the same old story we have been hearing in the last several quarters that will not have any bearing whether or not there would be less jobless people in the streets. We need a fresh story line to convince us that we are gaining real grounds instead of the illusory 5 percent to 6 percent growth-rate band that has yet to curb the rising unemployment numbers.

Lest we are misunderstood, we would like to stress here that we welcome the numbers showing the Philippine economy is indeed moving forward. The 6.5-percent GDP growth rate in the first quarter of the year is nothing to sneeze at. These are good numbers indicating that the Philippine economy may have left behind the era of boom and bust cycles that characterized the Philippine economy following the Edsa Revolution. In fact, there seems to be new growth drivers emerging in our midst including cyberservices, electronics, agribusiness, aquaculture, furniture, high-fashion garments, mining, shipbuilding, tourism, hotels and restaurants. Even the World Bank, traditionally not enthusiastic about the Philippines’ economic prospects, has recently issued a press statement saying the Philippines is on track to achieve 5.5-percent growth rate in 2006 and 5.7 percent in 2007despite the high probability of an external slowdown.

The World Bank here is saying that the Philippine economy has achieved certain resilience. And we have to thank overseas workers for that, as well as the entrepreneurs who persevered despite the continuing political turmoil and deteriorating infrastructure.

While MalacaƱang was busy putting out political fires, OFWs and business people tried all their best to move on. That’s the source of the country’s economic strength these days.
But we call these encouraging economic numbers “illusory” because they continue to signal several points of vulnerability. For one, we still owe much of these nice economic numbers to God, or sheer luck. In the last several years, the weather has been generally generous to the farm sector. That’s one big reason why the agricultural sector has been able to grow at 4 percent to 5 percent. Exports have been buoyant but this trend owes much to the rising global demand for electronics. New toys and gadgets these days (e.g. smart cars, third- or fourth-generation cellular phones, high-tech consumer durables) need higher and better electronic parts and we are benefiting from these new trends simply because we have lots of electronics and semiconductor firms within our borders, many of which have been here for more than 20 years.

And it’s illusory simply because these numbers have yet to make a dent on joblessness as shown by the latest labor force survey. The National Statistics Office (NSO) says that the country’s labor force grew by 2.6 percent, yet new jobs grew only by 2.3 percent.

Underemployment rose to almost 23.5 percent in July this year from 20.5 percent a year ago. In the second quarter, the Philippine agricultural sector grew by 6.7 percent, yet the labor force survey says the sector has lost 149,000 jobs. Yes, even agriculture is suffering from a “jobless growth”! Is it because of greater mechanization? That is not borne out by statistics either.
If we want to be certain about our growth and development prospects, if we want these numbers to translate to jobs for warm bodies, we need to hear about a real fresh story line. That story line is about investments becoming the major source of economic growth, about the policy measures and initiatives that could spur the Philippine economy toward a 7-percent to 8-percent growth. Experts say that’s the only growth level where we could start feeling that life has gone for the better.

The investment numbers so far—US$1.36 billion in the first eight months of the year—seem to be encouraging but are nowhere near the scale with which we see the massive building up of factories and shops that will hire thousands of people off the streets. And that’s only possible if the government could move faster in upgrading the country’s infrastructure. In pursuit of “fiscal consolidation” the government has totally neglected infrastructure development such that the Philippines now has the lousiest stock of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific Region. In her last State of the Nation Address, President Arroyo announced a massive infrastructure program to address this matter—but we have yet to see things moving.

Besides infrastructure development, the government—with the help of the private sector—should really do something fast about the deteriorating educational system. We are not only talking about graduates who can speak good English. We are talking about a serious upgrade of our education and training in science and technology. And soon. We are currently experiencing jobless growth and deteriorating underemployment and that’s because economic growth these days is largely technology-driven. If we don’t plug this gap, we could never stop joblessness from deteriorating.

To repeat, we need a new story line. That should be less about remittances propping up consumption, but more about investments in factories and shops that create real jobs and better lives for many Filipinos.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

On a journey down under

Ive been on the road here in Australia so i really havent had the time to update this blog until now. i didnt bring any laptop with me thinking that the hotels would provide free internet. late last year, i was in the US and the hotels provided free internet access. big mistake! in sydney, for instance, internet rates run as high as 5 australian dollars in 30 minutes. the cheapest i got was 5 AUD in an hour. that's too expensive for me. i had this chance to update because the Australian National University economics department provided me free internet. got to go!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

SWS's self rated poverty surveys and the South Beach Diet

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics (Benjamin Disraeli).

Is it possible for poverty incidence to decline yet hunger incidence to rise? Sounds crazy but, yes its possible, says the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in it’s
latest survey result.

“The record high 16.9% of families experiencing hunger at least once in the past
three months was reached again in September 2006, according to the new SWS
survey. This amounts to 2.9 million households experiencing hunger out of a
projected base of 17.4 million households in the country.

“The latest poll, conducted from September 24 to October 2, also found 51% reporting themselves as Mahirap or Poor, compared to 59% in the previous quarter.”

If you are getting rich, would you say you experienced hunger? Probably not, unless you were on a South Beach diet. So SWS is telling us to not worry about experiencing hunger because we are probably getting rich. Funny.

SWS’s explanation for this contradictory result is even funnier. In its press release, SWS said the reason lies in the poverty threshold, or the amount of money needed for families escape poverty. SWS claims that over time Filipinos poverty threshold has been steady or even declining.

“The Median Self-Rated Poverty threshold, or the median monthly budget in
peso-terms that poor households say they need to escape poverty, went down in
Metro Manila, from P15,000 in June 2006 to P10,000 in September 2006, and in
Mindanao, from P6,000 to P5,000. It stayed at P6,000 in the Visayas and went up
in Balance of Luzon, from P5,000 to P6,000.”

Thus, it’s conclusion?

“Such money-value thresholds were already attained some years ago, even though
the cost of living increased greatly every year. Since the money-cost of living
is actually rising, a declining or unchanging poverty threshold means that
households are lowering their living standards, or belt-tightening.”

Cute, but is it logical? If you are force to do belt-tightening, would you say your economic standing is improving? I don’t think so.

If your financial requirement to escape poverty is the same or declining over the years (it certainly is declining due to inflation), does it mean you are belt-tightening? Not necessarily. It’s possible that your incomes, the basis for which you say you are no longer poor, is increasing. It’s possible that some members of the family got a job, hence the lower financial requirement.

SWS say the declining poverty threshold says people are “lowering their standards.” Probably. But would a people “lowering their standards” and economic expectations likely to say they are no longer poor? I don’t think so.

Based on SWS’s own historical data, it appears hunger has been on the decline reaching as low as close to 5 percent. But in the same period, the self-rated poverty threshold has been sizzling high at about 10,000 pesos. During the same period, SWS’s self-rated poverty was also on the downtrend. Using SWS’s explanation, how could a people say they are less and less suffering from hunger and poverty when their financial requirements to escape poverty are rising?

Something must be wrong somewhere. Let’s take those self-rated poverty surveys with a grain of salt!