Thursday, October 28, 2004

Generals in ASEAN's 'laggard'

Generals in ASEAN's 'laggard'

Updated 09:39pm (Mla time) Oct 27, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 28, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TODAY'S uproar over graft committed by some military officers has retailored an old Indonesian joke: What's the four-point formula for hitting the economic jackpot? Answer: American capital, Japanese equipment, Filipino manager -- and Indonesian general.

Sadly, it's a local wisecrack now. Former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) comptroller Major General Carlos Garcia's corruption cases recall, for some, Sir Conan Doyle's question: "Do we have here Napoleons of crime?"

Unfortunately, the cases and essential investigation blindside the AFP, a critical institution where most soldiers remain "straight arrows." The majority retains professionalism, despite the "Rolex 12 Syndrome" of systematic suborning of the military by the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. People, therefore, gag when Representative Imee Marcos or Senator Juan Ponce Enrile strut as manicured "reformers."

But citizens share with soldiers a sharp sense of betrayal. The People Power Constitution, after all, designated the Armed Forces as "protector of the people and state." Nothing exudes more stench than tainted honor.

Unfortunately, we are a people with short memories. Our attention, critics insist, flits from scandal to scandal. "There is only silence or scandal," Andre Maurois once wrote. Thus, a Joseph Estrada, necklaced with plunder raps, banks on amnesia to offer straight-faced an "alternative leadership."

Will reforms emerge? Serial scandals also blot out equally critical issues. In June, manual voting and a filibuster-marred canvass traumatized the country. And in September, 11 professors of the University of the Philippines (UP) jolted us with "The Deepening Crisis," a study on runaway deficits and public debt.

Since then, overdue electoral reforms have "fallen by the wayside." It seems that only a drastic downgrade of our international credit rating will jerk our attention back to that economic rescue package. There's danger we'll again be distracted by Advent Season scandals.

We continue to need "voices in the wilderness" -- people who refuse to be discouraged, and strip away our complacency.

The UP Eleven did that. Inquirer's Solita Collas Monsod does it with panache. Peter Wallace's trend tracking -- in the 1960s, when we ranked second to Japan, to today when Vietnam is overtaking us -- helps.

Now comes Dr. Romulo Virola. The National Statistical Coordination Board secretary general's article, "ASEAN: Where Do We Stand -- or Wobble?" reveals nothing new. But it provides context by stacking our problems alongside our ASEAN neighbors.

"After 20 years of Marcos, and two decades after People Power, we lag behind everybody in the original ASEAN, except possibly Indonesia," he writes. The newer members, known as "Plus Five," are catching up. "Unless we wake up ... we'll be singing in bars as the ASEAN Minus One!"

Our future hinges on human development, especially in education, health and appreciation for science, Virola stresses. Here are some indicators (some updated from the Human Development Report 2004).

Literacy here is 93 percent. But students from "Singapore, Brunei and Thailand read better." We had higher expenditures for education, compared to Indonesia, Lao PDR and Malaysia, but lower than Thailand and Singapore. And only 79 out of 100 of our children who enroll reach Grade 5, beating only Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar.

We're saddled with the fifth highest infant mortality rate: 29 out of 1,000 Filipino children born alive did not survive beyond a year of age. Maternal mortality rate is about five times that in Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand.

Filipinos do not have as "much access to essential drugs as citizens in Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. But they're better off than Cambodia and Myanmar."

Wedged in the middle among 10 ASEAN countries, "we are now about ‘kulelat’ [in last place] among the original five, although we're still generally ahead of the 'Plus Five': Myanmar, Brunei, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam."

Poor economic performance partly explains the lag. Food production per capita was fifth lowest, gross domestic product growth fourth lowest in 2002. We had the highest unemployment rate among seven countries at century's turn.

All countries except for Myanmar (no data) were in fiscal imbalance in 2002. But Brunei, Singapore and Thailand got out of the red in 2003.

Here, "out of every P100 we generated through exports, P17 went to payment of our debt." That's significantly higher than everybody except Thailand.

The number of personal computers here was fifth highest: three per 100 of the population. But that's way below 62 for Singapore, 15 for Malaysia and 8 for Brunei.

Ranked sixth most attractive tourist destination, the Philippines attracts fewer than two million tourists. Compare that with Malaysia's 10.6 million or Thailand's 10.1 million or even Vietnam's 2.4 million.

"We're in bad shape," Virola reminds all. "And we'll be worse off, hit by the ravages of global competition, statistics on our preparedness for fierce competition tell us."

A coup d'état would only embed these problems -- and the four-point formula for economic jackpots for a few corrupt officers, we add.

The future is collective responsibility for citizen and soldier. "There is hope," Virola insists. The alternative is to wobble into ASEAN's basket case.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

'Mom killers' and convents

'Mom killers' and convents

Updated 10:10pm (Mla time) Oct 25, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 26, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

"Get thee to a nunnery. Go!" -- Hamlet

WITHOUT fanfare, 300 Catholic nuns in 11 convents worked with international researchers, led by a Filipino scientist, in experiments lasting over four years to produce a new rice variety that could curb the region's "serial mom killer": iron-deficiency anemia.

After screening over 1,600 varieties, scientists developed IR681440, the Asian Development Bank Review notes. It has "approximately four to five times more iron ... than most varieties currently consumed in the Philippines,"

"The new experimental rice variety [is] high in both iron and zinc," adds Chemical Weekly. "Both are normally deficient in a rice rich diet."

About six out of every 10 pregnant women in Asia, and 40 percent of schoolchildren, are iron-deficient. This reduces their immunity to disease, savaging their physical and mental capacities.

"In the Philippines, more than 35 percent of women, aged between 15 and 49, are iron deficient," the United Nations Children Fund states. "More than 500 women die during pregnancy and childbirth each year."

Commercial varieties already meet immediate needs. But most are short of iron, zinc and other essential micronutrients. They leave vast numbers worldwide vulnerable.

For years, ways to curb this "serial mom-killer" eluded scientists. Iron tablets proved costly and required complex import systems. What if rice, "extensively eaten by the poor across Asia, was naturally bred and selected for high iron content?" mused ADB health specialist Lisa Studdert.

The search for micronutrient-rich rice brought together, in the mid-1990s, scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), University of the Philippines, International Food Policy Research Institute, Cornell and Adelaide Universities.

Without notice, an iron-packed strain emerged in the late 1990s from an experiment for something else: rice able to thrive in degraded soils and cold.

"By chance, a variety designed to tolerate low temperatures inherited richness in iron and zinc from one of its parents," IRRI's Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio explained. "It had good flavor, texture and cooking qualities -- and was high-yielding."

But two typhoons flattened Los Baños fields where the first seeds were being multiplied for trials. And would IR68144's high concentrations of iron and zinc stay after the grain had been processed, cooked and digested? For that, a large human consumption trial was essential.

Quietly, 27 Catholic nuns stepped forward to test the new variety. "The sisters, who were 25 to 35 years old, were particularly suitable for this experiment, because of their disciplined lifestyles and modest diets," said Gregorio, who served as research coordinator.

For six months after their consent, their convent became a laboratory. Every grain was tracked. Cooking and blood tests were monitored.

Preliminary tests showed that the serum ferritin levels in the blood of those who ate IR68144 leaped two or three times higher. The positive results led to 300 nuns in 11 convents participating in the second phase. The trial concluded in September 2003.

Sisters who consumed high-iron rice "ingested about 20 percent more iron than those who consumed regular rice," the ADB noted. "On average, they increased their body iron by 10 percent."

"Those consuming control rice actually lost six percent of their body iron," it added. "The greatest increases in body iron were in the women who consumed the most iron from bio-fortified rice."

The conclusions validate parallel Cornell and Los Baños tests that minerals in IR68144 remained after processing and eating. "Both experiments were positive for absorption of the micro-nutrient elements."

So where does this experiment go from here, after the nuns bow out, just as quietly as when they began? Its implications ripple far beyond Los Baños fields and Manila convents. In India, severe iron deficiency causes the deaths of 50,000 pregnant women. In Afghanistan, 65 percent of children under five are anemic.

"The next step is to conduct trials in a community setting and look at the effect on children's iron status," health specialist Lisa Studdert writes. "A study is planned for Bangladesh in 2004-2005."

IR68144 seeds were developed "using traditional science," IRRI's director general, Dr. Ronald P. Cantrell, said. "No biotechnology was involved."

Seed grown in Los Baños are being shipped to research organizations in various countries for adaptability testing. The painstaking process of crossbreeding then begins. Crossbreeding could breed into the new plant pest and disease resistance and hardiness for local conditions.

The Danish International Development Agency, US Agency for International Development, and Australian Center for International Agricultural Research funded part of this project.

If there are no hitches, IR68144, or its offspring, could be released to farmers here and abroad in two or three years.

The new rice offers the prospect of decisively bringing to heel iron-deficiency anemia in the world's poorest regions.

"Despite the weight of scientific supervision, the effectiveness of the trial depended on the tireless help of the sisters themselves," IRRI notes. The "gloomy Dane's" counsel of repairing to the cloisters may yet beat this "serial mom killer."


Thursday, October 21, 2004

Multi-layered diaspora

Multi-layered diaspora

Updated 07:26am (Mla time) Oct 21, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on Page A12 of the October 21, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

HELEN Santiago-Sigua is a physician. She chairs the family medicine department of San Beda College and has a master's degree in hospital administration. So why is she not abroad-or taking a nursing course? Half of the members of her University of the Philippines class (Batch 1985) have gone.

"I stayed for the same reasons others left -- family," she writes. This includes a diabetic father who values a doctor-daughter's care, a husband professionally rooted locally, children getting "globally competitive education here." As a doctor and educator, she "manages to be happy, if not necessarily contented."

Such experiences are a backdrop for the Philippine College of Physicians' covenant for doctors where 6,000 of them pledged to work at home for at least three years. Philippine Medical Association records show that 2,000 doctors leave yearly.

Abroad, the demand for health-care givers, especially nurses, has soared. This spurs many, like Dr. Elmer Jacinto, who topped the 947 medical school graduates who hurdled the board exams, to work as a nurse. One in every five members of the Philippine Medical Association has enrolled in nursing schools (300 today from 127 a decade back).

But doctor-as-nurse is only one aspect of a multi-layered diaspora, say the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima and Edward Cody in their article, "Filipinos Take 'Going Places' Literally."

"What makes Philippine migration remarkable is its scope," they write. "No other Asian country has so many types of workers-from nanny to engineer and circus performer in so many different places: Hong Kong to Italy, Chad to Khazakstan."

Lack of economic opportunity and "a sense of being a nation adrift" will drive about a million Filipinos abroad this year. Almost 38 out of every 100 Filipinos live below the poverty line. And OFW relatives bail them out.

Today, 35 percent who leave are professionals, including computer specialists and agricultural scientists. The top United Nations migration specialist is a Filipino: Manolo Abella of the International Labor Organization. The Philippines is now the world's top exporter of nurses.

Musicians and performers form a second layer. "Their architects, artists and musicians are more artistic than ours," former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew writes in his memoirs. Musicians on a Caribbean cruise ship were superb, my sister in Toronto wrote. "They were Cebuanos."

Domestic workers make up the third -- and largest -- layer. They hazard abuse to support families here. "Millions leave their country for jobs abroad beneath their level of education," Lee Kwan Yew noted.

Smell the demographics. Job creation lags behind population increases, which is inevitable when a demographic transition wobbles on its way to lower birth and death rates. "The country would explode if the flow of migrants were halted," write Marites Vitug and George Werhfritz in Newsweek's story on "Filipino Flight."

The central bank says OFW remittances reach almost $8 billion annually. When flows via unofficial channels are tacked on, the total can reach $14-21 billion, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Few assess the social costs, the Catholic Commission on Migrant Workers notes. Prolonged absence of parents results in many kids "becoming emotional orphans." They're more likely to commit crimes, take drugs or have children out of wedlock, reports Newsweek.

Government reaction has been schizophrenic. The health department says stay, while the labor department says go, the Washington Post noted. We want you here, the education department insists. The Overseas Economic Assistance Office snaps: No, we want you there.

The migrants go anyway. So, this diaspora will accelerate, given the current economic crunch and instability. Filipinos will continue to take your EKG in Amsterdam, pilot you in West Africa, manage cigarette factories in Korea, offer Mass in Addis Ababa, teach in Indonesia and sail those ocean vessels.

Realities are shaping policies of reluctant tolerance. Officials are short of long-range answers, probably, because there are none. At home, from health care to schooling, Filipinos rely on those who stay, like Dr. Helen Santiago-Sigua.

"Nursing is not lower in rank to physicians but a different aspect of the same calling," she points out. "We should not stereotype occupations ... When a doctor works as a nurse, he does not demean himself."

"What's happening to Filipino doctors is a symptom of a societal disease. Government must help physicians find meaning and reward. At this hour of need, we deserve more than a medical malpractice bill.

"Perhaps I'm still 'stuck' because I've managed not to get demoralized by our local situation. As a clinical professor and prefect of students, I realize we must inspire would-be physicians-not for cash, prestige or ease -- but to be 'doctors for the right reasons.'

"Being a doctor is a healing craft ... It's about alleviating pain and caring for creatures that may be the very least to society but most valuable to God. In fixing the body or mind, a doctor touches even the spirit, giving his profession almost magical dimensions. To perform this craft where it is most needed gives it its greater essence."

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Rice-for-classes swap

Rice-for-classes swap

Updated 00:03am (Mla time) Oct 19, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the October 19, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

"HAVE you eaten rice?" This is a literal rendering of a Chinese greeting, "How are you?" Filipinos ask, "Kumain ka na?" If rice is in cooking pots year round, Vietnamese farmers list themselves as "not poor."

Rice for most Asians is a main staple. More than two billion Asians derive 60 to 70 percent of their calories from oryza sativa, first sown in India's Deccan plateau, Thailand's Mekong Delta and Korea, a millennium before Christ.

Rice is recasting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's plan to provide food stamps for indigents. A "school-attendance-for-rice program" is evolving from the Department of Social Welfare and Development's blueprint to distribute food coupons to PhilHealth members.

The Social Weather Stations survey group earlier reported that the number of those who'd nothing to eat at least on one occasion over the last quarter made up 15 percent of families.

Sen. Ralph Recto proposes aid focus on 100,000 impoverished elementary school children. The kids would get a kilogram of rice for every day they attend classes. Slice "sin taxes" to underwrite this program, he urged. Welcome "kilo-for-kilo" counterparts from private groups.
Students often trudge to school without breakfast. Thus, 33 of every 100 pupils who enroll in Grade 1 will drop out before reaching Grade 6. Ms Arroyo's adoption of Recto's proposal signals awareness of hunger -- and rice's impact on perceptions.

"Rice is consumed as a staple food in 43 countries of the region," the Food and Agriculture Organization notes in "Toward A Food Secure Asia And Pacific." "The crop gives part-time work to some 300 million people."

Regimes can crumble from rice shortages. Asian countries resist rice trade liberalization. And 2004 is "International Year of Rice." But beyond rice, what has been this region's experience with food coupons?

Mixed, answers former FAO regional economist Ti Teow Choo. "In Asia, the number of countries which tried this scheme is limited. Under the Bandaranike socialist government in the 1960s, Sri Lanka distributed a fixed amount of free rice to the poor. It nearly bankrupted the state."

Food coupons today are constricted in geographical area, population coverage and duration. Some Indian states periodically give limited rice packs to the poor. China and Vietnam assist through local governments and communities.

Administration can be a quagmire. In Sri Lanka, more than half the population wangled food stamps owing to "dubious means tests." And how do you "wean away" people once subsidies stop?

"More feasible are price interventions with a high subsidy element for limited target groups," Ti thinks. "India for example provides such assistance to remote tribal peoples, resource-poor farmers and the urban destitute."

For the long haul, however, there's no substitute for producing food. "He who depends on others for rice is likely to fast," Asian farmers warn.

A "second harvest" is wasted in processing after reaping or fish catches are landed. A solid post-harvest program is urgent. And science-based tools, such as hybrids from China, offer new hope for production increases.

To mark International Year of Rice, FAO awarded the 2004 World Food Prize to rice breeders Yuan Longping of China and Monty Jones of Sierra Leone. Yuan produced hybrid rice with yields 20 percent higher than conventional varieties. He is credited with providing grain for an additional 60 million people each year. In Ghana, Jones crossed the Asian O. sativa with the African O. glaberrima strains and produced drought- and pest-resistant, high-yielding rice varieties. This "first" in rice breeding helped 20 million farmers in West Africa alone.

Despite cuts in donor aid, research institutes work to beef up rice's nutritional content. Commonly consumed white rice provides adequate energy. But milling strips away most of its protein, fiber, fat, iron and B vitamins.

"The most common nutritional problems in poor rice-eating communities are protein-energy malnutrition and iron, iodine and vitamin A deficiencies," notes the FAO's International Year of Rice website.

Iron deficiency reduces a child's learning ability. It's a leading cause of maternal deaths. Here, 172 mothers die for every 100,000 live births; for Thailand, it is 64. Vitamin A deficiency blinds. It jacks up infant mortality. Out of every 1,000 babies born here, 29 die. In Malaysia, it's eight.

Away from headlines, local and foreign scientists probe other frontiers. International Rice Research Institute scientists seek to introduce into rice a gene that produces beta-carotene, a substance that the human body converts to vitamin A. Food fortification is being studied.

At the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture in Los Baños, Jose Yorobe and Liborio Cabanilla are evaluating "Bt" corn's performance a year after their approval for use. Corn is modified by introducing a gene that builds resistance against the Asian corn borer. Yields are 37-percent higher. And there have been savings on pesticides and reduction of pests. But Bt corn remains controversial.

"The unfulfilled promise of food still lies in the tropics," the FAO director general said in an address at UP Los Baños. "Here in this sun-drenched belt of land, temperature is benign and rainfall abundant. These areas could be the food granaries for the world of our children. The irony is that because of pervasive poverty, life in this very zone is often nasty, brutish and short."

Isn't that what those rice-for-classes swaps are all about?

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Can of worms

Can of worms

Updated 02:24am (Mla time) Oct 14, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 14, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHOEVER President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo picks to oversee the country's second largest international airport, which handles 2.27 million passengers a year, will find a can of management worms waiting.

If Tourism Secretary Ace Durano is right, the President is set to name retired Air Force general Adelberto Yap manager of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIAA).

The Cebu airport is a major transport hub for the whole country. The MCIAA serves 12 domestic and foreign airlines that fly direct to Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

The new man will find the Authority saddled with P1.41 billion worth of untallied property and P2.45 million of its anti-hijacking trust fund garnished. Aircraft rescue equipment worth P30.8 million is rusting away. And Lapu-Lapu City seeks to seize P1.08 billion of MCIAA property to offset overdue land taxes.

The MCIAA's books "do not present fairly the [airport's] financial position," the Commission on Audit's (CoA’s) Maria Cristina Dimagiba told airport directors, including the mint-new Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia. Some P137.5 million in receivables could bounce.

"Buildings and structures, amounting to P1.41 billion, were not recorded," the CoA officer-in-charge noted. Thus, the P2.04 billion listed under "Property, Plant And Equipment," in its books, is "materially understated."

Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Waterfront Hotel are two of the biggest debtors. Yet, they're spared paying the automatic two percent monthly penalty for delayed payments, the CoA notes. "Without need of formal advice," other concessionaries are dunned. That's what MCIAA Administrative Order 1990 mandates.

This leak drained P3.53 million from airport funds last year. Yet, the board never asked: Who excised that provision from PAL and Waterfront contracts? "Revisit the contracts to see if they were properly authorized," the CoA suggested.

While at it, the MCIAA should resolve a festering 11-year-old question: Does PAL now owe another P18.2 million in value-added taxes (VAT)? These are for use of the MCIAA's passenger boarding bridges, check-in counter, lots, etc. But in October 1993 -- seven years after the dictatorship collapsed -- PAL claimed Presidential Decree 1590 exempted it from VAT.

The board never asked for the exemption papers from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). Show it now, the CoA urges. Or has the BIR commissioner resolved this decade-old issue once and for all?

Will board have the guts to do that? Its compliance with previous CoA recommendations was lukewarm and partial. Nor has it collected P90.2 million in overdue IOUs. Trade and business offices racked up P88 million of those debts, overdue for four to 60 months.

House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar shepherded the airport charter into the law books. He envisioned an Authority ran professionally by career staff, hewing to civil service rules.

Politicians instead shoved proxies into position. President Fidel Ramos prodded a subservient board into buying a $7.86-million 412EP helicopter. It overrode then-finance officer Josefina Villasin's protest that the bill would bankrupt the Authority.

The chopper was for "rescue missions"-this was the excuse. But it never flew a mercy mission, CoA auditor Roberto Panesa wrote. It ferried presidential parties instead. And crew hotel bills were passed on to the MCIAA. Malacañang finally took over, but not before Authority tills were bled white.

If appointed, Yap takes over, while former manager Angelo Verdan battles before the Court of Appeals a ruling of Civil Service Commission Chairperson Karina David: He lacked qualifications. But qualified MCIAA career executives, who applied, were ignored. Is Yap facing turbulence over his civil service credentials?

In this devil-take-the-hindmost climate, services deteriorated. Airlines complained Runway 04 was so rutted that it threatened life and aircraft.

Lapu-Lapu City claimed 24 lots and three buildings to make up for unpaid land taxes. The MCIAA bucked that in court, claiming national government is tax exempt. Where law falters, innovative negotiations can succeed. But there's little of that.

It racked up, meanwhile, P15.9 million in "irregular" expenses: from a P584,000 increase in honoraria for board members to P7.4 million in rice allowances as political chips. The CoA disallowed both.

The MCIAA employs 150 cops. But it ladled out P6.96 million last year to Centurion Security Agency to post additional "blue guards." The MCIAA now has a security force equal to Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport, critics claim. The ninth-busiest airport in the world, Schiphol serves 30.3 million passengers.

Every international passenger departing Mactan pays a P550 terminal tax. Of that, P60 is clipped for the Trust Fund for the National Commission on Anti-Hijacking and Terrorism. Nonetheless, a Cebu judge ordered that P2.45 million of it be garnished. It's to pay the Mactan Employees Mutual Association's legal counsel who argued for cost-of-living allowances.

"Inappropriate," snapped the CoA. In 2000, the Supreme Court reiterated the rule that government properties or public funds are not subject to garnishment. The case is now with the Court of Appeals.

While a fighter squadron commander, Yap caught national attention by openly defying the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. That may be child's play compared to beating down thieves who masquerade as the MCIAA's friends.

* * *


Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Too late, too late?

Too late, too late?

Updated 10:54pm (Mla time) Oct 11, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the October 12, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

TO a people, famished and idle, the only form in which God dares to appear is work and the promise of food. -- Ghandi

The Mahatma's insight echoes in today's debate over a cash-strapped government's plan to distribute monthly P1,200 in food coupons to impoverished families who find themselves forced to skip meals.

The project follows the latest survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) research group. The SWS reports, that among other things, the number of Filipinos who had nothing to eat once a day, at least on one occasion in the previous three months, rose by 15 percent -- the highest since March 2001.

Hunger in all areas spread, except in the Visayas region. Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon reported "new record highs." A majority of households (53 percent) felt they'd been beggared. In the previous quarter, 46 percent viewed themselves poor.

"Food is the first need of every human being," the World Food Congress at The Hague declared. "But for millions, that need is not met and this fundamental human right denied. This is intolerable."

Sawdust-dry statistics, on this "intolerable" situation, can smother how chronic hunger shatters lives and hopes. Periodic surveys, however, trace its latest contours. They permit comparison over time and strip away tunnel vision.

That helps. Many wedge critical issues, like poverty and hunger, within a narrow perspective: this administration's lifespan and that of the previous regime. The problems are complex.

Poverty and its twin, hunger, are "rooted in a state of powerlessness," notes the latest UN report on its Philippine program: "A Common View, A Common Journey." They're "not merely the absence of assets and services to meet basic needs."

Philippine economic growth has been poor, and not pro-poor. This severely eroded people's health. TB, malaria and dengue persist at unacceptably high rates. So do maternal deaths: 172 per 100,000 live births, compared with Thailand's 44 per 100,000.

Hunger and the resulting vulnerability are rooted in our troubled past's social injustices. Persistent lags in reform will haunt our equally troubled future.

Consider nutrition. Over an 11-year period, it improved by five percent. At that rate, "it will take half a century before we can eradicate malnutrition," wailed the fifth of six previous national nutrition surveys.

Conducted every five years, the sixth was released last July. The nation paid little attention then. Overseas Filipino worker Angelo de la Cruz's escaping terrorist beheading transfixed us.

Barely noticed, protein energy malnutrition ushers a bigger proportion of Filipino pre-school children into premature graves than in poorer Bangladesh, Kenya or Tanzania, World Bank and Asian Development Bank reported in Early Childhood Development.

Four out of 10 pregnant women today are anemic. About the same number of mothers who breast-fed are afflicted. "These dry statistics document a lethal cycle: The ill-fed give birth to wizened infants who, in their turn, will mother a generation of dwarfed babies."

Poor nutrition stunts about half (47 percent) of kids in the provinces of Negros Occidental and Northern Samar, a decade-earlier survey found.

"Give the poor reason for hope," Nobel Laureate Armatya Sen advises. Before chronic hunger hardens into despair, the administration is scraping funds for food stamps.

There are no illusions. This is a stopgap measure. "The last thing a person dizzy from days without food needs is a teach-in on nationalist industrialization," Senator Ralph Recto snapped.

But is this too little, too late? What about policies for the long haul? Our food comes from those who farm and fish, nowhere else. What's being done for them?

Yet, these very men and women are cut off from adequate credit, organization, research, extension, to education and agrarian reform. The elite corner resources and cream off benefits. Voiceless indigents are powerless to shape decisions that allocate resources.

As a result, they do not "produce." Nor do they conserve ecosystems. Why should they? They have no stake in repackaging poverty. "If the rich could hire the poor to die for them, the poor would make a wonderful living," the Yiddish proverb says.

Parallel fiscal reforms are urgent for job creation. Food stocks mean nothing to a family that cannot buy them. Unlocking the human potential remains the central tension-filled question.

Due to media, the poor know their deprivation and premature graves are not inevitable. "Too little, too late" unleashes expectations of whirlwind force -- which communists, party-list radicals and multiple fronts seek to saddle and ride.

Provide "unequal opportunity for the weak," Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal counsels. For once, we must stack the cards to favor the poor. That's not charity but long denied social justice. It's also the only way we can survive as a free community.

Today's "obsolete social system favors inherited wealth and power... and dispenses the nation's resources in response to political imperatives," Inquirer's Randy David notes. "No president can last while this system endures."

Just as succinctly, then-World Bank president Robert McNamara says: "Too little, too late is history's universal epitaph for political regimes which lost their mandates to demands of landless, jobless, disenfranchised and desperate men."

* * *


Thursday, October 07, 2004

Not a stone upon a stone

Not a stone upon a stone

Updated 01:04am (Mla time) Oct 07, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 7, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

FROM HER not-so-glorious retirement, former election commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco tried to defend the indefensible. In an affidavit she submitted to the Senate blue ribbon committee, Tancangco insisted that MegaPacific's voting machines for the May elections were best for the polls. She also lashed the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which sought her impeachment for incompetence. Tancangco said Namfrel chairman Jose Concepcion duped the public, as well as Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairperson Harriet Demetriou, with schemes to lease flawed counting machines from Toronto.

Is the lady serious? Or is she banking on our short memories? No issue, however compelling, can hold us for long. We shuffle on to the next headline, the seamier scam. "Scandal is not like bread," Nigerians say. "It's never in short supply."

People, however, remember the Supreme Court's 9-3-2 vote last January. That scrapped the MegaPacific deal.

The machines were "vulnerable to election fraud by means of just a few key strokes," the 101-page Court decision stated. The Comelec advanced P849,167,697 for flawed computers, fracturing its bidding rules.

"The illegal, imprudent and hasty action of the commission... desecrated legal and jurisprudential norms," the Court pointed out. The Comelec's stampede to buy the MegaPacific machines "cast serious doubt upon the poll body's ability and capacity to conduct automated elections."

The Court ordered Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo to recover the cash. He's also to "investigate the criminal liability of those involved."

Does Tancangco remember? Surely, she'll recall that the Supreme Court shredded a P6.5-billion contract with Photokina Marketing Corp. Tancangco awarded that contract for her "brainchild," the Voter Registration and Information System.

The Comelec signed although it had only roughly a fifth of the amount contracted for, the Court found out. "Null and void for lack of appropriation," it ruled.

Back in June 2002, a Cebu Daily News editorial, titled "Our Gang of Four," warned that poll modernization, required by Republic Act 8436, would crumble because of the Comelec's incompetence. "Like their Chinese counterpart, our Gang of Four are all mediocrities," said Cebu Daily News. Aside from Tancangco, the others were Rufino Javier, Ralph Lantion and Mehdol Sadain. These Estrada appointees resisted reforms, proposed by then-Comelec chairperson Alfredo Benipayo. Instead, they splurged on costly-and as it turns out, illegal-contracts.

As a result, the Comelec handcuffed over 40 million of us to primitive manual balloting in the May 2004 polls. Garbled registration lists disenfranchised thousands. Few got their identity cards on time. Massive failures require massive ineptitude.

Elections renew democratic institutions. But voting itself does not constitute democracy. Even Ferdinand Marcos staged periodic "elections" to scotch-tape a fig leaf on his "New Society" dictatorship. So does Myanmar, provided the generals tally the ballots.

Equally crucial is integrity of the count. After the election of Pope John Paul II, a then-young Jaime Cardinal Sin pointedly joshed Marcos' Comelec chairperson: "If you were in charge of counting votes at the Conclave, I'd have been elected pope."

Election reforms remain on the agenda of the country's "unfinished business," up there with budget deficits and spiraling public debt.

"The key element that saved the 2004 [electoral] process from becoming a disaster were the career officers and, above all, election officials at the ground level," says a respected former Comelec chairperson, Christian Monsod. "The vast majority did their jobs well, despite the unnecessary burden of poor leadership."

It's vital that a reelected President name commissioners who are impartial, competent and honest, Monsod suggested.

This is possible. It's been done before. We've had commissioners gifted with insight, skills and backbone in the past. Among them were the late Rodrigo Perez Jr., Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., Chairperson Haydee Yorac of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Ramon Felipe, and Harriet Demetriou.

Despite all odds, they ensured the ballot reflected the people's will. Their work resulted in political stability. But today, we have the most brittle Comelec we've had since the puppet Marcos dictatorship.

The President ought to decentralize the operations of the Comelec. This would free career officials from hobbles clamped on by incompetent commissioners. That's for a start.

The integrity of Comelec leaders impinges on the survival of democratic governance itself. With her reelection, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was gifted by abused but patient citizens with a rare second chance to repair the damage she inflicted on a vital democratic institution.

"That window of opportunity will not come again," we wrote then. The President accepted that "rare second chance" by reappointing two patently partisan election commissioners: Virgilio Garcillano and Manuel Barcelona.

"You did not know the time of your visitation," the Master from Galilee said in that most poignant of reproaches. But did the President forget the second part of that rebuke: In you, "not a stone will be left upon stone"?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Coups for rent

Coups for rent

Updated 11:27pm (Mla time) Oct 04, 2004
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the October 5, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WILL President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo decisively close down one of this troubled country's newer businesses: "coups for rent"?

Courts are now hearing mutiny cases lodged against 32--out of the original 325 soldiers--who took over the Oakwood apartments, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales noted. The "Magdalo" rebels, thus, are beyond the President's reach, he said. And amnesty is Congress' prerogative.

Mixed signals earlier wafted from Malacanang on a "deal," following the public apology from Navy Lt. Antonio Trillanes VI and other mutineers.

In their mea culpa, the rebels--mostly Philippine Military Academy Class '95 graduates--insisted they were sincere reformers. Democracy then does not grow out of a gun barrel? They'd abide now by the Constitution, in the military, if given a chance.

"Hot money" sloshes in this town. No one, let alone deposed Joseph Estrada, picked up the mutiny tab, the Magdalos claimed. Their "idealism was not for hire."

Reactions were varied. Veteran of failed "God Save The Queen" coups, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, predictably thumbed-up amnesty. Finger your godfather first, a House defense committee member said. Someone bankrolled those polished boots, radios, airline tickets, plus brand-new vans later abandoned. "Who rented this coup?"

"Unless justice is done, this problem will reappear in the future," warned Dr. Carolina Hernandez, University of the Philippines scholar on the military. We've been there before, she recalled. Both the Davide and Feliciano Commissions insist on justice as basis for closure.

Amnesty chatter sent some to re-read "Closer Than Brothers-Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy" (Yale University 1999). This study compares three generations of PMA graduates: Classes '40, '71 and '90. Written by Prof. Alfred McCoy, it asks: Have constitutional values, in soldiers trained on taxpayers money, atrophied?

"In the Philippines, institutions often seem the sum of personal ties," McCoy notes. PMA graduates "translate broad ideological currents into institutional change in an impoverished country where 169 families monopolize power."

Battle and Japanese concentration camps bonded Class '40 graduates. "Their belief in civil supremacy would later withstand the pressures of higher command," the study adds. "They actively blocked coup attempts."

Martial law co-opted Class '71. It became the "mailed fist of the dictatorship." Among its 85 graduates, five tortured, six were murdered. Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan and 14 others were neck-deep in coups. "As players in Marcos' script of violence, they gradually broke free from the constraints of military discipline."

Class '90 confronted, in the post-People Power Revolt years, institutions shattered by the Marcos dictatorship. Their formation in PMA was a time of unprecedented ferment.

Some were teenagers when RAM first revolted. When Colonel Honasan attempted his bloodiest coup, Class '90 "preferred to support the Constitution." But its yearbook praised RAM's fight "for the Filipino people." They reecho in the Magdalo criticism of corruption.

"Contrast between Classes '40 and '71 offers insight of the country's past," McCoy writes. But "a comparison of Class '40 and '90 allows us a glimpse into the future." Five classes later, the sought-after peek into the future emerged in Oakwood.

Looking back, McCoy noted that while they were cadets, all of them staged protests: Class '40 over unfair exams; Class '71, staff corruption and Class '90, government hypocrisy.

Similarity can conceal difference. Class '40s strike reinforced their commitment to the chain of command," the book notes. "The abortive protest of '71 later inspired revolt against the same hierarchy."

"The meaning Class '90 draws from these experiences, and the way these lessons [are] challenged by their service as junior officers, will have a lasting influence on them and the armed forces," he asserts.

Recent comment, however, focused on how PMA Class '71 stacked up against Class '40. That's understandable. Graduates of '71 included the failed coup artist Honasan and former presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson.

Yet, Class '71s six coups flopped. "Majority of Filipino officers did not believe in seizing state power," McCoy noted. "A tentative belief in civil supremacy and military professionalism somehow survived the Marcos year." This mixed history impacted on the PMA classes of the '90s.

Oakwood collapsed in 24 hours. Erap's descamisados didn't rally to Magdalo's inverted flag and embroidered armbands. Neither did other military men.

President Manuel Quezon was always wary of the military in politics. He established a corps of professional officers. Thus, Quezon denied "control over the nation's arsenals to established political elites, whether nationalist lawyers from UP or corporate executives from Ateneo."

Marcos' uncorked the coup genie. "By his long service to the dictatorship, and his presidency, Ramos gave form to these fears," the book adds.

For now, President Macapagal-Arroyo must end coup-for-rent disruptions. Her hard-pressed administration needs breathing space.

"Long after a president's name is remembered only in fading street signs," the Yale book adds, "an entire cohort of officers will bear the imprint of his or her decisions-and influence the character of the Philippine military and nation," the book warns. That will affect the President's grandchildren too.