Calling a spade
Business World, 3 october 2012


October being National Statistics Month, it is particularly timely to give credit where it is due: to the Philippine Statistical System (PSS) in general, and the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) in particular, for doing a great job — and I use the word “great” advisedly — in spite of the tremendous financial and personnel constraints under which it is operating.

The general public, and alas, a lot of our decision-makers, may not know it, but the PSS is greatly admired not only in the region but internationally, and our government statisticians are constantly in demand to help other countries set up and/or improve their statistical systems. Moreover, the Philippines has been identified as one of the pilot countries in several international initiatives, as well as being a member in several international statistics committees (particularly the NSCB).

If there is still any doubt as to how good our statistical system is, here is the kicker: In the World Bank’s Country Statistical Capacity Database for 2010, the PSS got an 86% rating, 1st place among 21 developing countries in the East Asia and Pacific region and ranked 8th among 145 developing countries worldwide. On a more personal level, ILO Country Director Lawrence Jeff Johnson shared with the audience at the opening of the 23rd National Statistics Month a couple of days ago, that he chose to be posted in the Philippines because it had very good statistics — which would make analysis and policy recommendations so much easier.

And all these have been happening even as the NSCB has been operating at 52% of its personnel complement — because as its technical staff get pirated , particularly by international agencies (that’s the downside of being so good), it has not been allowed to fill the vacancies in its plantilla. I understand the National Census and Statistics Office (NSO) has similar staffing problems.

Which means that unless these constraints are removed, something will have to give, sooner rather than later. The PSS cannot continue operating on sheer energy (and unpaid overtime) alone. The NSCB for example, has only two technical personnel in its Poverty Division (one of whom is the chief of the division). We have a newly appointed NSCB Secretary General, Ramon “Toots” Albert, who succeeded Romy Virola, who has just retired after 20 years of being at the helm of NSCB. Albert has his work cut out for him — Virola left very large shoes to fill.

Which is why the enthusiastic reaction to the very good news that NEDA Director General Arsenio Balisacan imparted a couple of days ago, was quickly followed by looks of worry. What was Arsi’s good news? Apparently, DBM Secretary Butch Abad, with PNoy’s blessing, has given the go-ahead signal to have an annual, instead of a triennial poverty survey. Moreover, once every three years, the survey will reach down to the provincial level, rather than just estimate regional level poverty as what happens at present.

Which goes to show that the present administration seems to be dead serious about its war on poverty. There have been calls, in previous administrations, for better and more frequent poverty monitoring, but no one ever heeded those calls. So PNoy must be praised for putting the government’s money where its mouth is. It certainly makes sense to know, sooner, rather than later, how effective the administration’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program has been, and where it should be improved or strengthened. Nothing like evidence-based findings and conclusions.

And speaking of evidence-based findings and conclusions, the 2011-2012 Asia-Pacific Regional MDG Report puts in stark relief how the Philippines has performed compared to its neighbors in the region in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The NSCB monitors the Philippine performance vis-à-vis the targets, and the data they present does give cause for concern, but when we find out that other countries similarly or even worse situated than we have done better toward achieving the goals, that is cause for real alarm and a call for self-examination: why aren’t we doing as well as other countries?

Only consider: In terms of Goal 1 (Poverty and Hunger), the Philippines is doing worse than the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, even if one excludes China and India. We have turned in the worst performance in Southeast Asia. With whom then, if any, are we similar? We are generally on par — i.e., Slow — we will not achieve the targets as scheduled — with South Asia; with the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of the Asia Pacific; and with the Low Income Countries of the Asia Pacific. Calling on DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman.

With respect to Goal 2 (Education), the Philippines’ performance is the worst in the entire Asia-Pacific region, bar none. We are the only country (among the 49 countries which have data on the three targets under this goal) which shows Regression/No Progress on all three counts (primary enrollment, reaching last grade, primary completion). There is only one word for our performance: disgraceful. Calling on DepEd Sec. Armin Luistro.

With respect to Goal 3 (Gender Equality), it is a relief to know that we are on par with Asia Pacific as a whole and with Southeast Asia as a whole. We are early achievers in all three indicators of gender (Primary, Secondary, Tertiary). And the Reader will no doubt take pride in knowing that we are doing better than Korea as far as gender equality in the tertiary level is concerned.

With respect to Goal 4 (infant and under-5 mortality)and Goal 5 (maternal health), the Report shows that the Philippines will not achieve the targets on time (Slow), and in this we are on par with Cambodia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, India, and Papua New Guinea. If it is any consolation we are on par with Asia Pacific as a whole, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

With respect to Goal 6 (Health) we are doing well — even though the Region and sub-regional averages are slightly better (there are all early achievers in all three categories, we are early achiever in two categories and on target in the third).

And finally, with respect to Goal 7 (Environment), there is, thankfully, good news. The Asia Pacific Report categorizes us as early achievers in four out of the six indicators listed, and on target in the other two. This, by the way, is a better performance than any of the other countries in Southeast Asia and any of the countries in East and Northeast Asia. In fact, looking at all the countries for which data are available, it certainly looks like the Philippines is the best performer overall.

Does being the best performer in Goal 7 make up for being the worst performer overall in Goal 2 and the worst performer in Southeast Asia in Goal 1? Of course not. While all the goals are interlinked, Goals 1 and 2 could arguably be ranked as primus inter pares.

Now’s the time to show your stuff, Dinky and Armin.