Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6 February 2016

The campaign period officially opens on Feb. 9, so you can expect more direct messages—rather than thinly disguised ones—from the candidates starting then. I am most interested in what their agricultural policies are and so, presumably is the nation, because one of the main topics of the Commission on Elections’ first presidential debate (to be held in Cagayan de Oro) this month, is precisely agriculture.

This may be boring to the taipans and the big businesses in the cities and urban areas, but I think their voices are much too loud so that they drown out the cries of the rural poor. It is time for the latter to be heard, and I hope the Comelec ensures that their plight is exposed to the candidates, so we can hear for ourselves whether these candidates (Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe, Mar Roxas and two others—in the order of relative familiarity, Dante Valencia and Mel Mendoza) have anything concrete andintelligent to say about the problem.

Well, what is the agricultural problem? As a background, the agriculture sector contributes roughly 10 percent to the country’s total output (GDP) but accounts for roughly 30 percent of the total employed labor force. What does that mean? It means 30 percent of the labor force has to share in only 10 percent of the output GDP—an indication of low productivity in agriculture. Contrast that with the service sector which contributes roughly 55 percent to GDP, and accounts for 55 percent of the labor force, while the industry sector contributes 35 percent of GDP and accounts for 15 percent of the labor force.

Low agricultural productivity in great part leads to our first problem: Poverty in the Philippines is a rural—and agricultural—phenomenon. About 70 percent of the poor are in rural areas, and about 66 percent of our poor are in agriculture. So if we want to solve our poverty problem, we have to concentrate on agriculture, which has been suffering from a combination of benign neglect, ignorance (else, how do you explain the policy of

self-sufficiency in rice) and sheer greed (the continued existence of the National Food Authority) on the part of the leadership.

Closely related to this is the government’s dismal performance on the agrarian reform program, which is constitutionally mandated and is part of its social justice provisions. This dismal performance is exacerbated by the reluctance of both Congress and the executive to correct some of their mistakes or to allow more time for the program to be finished. Why the focus on proper agrarian reform? It will lead to decreased poverty (a major study shows that ownership of land implies that the odds that you are nonpoor are anywhere from 1.76 times to 2.76 times that of being poor). Add support services, like irrigation and access to credit, and the same study increases the probability of being nonpoor by 24 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

The importance of agrarian reform is also highlighted in Joe Studwell’s book, “How Asia Works: Success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region” (2013). Studwell argues that there are three critical interventions that governments can use to speed up economic development, the first being to maximize output from agriculture. How? By restructuring agriculture as highly labor-intensive household farming ( “a slightly larger-scale form of gardening”), i.e., land reform as it should be implemented, including the accompanying support services.

The second and third interventions are to encourage manufacturing with export discipline and to intervene in the financial sector to focus its resources on intensive, small-scale agriculture and manufacturing development. He cites the countries that have done these—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China—and argues that they have produced the quickest progressions from poverty to wealth that the world has seen.

He makes some really cutting remarks about the Philippines and its agrarian reform program, plus the fact that it never imposed export discipline, nor was its financial sector “encouraged” to concentrate on small-scale agriculture and manufacturing.

I think our candidates should be required to read this book—or any book on economic development. Does anyone of them have the faintest idea about what to do for our agriculture sector? The most familiar with the issues I think would be Santiago who, in her executive persona, was agrarian reform secretary under Cory Aquino. The next most familiar would be Mar Roxas, because of his college major and his six years in the Senate during which the agrarian reform extension period was discussed and passed.

Jojo Binay and Rody Duterte, with their urban mayoral experience, will probably know next to nothing. Binay’s experience with his alleged hacienda in Batangas should help but does not because first, the hacienda grew flowers and bred fighting cocks and pigs; and second, he denies owning it. But he does qualify with his ability to get around the agrarian reform law—150-300 hectares acquired after the law was passed, that is, if he accepts ownership, which the Pimentel subcommittee seems to have established.

Grace Poe? Not much either. And her legal battles may be keeping her from brushing up on the issues. In any case, she has neither background nor experience regarding this matter.

One thing sure: If any candidate does not appear for the debate, I would recommend that the voter strike her/him from his/her list. And I hope the questions really are designed to help us separate the chaff from the grain, no pun intended.