In Philippines, pre-vote largess doesn't translate into post-vote progress

By Blaine Harden
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

MANILA -- It's election season in the Philippines, and the short-term forecast is for manna from heaven.

For voters who live in Baseco, a slum built on garbage beside Manila Bay, it's hard to keep track of all the incoming goodies. Roads have been paved. Playgrounds have been built. A maternity clinic is under construction. One candidate bankrolled a beauty contest. Another sent in doctors bearing free antibiotics. Demolition of squatters' huts has been halted. Free food is expected on May 10, election day.

"It is like a fiesta," said Ray Campanera, senior councilor in the local government here. "Life is a little bit happier."

Yet for the residents of Baseco, as for the poor who account for a third of the 92 million people in the Philippines, pre-election good times are almost always followed by post-election betrayal.

Politicians who win election in this former U.S. colony have one of the worst records in Southeast Asia for stiffing the poor, coddling the rich and indulging themselves, according to a mountain of data and a chorus of economists.

Bad governance has gone hand in glove with rising crime, a surge in political killing, stagnant foreign investment, and a restless search by tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and other highly skilled Filipinos for opportunity outside their homeland. About 1.7 million Filipino immigrants now live in the United States, the second-largest immigrant group, after Mexicans.

A weak central government has also provided an opening for Islamist extremists operating in the southern Philippines, where for eight years U.S. Special Forces have been training the Philippine military in guerrilla tactics.

This is the only country in Southeast Asia where the absolute number of poor people has increased since 1990, according to the Asian Development Bank.

"If you are poor, the Philippines is the wrong place to be," said Arsenio M. Balisacan, a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines.

And it's not because the overall economy is in trouble. Until the global recession, growth had clipped along here at about 5.5 percent for much of the past decade. But thanks to elected policymakers -- the most influential of whom tend to come from a handful of families -- poverty, hunger and income inequality have increased along with growth.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the gross domestic product spent on health care, public education and farm services has stalled or declined. Two-thirds of the poor live in rural areas and are dependent on farming for their livelihood, but investment in farm-to-market roads and other basic infrastructure has fallen.

"The social conscience of the elite in this country is wanting," said Victor A. Abola, an economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific. "The richest people who are involved in politics don't want to pay their taxes."

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