23 November 2016
Economic Freedom Network Asia Conference
Dusit Thani Hotel, Makati City
Thank you so much for having me today. It’s an honor to be with you this morning to share my ideas with you in this conference.
Any conversation on economic freedom is also, by its very nature, a discussion on our rights and the need to uphold them. One can argue, of course, that economic freedom and human rights must be regarded separately. That perhaps businesses should not look beyond the purview of profit, and that human rights issues should be left to the activists. But this is naïve. We cannot divorce genuine economic freedom from the protection of human rights.
In fact, economic liberty is a human right. We champion economic freedom because it is natural to the liberties that every person is entitled to. Economic freedom provides people with choices, so that a person or a corporation is not enslaved to a particular kind of future. He can choose to create meaningful livelihoods or choose the path of employment. If he has the right skill and talent, and the right goods to offer, he can choose to freely engage in trade and labor or go into another kind of business. Businesses have the liberty to sell and invest their assets, market their products, and drive sustainable profit, or stay small. It is the capability to choose their own path that sparks innovation and progress.
In the ‘80s, the administration of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos tried to make people believe that the economy was doing well and that economic liberties could be enjoyed by every Filipino. That because it instituted Martial Law, Filipinos were economically better off. It tried to play a game of smokes and mirrors. Fortunately, the Filipino people was discerning. We, as a nation, decided we will not be lied to nor suppressed. We valued our freedom even more than our lives. The EDSA revolution was sparked by the death of Senator Ninoy Aquino, but it was fueled by the love for freedom of every Filipino man, woman, and child; every nun, soldier, and student that offered flowers to soldiers and faced tanks for days in a peaceful revolution that inspired the world.
Ironically, those days now seem simpler. The lines between right and wrong were clearer. Everyone knew the enemy they faced. After decades of progress and growth brought about by larger spaces for democracy and economic freedom, we are hearing a growing call for protectionism and iron rule around the world. It is a puzzle to many why there is a clamor for walls to be built, rather than bridges to be crossed.
Perhaps this is because in the midst of technological breakthroughs and global economic growth, so many people were left behind. The gap has widened between the rich and the poor. In democracies were freedom should have blossomed, millions remained hostage to poverty. Perhaps in our diligent attempts to ensure economic freedom, we neglected to protect the most fundamental rights of the poor and marginalized.
This is especially obvious in the Philippines. Here is a country with recent economic growth that has drawn generous praise. Over the last six years, the country went from Sick Man of Asia to the fastest-growing economy in the region, faster even than China. Last year, Bloomberg named us the Strong Man of Southeast Asia, owing to our swift and sustained economic expansion.
The Philippine market, too, has become even more dynamic. Since 2010, the country’s global rankings, in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index improved. Between 2010 to 2016, the Philippines climbed a total of 45 notches in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. That made us one of the most improved countries in the index in the last six years!
As you can imagine, gains like these have led to other major successes. The Philippines finally secured investment-grade ratings from major credit rating institutions, which helped lower our country’s risk profile. Foreign investors began to take a look at our shores, and sure enough, our foreign direct investments grew by 66 percent, from one billion US dollars in 2010, to a total of 6.2 billion US dollars in 2014. True, that’s still a lean sum by global standards. But I think that these numbers demonstrate just how much the Philippine market improved in recent history.
Yet hidden behind the towering pride of our skyscrapers is the withering indignity of Philippine poverty. Yes, poverty levels have declined significantly in the last six years, but much more needs to be done. If we want to catalyze authentic change, we must be ready to work together—across all sectors, across all political persuasions—to uplift the lives of the poor. This isn’t just true of the Philippines. This is true of all our nations.
Social responsibility can no longer be the exclusive realm of government and civil society, nor can governance be the sole responsibility of governments. Corporations and businesses must stand with us now in confronting inequity head-on, still within a democratic system that continues to value human rights and the freedom to choose. It’s time we do justice to the necessary link between economic freedom and the protection of human rights.
This is why my office has actively engaged different members of the private sector, so we can work with them in reducing poverty here in the Philippines. I’m very happy to say that our partners have not only been cooperative; many of them took the initiative, offering to help without being asked.
Along with civil society and various other groups, we held consultation workshops to develop an effective poverty reduction plan. We wanted an approach that would respond to the unique needs of the poorest Filipinos, not just for the next few years, but for the long term.
The product of our efforts is our Antipoverty Framework, which my office launched just last month. The framework has five focus areas: universal healthcare, nutrition and food self-sufficiency, quality education, rural development, and women empowerment. But what is so unique about our Antipoverty Framework is its design: we crafted it so that it reflects the narrative of the ordinary Filipino family.
Our priorities are thus arranged accordingly: better maternal and infant health care, so we can take care of this new generation from the very start of their lives. Comprehensive nutrition programs for our children, so we can prevent the irreversible damage caused by undernourishment. Better vocational training for Filipino youth, so that they can hone their talents towards gainful employment.
We also want to strengthen the livelihood of adults in rural areas. We plan to involve our poorest farmers and fisherfolk in rewarding supply chains, so they can build their entrepreneurial spirit. And we want to emancipate women in a meaningful way, so that they can contribute to society in the fullness of their potential.
We are piloting the implementation of this framework across 50 local governments, which we handpicked both on the basis of poverty incidence and their track record for progressive governance. Meanwhile, our private sector partners will work with these local governments and our targeted communities. In all of this, the Office of the Vice President will stand as the bridge of talent and resources, where we join the right partners with the right causes.
This kind of synergy will help us break the barrier that stands between our people and the change they need. And there’s no question: we have to go out there and make this happen. We owe it to the liberties that we hold so dearly. We owe it to the very humanity of the people we serve.
Here and around the globe, we have seen much destruction brought by greed. We have seen the terrible costs of pursuing profit at the expense of the environment, at the expense of communities, and at the expense of human lives. The lessons of history tell us that true progress can only be achieved if our economies are free enough to liberate our people.
We must never lose sight of this truth: that we are all accountable for the world we live in. We are all accountable for every human that does not enjoy his rights. We are all accountable for each other. Good morning to you all.