07 February 2017
Message at the J.P. Morgan Philippine Conference Gala Dinner, The Peninsula Manila, Makati City
delivered on 06 February 2017
For a lawyer like me, who is used to walking in slippers through rice fields and dirt roads to reach her poor clients, looking at this sea of suits is always quite an experience. I consider it a privilege to share my thoughts and ideas to discerning individuals like yourselves, but there’s something more important to me than that.
I am more interested in the opportunity to turn this into a conversation after this event, to listen to you moving forward, as well as to speak before you today.
The previous six years was a time of economic expansion for the Philippines. Our success was such that in 2016, the Philippines was Asia’s fastest-growing economy. It’s interesting to me that as a nation, we were then on the brink of global discovery, as well as self-discovery.
The whole world saw us catching up with our Asian neighbors, while there was growing pride among the Filipino people in the attention we were getting from global portfolio managers, fund managers, and investment professionals like you.
Yet the grim reality was this: that while poverty started to go down slowly, it continued to be a paralyzing force, and millions of our countrymen remained in its grip even as the economy grew. In 2006, poverty incidence was at 26.6%; by 2015, it was down to 21.6%. But while as an economist, I appreciated the numbers, as a lawyer for the marginalized and disenfranchised, I worried about the frustration and suffering in the faces of the poor that I worked with.
Economic growth was trickling down too slowly to the bottom of the pyramid. It fueled an impatience for change among those who felt that their voices have not been heard, distrust and rebellion against establishments like the government and traditional media, and a rejection of the so-called elites and privileged. Stephen Hawking called this the “cry of anger by people who felt they have been abandoned by their leaders.
As you know, this is not unique to the Philippines. What is happening in Europe and especially in the United States has an uncanny resemblance to what is happening here. It sparked the end of traditional power and the rise of a new global order.
People seem to have given up on democracy, frustrated with the way poverty has escalated in a world full of wealth, grand innovations, and fascinating discoveries. We have learned how to send rockets to Mars and yet failed to solve the problem of famine, hunger, and irreversibly stunted children.
Why is there so much want in the midst of great discoveries and abundance?
And to me who has spent so much time working with the poor, I say: who can blame those in the fringes of society if they are angry? The poor see how the elite live so opulently—in billboards, television, and in their China-made mobile phones.
Through technology and social media, inequality is now more apparent to the rest of the world. While they see the rich worry about what car to use on a given day, I have personally witnessed their children take turns in using only nine chairs in a classroom where there are 30 children.
This widening inequality is the reason Hawking has said “we are in the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” And here’s the biggest truth: we can’t fix this widening inequality without putting our heads together.
Sadly, there seems to be more desire around the world to put up walls instead of building bridges. Countries seem bent on stepping back from globalization and into isolationism. And some of those who are trying to harvest this rising frustration from those who felt left behind by progress are driving polarization and divisiveness at a time when collaboration and unity are most crucial.
We all need to make a stand against this rising polarity. For me, the best way I know is to continue to carry the voice of the marginalized and disenfranchised that I’ve worked with my entire life.
After I assumed the Vice Presidency, my team and I have travelled to the farthest, poorest barangays to find out on a granular basis where the need is the greatest and where possibilities are highest. Our goal is to bring real change to the poorest in our country; to transform stories of despair into a narrative of determination.
This is the spirit of Angat Buhay, the flagship program of the Office of the Vice President. To me, the name of our program stresses two important conditions: Angat as in raising Filipino families from abject poverty, and Buhay to mean both life and alive, as opposed to killings that result in things like the war on drugs.
Launched in October last year, Angat Buhay strikes at the complexity of poverty and places the Filipino family at the heart of our efforts in 5 crucial areas: from maternal and child health care to food security and nutrition, all the way to senior high school education, rural development, and women empowerment.
We are now piloting Angat Buhay in 50 partner LGUs across the country. We chose these local governments not just on the basis of poverty incidence, but also on their fidelity to good governance. We’re talking about LGUs that have shown a commitment to transparency, accountability, and citizen participation.
Through Angat Buhay, these 50 LGUs will be linked with much-needed aid and resources from our various partners. We have already received hundreds of pledges from corporations big and small, as well as from development partners and nonprofit groups.
These pledges are key to our success. You see, the Office of the Vice President is not designed to be an implementing agency. We cannot execute our own projects, because we neither have the mandate nor the resources.
Our vision, then, is to be the primary conduit of change, through which everyone can come together in transforming the country. Our role is to catalyze and elevate the discourse of reform, so that our ideas for a better Philippines will bear fruit for every Filipino.
Recently, we launched feeding programs in Lambunao, Iloilo and in Doña Remedios Trinidad, Bulacan. This is in line with one of our antipoverty pillars: food security and nutrition. The feeding programs are currently being supported by different partners, including the Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation, Hapag-Asa, Nutrition Foundation of the Philippines, and Solana Foundation.
A feeding program might not seem like much, but its impact on a poor community can last a lifetime. You see, undernourishment is one of poverty’s most stubborn roots. Undernourished children are prone to stunting, an irreversible condition with lifelong consequences. A stunted child suffers from mental and physical impairments, which will afflict them even in adulthood. Studies have shown that the condition reduces a child’s IQ by 5 to 11 points, often resulting in poor grades and decreased adult productivity. Stunting is a life sentence that dooms the poor to further poverty, no matter how hard they work.
Left untreated, this silent epidemic of stunting can arrest the Philippine’s economic growth. You see, we are counting on our country’s demographic story to fuel consumption and boost economic growth.
But for that to happen, we need our youth to be in the most productive and successful stage in their lives in the next 30 years or so. But if the number of stunted children—currently at 3.4 million or 33.4% of children nationwide—continues to grow, the population we are expecting to be productive will be intellectually, emotionally, and physically impaired.
This is why feeding programs and a good nutrition strategy are priorities in Angat Buhay. But it’s not enough for us to feed hungry mouths. We need to find sustainable solutions that will help parents raise healthier children.
In Doña Remedios Trinidad, in Bulacan, for example, we’re finding ways to connect parents with long-term livelihood opportunities so they can support their families even after the feeding programs. Another innovation is copied from Brazil: a zero-hunger program where farmers in the community supply as much of the ingredients used for the feeding program. This way, you attack nutrition and poverty at the same time.
We believe the fight against poverty overshadows any war we are currently facing, including the so-called war on drugs. It affirms the value of life, instead of dismissing it as collateral damage. It comes from a place of empathy; not murderous anger. The way we do it is through collaboration and participation; not division and polarization. Some leaders think that violence and intimidation will create results.
Not only is this ineffective; it is done at the cost of thousands of innocent lives. Ultimately, brutish governance erodes the dignity of the Filipino people, forcing them into fear and silence. This is not the freedom our people have fought for. This is not the democracy we deserve.
And so we change this country in the truest, most effective way: by leading our poorest into a space of empowerment, where they can take control of their futures.
We do this by affirming their humanity even in the midst of their poverty.
We do this by fearlessly protecting our liberties and our very way of life.
And we do this together—with passion and courage, with integrity and light.
That’s how we can transform the country.
That’s when real change happens.
Thank you very much, and a good evening to you all!