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Unsought constraint

/ 06:16 AM April 06, 2013

Do economics textbooks ask the right questions?” two Cambridge University dons debated in autumn 1953. Can they muster tangible measures for the desperately poor? Their chat led to the crafting of what we know today as the Human Development Index.

HDIs go beyond one-dimensional yardsticks. Divide national wealth by population. That churns up Gross National Product. A crude yet useful yardstick, GNP also smudged stark disparities. For example, GNP brackets a beggar shuffling in worn out flip-flops with, say, Imee Marcos.

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The Ilocos Norte governor stashed secret holdings in Sintra Trust, formed June 2002 in the British Virgin Islands, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reports. Trust resources are not reflected in 10 out of 13 Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth she filed as a congresswoman – where her reported wealth almost tripled.

GNP doesn’t capture human options or freedoms. “Conventional economics can set toothpaste prices,” noted Mahbub ul Haq, the young Cambridge student from Pakistan. But the compelling issues were about education, health, security, life spans and human aspirations, stressed Amartya Sen of India, who later won the Nobel Prize in economics sciences. “We need a measure that’s not as blind to social aspects as GNP is.”

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At the United Nations Development Programme, Sen and Haq led scientists to produce the maiden Human Development Report in 1990. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” their lead sentence read. Each annual report since marshals data on people issues.

Today’s 22nd anniversary issue of HDR reiterates these key themes in a swiftly changing context. The 2013 edition is titled :“The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World.”Forty developing countries achieved significant progress in human development, it reports.

“By 2020, the combined economic output of three leading developing countries – Brazil , China and India – will surpass aggregate production of Canada, France, Germany, Italy , the United Kingdom and the US . Much of the expansion is driven by new trade and technology partnerships within the South itself,” UNDP administrator Helen Clark writes. By 2030, the southern countries will be hosts of at least 80 percent of the world’s middle class.

In the Asia Pacific region, HDI indices of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have surged. The region lags still behind the northern countries middle class. But they have “billions of people becoming increasingly educated, socially engaged and internationally connected.”

Where does the Philippines – which must feed, clothe, educate 126.3 million Filipinos by the year 2030 – find itself in this rapidly altering landscape?.

Of 194 countries and territories studied, we’re wedged in slot 114. Moldova brackets us on one end and Uzbekistan on the other. China is in slot 101 and Indonesia 121. We make up a group titled “Medium Human Development”. Ahead is the “High Human Development” bracket. Malaysia is at Slot 64. And in the “Very High Human Development” cluster is Singapore at Slot 18.

What goes into our HDI index that makes for this less-than-adequate performance?

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“Life is at the threshold at which all other hopes begin.” Overall life expectancy in the country is at 69 years old. And the shorthand comparison is 83 years in next door Hong Kong . There are, however, telling internal disparities. La Union, for example now has the longest life expectancy at 74.6 years. Life is “nasty, brutish and short” in Tawi-Tawi at 53.4 years.

“Elites in our country live, on average, almost a generation longer than the poor,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali wrote 20 years back. “Many ask the bitter – but justified – question: Have the affluent acquired a franchise to life?”

In a country of economic taipans, almost one out of five scraped by on US$1.25 from 2011 to 2012. One out of ten are vulnerable to poverty while 5.7 percent live in severe poverty. Schooling is the escape hatch from penury. Education spending averaged 2.5 percent of the GDP from 2005 to 2010 – half what other Asean countries spend.

Servicing debts, incurred massively first by the Marcos administration, accounts for 6.5 percent of the GNP.

“Will Sintra Trust of Imee Marcos bury the embalmed corpse in Batac in the British Virgin Islands?” e-mailed Eng. Leonor Lagsca of Iloilo. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The in-between years span more than 600 national HDRs. Spark plugged by economist and Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod and Neda Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, the biennial Philippine Human Development Report first came off the press in 1994. Its seventh report was titled “In Search of a Human Face.” The study stitched in a Human Poverty Index that revealed that Masbate wedged as number 72 out of 77 provinces in “human poverty”. The theme for the next PHDR is “Geography and Human Development.”

“If an indie film were to be made on Philippine human development, what would be the story line and images?” National Scientist Gelia Castillo once asked. PHDR must address “the hidden accouterment of absolute control by those in power over local populace, with support of the highest central authority.”

In efforts to reverse decades of plunder, President Benigno Aquino will discover that time will be a constraint. Time will peter out faster than the task requires, even without the unsought interference from those Marcos fund stashes in “far away places with strange sounding names.”

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