By John Tria
We’ve heard the adage that Mindanao is the Land of Promise. Naturally endowed with climate and resources, it should be abundant and able to feed the country and drive prosperity for many families. Yet we have also known it as a land of conflict and underdevelopment. The higher levels of inequality drive and deep and complicated issues that may breed extremism and violence. Add to that the chronic government under-spending on Mindanao by past governments and you have a potent mix that perpetuates inequality, poverty, and conflict that in turn, hampers development. While recent programs may have begun to address these gaps, a lot still needs to be done.
To illustrate further, it is also where the prosperity gap inequality is sharpest, since per capita Gross Domestic Product is a thousand pesos lower than in the rest of the country at 1,800, and where in the ARMM, the same figure is only 576 dollars per year — just 8 percent of the National Capital Region’s figures. This has bred a unique situation where the most productive agricultural areas that export bananas and pineapples, and indeed half a million unirrigated hectares that can feed a good number of Filipinos exist almost alongside the poorest communities.
It is also where past government has underspent, allocating only 13% of national budgets for Mindanao, while more than half going to Metro Manila and Luzon. Add to the previous governments below standard infrastructure spending as a whole, there is little wonder why Mindanao’s infrastructure is poor, connectivity to markets expensive and tourism difficult.
This shortfall in spending is also seen as the reason for the country’s decline in agriculture that, while it has rebounded in the last year, still has a long way to go to meet Thailand’s. Its potentials barely harnessed by past neglect, we should no longer wonder why conflict and underdevelopment tends to persist.
Moving forward, the key challenge to unlock the island’s potentials is making growth more inclusive to address the income gaps by generating enough high quality jobs, increasing agricultural productivity, boosting human capital such as skills and social services skills that will create downstream manufacturing and service industries to boost Mindanao’s economy over the coming years.
This, among others, are the key messages of the Mindanao jobs report of the World Bank, the result of years of studying the islands economy and potentials, past policy failures, stakeholder consultations and new perspectives coming from recent developments and opportunities.
It explains how strengthening Mindanao’s agricultural potential, among others, can boost the islands economy, and , in turn, reduce over-all poverty in the country. It is hoped that this study is not left on shelves to gather dust, given the current governments aim to reduce poverty to 15%, today’s Indonesia, by 2022.
The last two years have seen some hope, however, with droves visiting Davao and government adding 4% to give Mindanao 17% of the current budget, and long-awaited infrastructure underway.
Yet a lot still needs to be done and achieved if Mindanao is to be at par with Luzon in receiving government resources, and per capita GDP. Local business and civil society groups need to spread themselves and drive both private investments and participation in the economy to harness this opportunity. Growth needs to spread beyond the fast rising metropoles of Cagayan de Oro, Davao, and Zamboanga. Perhaps the private sector can link arms more closely.
Moreover, spending needs to be ramped up if peace and development is to be sustained, and the potential to be our country’s gateway to an integrated ASEAN economy is to be achieved. For reference, while our per capita GDP is 2,900 dollars per year, it falls below ASEAN’s average which is around 4,000 dollars, and a few hundred dollars lower than Indonesia, and about half of Malaysia’s. We will need to catch up with them if we are to partake of the gains of this new, larger economy. It is time to push more connectivity.
Thus, with increased attention through online and social media, Mindanaoans, and the rest of the nation are closely watching the governments Build Build Build program, and monitoring expenditures in agriculture and services as these are seen to boost our economic performance and inclusivity. This is part of the higher interest in politics and economic policy unleashed through new media, giving more Filipinos a chance to learn, and interact on policies that affect them. Expectations are high, yet the hope is slowly nurtured.
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