By Xubei Luo
(Second of two parts)
For Arsima Aslan, a teacher in Al-Barka, Basilan in Mindanao, living in or near conflict-prone areas puts residents under constant stress.
“Even when we are supposed to be asleep, we try to stay alert,” she said. “At the sound of a gunshot, we should be able to move to safer places right away. This situation has affected our lives, especially the children’s education. With the conflict, fewer teachers are willing to serve in our community.”
Mindanao is home to two-fifths of the country’s poor. If the Philippines has to accelerate poverty reduction, Mindanao is the best place to start, specifically in conflict-prone communities where Arsima lives.
Decades of violence in some areas of Mindanao have depressed growth and stymied poverty reduction efforts in the island. Conflict has affected over 60 percent of its population. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao alone, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line.
As three-fifths of Mindanao’s production and employment is driven by agricultural and related industries, greater public investments to improve productivity and connectivity in the area will go a long way in addressing poverty.
To strengthen peace and development in Mindanao, breaking the cycle of insecurity in Mindanao is key. This can be achieved in three steps:
Creating productive employment for the youth, who might otherwise be tempted to join extremist armed groups or organized crime;
Better delivery of government services and programs, which could anchor stabilization efforts in conflict affected areas;
Increasing programs to build human capital by expanding coverage of basic services, including health, education, and skills development.
Besides conflict, poor people are also vulnerable to shocks, such as natural disasters. They are exposed to risks due to lack of resources, and therefore suffer due to repeated setbacks. Improving the country’s capacity to manage disaster risks, and strengthening social protection systems are important to protect the poor and the vulnerable.
Nationwide, more and better jobs will be critical to reduce poverty in the country. A significant share of the poor work in jobs with low wages or are mired in involuntary underemployment.
Support for the creation of more well-paying jobs, particularly semi-skilled jobs, for the majority of today’s labor force who have less than secondary education, can help reduce poverty through higher wage incomes. Important steps include improving the business environment to attract more investments and upgrading the value chains to support growth.
Agriculture, which employs most of poor Filipinos, has seen minimal growth. Hence, improvement in farm productivity, diversification, and value addition are crucial, as well as progress in making farming more resilient to natural disasters and climate change.
In a poor family of five children, two will likely be stunted — a visible sign of malnutrition. Children who remain malnourished in the first 1,000 days of their lives do not fully develop the neural connections in their brains, making them unable to reach their full potential, even as adults.
Just half the children in poor households will enroll in lower secondary school. Even those who do enroll may learn little due to malnourishment and poor quality of instruction. As a result, when they grow up, their chances of getting a well-paying job are slim.
Greater investment in health and nutrition is important. The country can put more resources in boosting health care quality and equity, reducing child stunting, and fully implementing the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law.
In recent years, the Philippines has made great strides in education. Critical advances have been the creation of both universal kindergarten and senior high school education, with the first cohort graduating in 2018.
Key challenges now include making sure that students in school are learning, reducing high dropout rates for the poor, and developing socio-emotional skills in addition to technical and cognitive skills needed in the 21st century economy.
The World Bank believes that together with various stakeholders, Filipinos can take concrete actions to end poverty in the Philippines and make it a better place for Arsima, and their loved ones.
(The first of this two-part series entitled “Overcoming poverty in the Philippines” can be accessed by visiting the link http://bit.ly/overpoverty.)
Xubei Luo is a senior economist of the World Bank.