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Change can’t just be a promise

Michael Henry Yusingco /

MELBOURNE — The population of the Philippines by 2020 will be 110 million. More critically, the school age population (0-19 years old) of the country will be around 44 million.

By 2045, the same demographic will be around 41 million. This means that Filipinos who are currently in elementary and high school will be responsible for roughly the same number of citizens 25 years or so down the line.

The picture painted here by our population growth compels us to engage immediately with two specific concerns: food security and basic education. In this regard, we have a choice to make now.

We can do absolutely nothing to our approach to food security as well as the present K-12 education system and just blindly hope that we can overcome the surrounding challenges that are sure to come. Then just pray to the heavens that the current situation does not turn for the worse.

Or we can implement radical reform measures now in order to ensure a higher level of human development for the Philippines in 2045 and beyond. We can get our hands dirty now, so to speak, so that the Filipinos who follow us will have an absolutely better and more comfortable life.

It is just so painfully sad that the second State of the Nation Address did not demonstrate such a forward-thinking policy-making mindset in the current administration. In fact, many commentators have disappointingly said that the President seemed here more “business as usual” than “harbinger of change” which was the role he promised to fulfill.

Indeed, political pundit, Greg B. Macabenta, articulated this letdown quite well in his column in Business World on July 26, 2017: “You see, Duterte did not deliver a Sona. He delivered a Soda — the State of Duterte’s Approach to governance, as he felt the Filipino masses would best appreciate it.” The address delivered to the nation was more of a campaign speech than a battle-plan for the future of the Philippines.

But the President can still change gears (pun intended). He and his team can still put food security and education at the forefront of the administration’s political agenda. Consider the fact that the Secretary of Agriculture, Manny Piñol, is widely known as a maverick who delivers results, not excuses. Consider further the fact that the Aquino administration has already begun laying the foundation for a truly world-class basic education framework. Hence, commencing appropriate enhancement initiatives in these two areas should be forthcoming.

With regard to addressing our food security concerns, Dr. Rex L. Navarro from the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines raises a good point in his Inquirer op-ed piece on July 29, 2017:

“Sunlight, temperature and rainfall are the main drivers of crop production; hence, agriculture is directly affected by climate change. But it should also be noted that agriculture also affects climate change as it is responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, a major cause of global warming.”

The deep connection of food production and climate change adaptation gives credence to the option of merging the Department of Agriculture and the Climate Change Commission into one office. The substantial change in the nature of this body would be two-fold.

First, there will be a national-level office which shall be limited to general policy-making and coordination functions only. Preferably, the officials appointed to this office will not be professional politicians. Rather they should be individuals who will have the necessary bona fides as far as food security is concerned.

Second, there will be representative offices at the regional-level which shall have administrative and fiscal autonomy. Notably, the independence contemplated here is not just from Malacañang but also from the kapitolyo and munispiyo. This regional body will function as a specialized agency totally focused on ensuring food security of the people in the region.

This thrust of decentralizing and de-politicizing the management of a public portfolio can also be applied to public education. In this regard, one of the key findings of Working Paper 17-005 of the Ateneo School of Government entitled, K-12: Sustaining Education Under the Duterte Presidency is a good take-off point:

“Political will, especially at the grassroots level, is necessary to sustain the gains as well as overcome implementation challenges of K to 12.”

Hence, the Department of Education can be rationalized and be simply given the twin tasks of general-policy making and coordinating. Correspondingly, its regional offices can be further enhanced by affording them with genuine administrative and fiscal autonomy. The reality is, the latter office is more positioned and capable of consolidating the “political will” at the grassroots level needed to bring the desired benefits of the K-12 framework to fruition.

Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in designing the mechanics of these suggested reforms. In fact, they also require the active participation of Congress. More importantly, others may have better and more viable reform measures to offer.

However, the fact remains President Duterte, being a former mayor who has a profound familiarity with local autonomy, is indeed the best Chief Executive so far to get the thrust of decentralizing and de-politicizing the management of the food security and basic education portfolios moving.

It is worth mentioning that food security was not directly addressed in his second Sona. And public education only got boiler-plate pronouncements. Hence, it would be in the best interest of the nation for the President not to waste his time and effort criticizing his critics. None of their critiques can make a dent on his unprecedented approval ratings anyway.

(Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.)

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