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Commentary: My dear Pinas, don't lose steam!

by Tony Dumlao
31 Jul 2017 | 2:10 PM

The Philippine economy is gaining ground, growing at the fastest pace in Southeast Asia and on par with China. Many Filipinos, however, are growing impatient of the stubbornly high unemployment rate that has stunted government efforts in eradicating poverty.

On August 29, the country's economic team bared that the Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) – which is the measure of total goods and services produced in a certain period – expanded by 7.5 percent in the second quarter. This is at the same pace as China's, and is significantly faster than all ASEAN nations, which all grew below 6 percent for that period.

In the first quarter of 2013, the Philippine GDP grew by 7.7 percent, also on par with China and faster than all ASEAN economies.

The stellar figures may be cause for cheer, especially coupled with recent investment grades awarded by Fitch and Standard & Poor's. But it also puts the country's increasing unemployment and poverty rates in the spotlight.

According to the latest figures, the Philippine unemployment rate increased to 7.5 percent in April from 6.9 percent a year earlier. 

Of the 40.9 million Filipinos in the labor force, 3.09 million are out of a job and some 7.25 million employed want to work more hours or have additional jobs.

Joblessness is pointed as the culprit behind the Philippines' glaring 27.9 percent poverty rate.

The country's economic chief, Arsenio Balisacan, has said he wouldn't be surprised to hear criticisms about joblessness and non-inclusive growth, adding that it's hard for any economy to provide jobs for some 10 million Filipinos who want work.

"You really have to ramp up the investment to create more employment opportunities," said Balisacan during the release of the latest GDP figures.

Economists the world over have repeatedly pointed out two key problems: infrastructure bottlenecks and businesses' fear of red tape. Yes, those are still the Philippines' key problems.

There's a silver lining, though: a lot of experts are saying the Philippines is on the right track.

Balisacan, among other economic managers like the Department of Finance's Cesar Purisima, vowed to ensure that growth will be felt at the grassroots.

The government has significantly jacked up its spending on building roads and bridges, and is pinning hopes on multi-billion peso infrastructure projects under the Aquino administration's PPP program.

The World Economic Forum's latest Global Competitiveness Report released September 4 showed the Philippines improving its ranking for the fourth consecutive year.

The country now ranks 59th out of 148 nations, following improvements in ways of starting a business, customs procedures, quality of seaports and airports, primary education enrollment, and strength of investor protection.

"The fundamentals tell me that the future looks good," said Balisacan, noting that the country needs years of sustaining growth to fully eradicate poverty.

Moreover, at the recently concluded Bloomberg LP Summit, foreign economists appeared to be very bullish on the Philippines.

One of the visiting economists on the Bloomberg panel, Prakriti Sofat of British bank Barclays, said Philippine "reforms are the key to make sure that there is confidence" in putting direct investments here, which can lead to plant construction or business expansion and thus, more jobs.

It is therefore important for recent efforts to be sustained and for more Filipinos to remain watchful of the government, so officials continue to work and address problems.

For now, we are still treading a long road towards what many could describe as true economic development. My dear Pinas, hang on!