08/01/2006, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Mgr Tobias: Arroyo's speech about nation "a field of dreams"

The bishop of Novaliches responded on television to every point made by the president in her speech on the state of the country. Poverty has not lessened, the nation is losing its workforce and faces a brain drain, while highly praised economic development is thriving on gambling and prostitution.

Manila (AsiaNews) –A nation "can have growth without development" thanks to "damaging and worrying" factors like "increased alcohol consumption, gambling and prostitution", but this "does not mean it is prosperous or that it has a functioning economy". This was the feedback of Mgr Antonio Tobias, bishop of Novaliches, to an address given by the President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to Congress last week, about the state of the country.

"The so-called development that is so highly praised by the president is based on factors that are harmful for the population and the nation, because apart from exploiting human weaknesses, they are extracting more minerals -- depleting our natural resources at a rate faster than nature can regenerate," said the bishop on a television programme about Gospel reflection that was screened by national channels.

Much the same opinion was expressed by economics professors and social analysts. Raul Fabella of the University of the Philippines School of Economics said: "I doubt whether the president can complete all those projects she mentioned in her address. There are three and a half years left in her presidency and environmental issues have to be resolved before the first stone of a contract can be laid. And yet, contracts have been signed."

Benjamin Diokno, a former budget secretary, said: "Once again, Arroyo failed to confront the issues that worry the people and investors: address, corruption, violence, political stability, rule of law and population growth."

In his televised homily, statistics in hand, Mgr Tobias tackled these very issues, grouping them under the heading "why our people in the Philippines are hungry." He said: "The Filipino is hungry because he is poor. He is poor because his earnings are not enough to pay for his needs... The picture of the country's poverty given by Arroyo is unbelievable: she has gone to the extent of lowering the internationally recognized poverty threshold to be able to say there are less poor people in the country. This is not right."

In her address, the president said the income of the poor had risen by more than 30% during her first three years in office, and the number of poor families had declined from 28% by almost 2 million people. Mgr Tobias, citing national tables on the social situation, said 66.7% of those who responded to surveys said they could not buy enough food, 63.7% had difficulty paying their children's tuition, and 62.5% had problems buying medicines or paying for medical care.

Another "serious shortcoming" in the presidential address was the reference to unemployment "again painted as a bright picture": the rate of those who do not have work is 16% and not 11% as claimed. Thousands of Filipinos are leaving their country every day to seek employment abroad. The result is a brain drain in exchange for a few dollars.

The foreign debt was the last issue raised: "In 2003, 75 % of tax collection went to servicing debts to other nations. The percentage rose to 90% in 2005. This really hits the poor because taxes hit hardest those who have no money. Arroyo, speaking about this country, seems to have painted a field of dreams".

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