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Human Capital

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Two weeks ago, I had my virtual conference by phone and online -- for my initial meeting with the members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Southeast Asia.

The virtual conference connected Geneva, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bangkok. That was certainly an interesting experience. I have lectured in a room in Manila before an audience situated in another country, but this was my first time to have simultaneous discussions with colleagues in six countries.

What a cost-effective way to hold an international meeting!
The virtual conversation revolved around ASEAN’s human capital and the role of ASEAN peoples, particularly the young, in the goal of ASEAN integration.

Given the global challenges and geo-politics, how do we factor the needs of our diverse populations into the strategy for development and stability? How will ASEAN’s peoples contribute to and benefit from increased wealth? Are our peoples a fuel for the engine of growth or are they a heavy load for the engine to pull?

ASEAN has a total population of 570 million, faced with problems of poverty, unemployment, and low educational attainment. ASEAN’s combined GDP of US$1.7 trillion, as huge as that sounds, looks paltry when broken down per capita. ASEAN’s wealth has not filtered down to benefit the mass base, poor and under served.

While Singapore, the most developed of ASEAN countries, boasted a per capita income of more than $37,000 in 2010, its neighbor across the sea -- the Philippines -- had to make do with $2,100.

While Thailand enjoyed a per capita income above $4,700, neighbors Laos and Cambodia languished with per capita incomes of $980 and $700.
Do ASEAN leaders have a realistic and common strategy to close the gap?

Or are they so busy looking at the forest of the global economy that individual trees wither and die, without anyone around to mark their passing? (Brings to mind the philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)
Several ASEAN leaders have underscored the need to do something to lift the region’s poorest nations higher.

Social safety nets have been a hotly debated topic, for over a decade now, as governments grappled with the challenges of globalization.

Our Southeast Asian region, with its $1.7 trillion GDP and tremendous natural resources, may make ASEAN a potential force to be reckoned with, but only if the governments succeed in integration. The question is this: can ASEAN get its act together and move as one vis-a-vis the global political and economic challenges? Clearly, governments need to prioritize closing the gap between the elite minority and the impoverished majority even as it strives to increase GDP growth.

Can ASEAN’s leaders succeed in attaining the goal of integration, when its own peoples remain disconnected within their own lands as well as from each other?

How can Southeast Asia become a “cohesive entity facing the global challenges and mitigating the risks that follow,” if income and development gaps are oceans of unfulfilled needs?

Closing the income gap requires drastic improvements in human capital development, particularly educational development.
However, when governments prioritize education, the focus is on children and youth. Often unserved are the needs of the adult poor -- hampered by illiteracy. Illiteracy impacts negatively on the productivity of workers, farmers, and fisherfolks. How will governments improve incomes and tap new technologies if workers cannot follow written instructions?

Can farmers and fisherfolks easily move on to agri-processing if they are illiterate?
I personally believe that literacy -- specifically for adults -- should be a distinct priority in the government’s education agenda.
The formal education program generally targets children and youth. Literacy programs are non-formal, alternative learning systems that target a client base predominantly adult.

If we do not specify literacy as a priority, then we paper over the problems of a crucial segment of our population: adults who are bread-winners of impoverished families.

Here in the Philippines, the National Statistics Office and the Department of Education showed that the Philippines’ average functional literacy rate was 84.1% for Filipinos 10 to 64 years of age in 2003. True, this is an achievement to be proud of compared to other developing countries (like many African countries).

However, when translated into actual numbers, this means there are some 8 million Filipinos over the age of 10 who are functionally illiterate.
The Literacy Coordinating Council (LCC) organized the 2011 National Literacy Conference from September 26-29 to focus more attention on the millions of Filipino illiterates.

In response to the need for a coordinated strategy to improve our illiteracy situation, the LCC was created under Republic Act 7165, authored by former Senator Santanina T. Rasul.

Dr. Rasul had developed the Magbassa Kita (Let us Read) phono-syllabic literacy method over 50 years ago. She remains personally involved in adult literacy, spurring MKFI and the LCC to do more for the adult illiterates. (MKFI has recently graduated over 6,000 neo-literates in ARMM, thanks to USAID’s support of our Literacy for Peace and Development Project or LIPAD).

The LCC is an inter-agency body administratively attached to the Department of Education responsible for carrying out the declared national policy to prioritize the eradication of illiteracy, one of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).

The LCC is to “encourage and nationalize the formulation of policies and the implementation of programs on non-formal, informal, and indigenous learning systems, as well as self-learning, independent, and out-of-school study programs particularly those that respond to community needs.”
Unfortunately, the funds are sorely lacking for implementing the state’s program to eradicate illiteracy. National government believed that making the local governments responsible to attain our literacy goals would solve the problem. Sadly, this has not worked well. Our alternative learning systems are neither well-funded nor well-coordinated with the LGUs.

The 2011 National Literacy Conference’s theme, “Pursuing Community Development through Peace Literacy,” brought together educators, local government executives (particularly from the barangays), and NGOs working on literacy such as the MKFI. These key stakeholders were to develop cooperative strategies and recommendations that would not just ensure the attainment of national literacy targets but would also develop literacy strategies that would support peace-building and peace education.

On September 29, I spoke at the conference to share our experiences on adult literacy in Muslim Mindanao. While the Philippines boasted an average functional literacy rate of 86.4% for all regions, ARMM lagged way behind with a literacy rate of 71.6%. The National Capital Region posted the highest functional literacy rate at 94%.

At the national level, females (88.7.3%) have a higher functional literacy rate than males (84.2%). This is true for all regions, except Muslim Mindanao. In ARMM, female literacy rate is 50% while male literacy rate is 63.6%. Why the difference? Why are Muslims, especially Muslim females, incapacitated so severely?
What can be done?

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In 2005, the Philippine Education for All (EFA) Report recommended to the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA):“The first and most urgent step is to make fully functionally literate the core population of adults and youth outside schools who do not as yet possess essential functional literacy.

“The actions required for this include: a) the national government finances the integration of alternative learning options as an essential and routine part of every public, private and civil society socio-economic development initiatives and make them available to disadvantaged persons and communities; and b) adult literacy organizations work more closely with organizations already involved in community development and poverty alleviation.”

Clearly, decades of conflict and neglect (by national, regional, and local government agencies) have resulted in ARMM’s oppressive situation. Add to that combustible mix the corrosive factors of corruption and inefficient governance. We have a recipe for constant turmoil and deterioration of quality of life, a slide toward chaos that has not been prevented by government.

Education is the braking system that could stop the downhill slide of our runaway jeepney. Unfortunately, the engine of the DEPED vehicle is weak (corroded?).

If the formal education system is beset by tremendous problems, our alternative learning systems suffer worse conditions. Thus, LCC is trying to generate more cooperation with the local governments, development partners and NGOs such as theMagbassa Kita Foundation Inc. to arrest the downhill slide of our adult ARMM population into illiteracy.

Here, as in the rest of Southeast Asia’s poor communities, the full power of human capital is wasted with government’s inability to provide alternative educational programs -- such as adult literacy -- to its population who could be productive members of the labor force instead of becoming a drag on the engines of growth.

I have written many times about literacy as a low-hanging fruit for Muslim Mindanao: easy to harvest and deliver but with tremendous impact on empowering the community politically, socially, and economically so the citizens can pull themselves out of the mire. However, the ability to see the fruit requires that our policy makers use a different lens or prism when viewing the problems of the marginalized. They need to see the trees and not just the dismal forest withering away from a rot that afflicts from within.(The author is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and Managing Trustee of Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc.)

By Amina Rasul




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