Balik Probinsya

Hopefully the "Balik Probinsya" will finally gain traction, leading to realization of long overdue economic growth and development, and prosperity being achieved by the provinces and the people living in the rural areas. It is time for President Duterte, Senator Go and others pushing for this plan to walk their talk.

The need to relieve congestion in Metro Manila and other urban areas in the Philippines is long overdue. Overpopulation caused government and private sector resources in those areas to be stretched beyond their limits, traffic jams and pollution to be constantly at their worst, and the peace and order situation to always be a problem. The risk of the spread of disease and the effects of severe natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes are also high, no thanks to large population and high population density.

Fears about the spread of disease have been realized with the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in many countries of the world. In the Philippines, the largest number of suspected, probable and confirmed COVID-19 cases are in Metro Manila, Cebu City and Davao City, the most populous urban areas. Central Luzon and CALABARZON provinces, where most industrial estates are located and have seen an increase in the number of migrants in recent years, are also dealing with a significant number of COVID-19 cases.

During one of the televised Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Diseases meetings that were presided by President Rodrigo Duterte, Senator Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Go, who is the chairperson of the Health Committee at the Senate, floated the idea of having a "Balik Probinsya" program. This seems to be in recognition of the crowding in large urban areas that contributed to both the quick spread of COVID-19 and the difficulty of extending varying forms of assistance to sectors in need, most especially the poorest of the poor. Dwelling from the experience gained during the COVID-19 situation, the need to relieve congestion in urban areas, and create new and improve existing opportunities in the cities and rural communities has to be realized.

As an agricultural economist and a long-time advocate of rural development, I support the "Balik Probinsya" plan. However, it will not work if job and business opportunities, and more than adequate infrastructure and facilities will continue to be absent in the provinces. At the same time, the disparity between salaries in Metro Manila and those in the provinces may still prompt people to flock to the metropolis.

The "Balik Probinsya" plan should be backed up with a re-alignment of government's development-related priorities. First, the "Build! Build! Build!" program should give greater priority to the building of roads, railways, airports, seaports, RO-RO and other essential infrastructure in the provinces to spur economic growth and development in those areas. The quality of provincial educational institutions, medical facilities, and food production and storage and marketing facilities should be significantly improved and be at par with their counterparts in Metro Manila. Comprehensive national land resources and water resources use and management plans should also be drafted and implemented not only to protect agricultural and forest lands but also to complement economic development plans for each province.

At the same time, "Balik Probinsya" can become successful if key policy reform measures will be finally implemented by the government. First, the Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA), which seeks to lower income tax from 30 percent to 20 percent over the next ten years and expand the authority of the Fiscal Incentives Review Board (FIRB) to approve the set of incentives to be given to companies, should be enacted into law to provide long overdue incentives to agribusinesses and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), two long ignored and neglected sectors of the Philippine economy that are the main drivers of economic activity and growth, and sources of livelihood, in the provinces, encouraging them to grow and expand, and providing them new business opportunities and markets. The protectionist, anti-foreign direct investment (FDI) and anti-MSME economic policies, especially those contained in the 1987 Constitution, should either be amended or removed altogether to create new and expand business and employment opportunities in the provinces, especially those far from the main urban centers of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Davao City. Although I am not a believer of having a minimum wage, for I prefer to let wages be determined by the market and, on the basis of meritocracy, employees, there should be uniform salary rates for both Metro Manila and the provinces, as the so-called "Manila rate" has been the culprit behind the influx of immigrants from the provinces into the metropolis in search of more work and business opportunities.

If not for the COVID-19 situation, the need to develop and create new business and work opportunities in the provinces will still be unnoticed. Hopefully the "Balik Probinsya" will finally gain traction, leading to realization of long overdue economic growth and development, and prosperity being achieved by the provinces and the people living in the rural areas. It is time for President Duterte, Senator Go and others pushing for this plan to walk their talk.

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About the Author
Benedict is an agricultural economist, academician and writer. He has gained experience and expertise in various fields of economics, business, political science and public relations after through professional ventures in the academe, and in the public and private sectors. He has authored or co-authored key publications on topics ranging from agriculture and food security to global affairs and politics.
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