MANILA, MARCH 5, 2007 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - The economic figures are good, and the growth targets until 2010, though ambitious, appear attainable.

So why arenít the rosy economic figures translating into better lives for the poor?

Why canít we stop the exodus of millions of our people for greener pastures overseas?

Why are most of our neighbors still doing better than us?

And why do we remain heavily dependent on foreign aid, especially from Uncle Sam?

* * *

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., whoís taken to wearing a charm bracelet to protect him from backstabbers and other vile spirits, had an explanation years ago for the failure of economic growth to trickle down to the masses: the growth simply could not keep up with the population boom.

For a tangible trickle-down effect, De Venecia said the country needed an annual growth rate of 7 percent. Thatís the inspiration for the administrationís "Plan 7,8, 9" Ė the growth targets for the next three years Ė although no one will admit that it was borrowed from De Venecia.

Curbing population growth is one solution, but thatís out of the question under the Arroyo administration, which wonít risk incurring the ire of the Catholic Church. Family planning isnít going to be pushed especially in an election year.

So the other approach is to work on economic growth.

Much of the rosy growth figures can be attributed to the billions of dollars remitted annually by overseas Filipino workers. The figures are expected to rise further as the exodus continues and the quality of those leaving shifts from maids and blue-collar workers to professionals, including doctors and nurses.

This may be good for the National Treasury, but brain drain is bad news for any country. Already the exodus is taking its toll on the public health care system and education. Then there are the social costs, with long separations straining marriages and family ties.

We go back to our question: If the economy is doing great, why are our people still leaving in droves? Surely itís not just a sense of adventure that drives our people to teach English in Cambodia or risk kidnapping by toiling in the oil fields of Nigeria.

* * *

Globalization has facilitated the migration of workers all over the planet. Even people from developed countries leave their homelands to resettle elsewhere.

But not on the scale that we are seeing in our country. A tenth of our population is now overseas. Many of them are armed with skills that are badly needed here.

The best way to end the Philippine diaspora and bring home our workers is by giving them opportunities for a decent wage in their own country.

This is possible in an export-driven economy, or in one that is a favored destination for foreign investments. Our economy is middling in these areas compared with many other Asian countries.

Investors are pleased with recent fiscal and economic reforms and are generally bullish about the countryís prospects for the year. Their main concern is whether the reforms can be sustained, and whether other measures to create a better investment climate can be implemented.

Politics, which should work for the public good, has become so poisoned that it compromises certain economic policies and has become a concern for investors.

Areas of improvement have been pointed out to the government by different business groups at different times in the past years. Investors want better infrastructure, lower power costs, predictability in economic policies, a better regulatory environment, transparency, accountability, the rule of law and less red tape. They want democratic institutions to work.

In many of these areas, our neighbors have done their homework better. Thailand has been shooting itself in the foot in the past months but is still doing pretty well, Vietnam looks set to outpace us and even Cambodia is rapidly catching up.

Export and foreign direct investment figures are promising, but they can be better if we can stop the slide in national competitiveness.

But many sectors are wallowing in complacency, refusing to change so they can survive global competition.

It will take years before we can reverse the deterioration in the quality of education and the skills of our workforce. We should be in panic mode by now over the state of public education.

Other countries are fast-tracking the improvement of their human resources by subsidizing the education of many of their citizens in the top western universities, or else building schools and importing world-class educators for their citizens.

Our education officials will need to come up with measures to give Filipinos world-class education, without which our country cannot survive in a global economy.

* * *

For now world-class education is available only to those who can afford it.

A study will have to be made of the distribution of wealth in this country. If rosy growth rates are simply making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and if the same miniscule fraction of the population controls the bulk of the wealth, thatís not national progress but the perpetuation of a long-entrenched oligarchy.

The economy has been one of the undeniable strengths of the Arroyo administration. In this election year, the political opposition should be prudent in its criticism of economic figures, because the oppositionís irresponsibility has been a big drag on national progress.

But the growth is not enough; many other things need to be done, urgently. The economy is doing well. It can do much better.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved