Balik-Probinsiya Program as the Philippines’ new tourism program?

The Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pag-asa (BP2) Program of the Duterte Administration aims to encourage the people to pack their things, go back to their provinces, and decongest the cities and the urban centers. Unless, however, modifications are introduced, the program will just be a repeat of the Arroyo Administration’s version of Balik-Probinsiya Program. Below are suggestions to avoid the “balik-probinsiya concept trap”and become another “Pasyal Probinsiya” Program sponsored by the government.

Last Wednesday, May 6, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 114 or the “Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pag-asa (BP2) Program”. Just like the then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Balik-Probinsiya Program, BP2 aims to encourage the people to pack their things, go back to their provinces, and decongest the cities and the urban centers. As part of their incentives, the willing participants will be given financial assistance for their relocation.

In concept, this looks amazing. Not only we’ll be able to exercise social distancing as may be required by the “new normal”due to the depopulation but we’ll also be able to free-up the cities’ highways and, of course, clear the slums and informal settler areas considering that the urban poor are the primary target of the BP2. In the long term, this is also seen as a key to ensure that the development will be “rolled out to the provinces”. But will this work?

Based on EO 114, the BP2 program framework will be anchored on four key areas — empowerment of local industries; food security and agricultural productivity; social welfare, health, and employment; and development of infrastructure. Programs, activities, or projects (PAPs) in support of the BP2 were also identified and classified as short, medium and long term and will be rolled-out to make the BP2 a reality.

The more immediate, or short term PAPs are as follows:

  • Transportation and relocation coursed through the Department of Transportation and the Department of the Interior and Local Government which are tasked to coordinate with the concerned local government units;
  • Transitory support from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the National Housing Authority;
  • Livelihood and employment packages through the Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry;
  • Agri-bases support services offered by the Department of Agriculture;
  • Educational programs through the Department of Education, Commission on Higher Education and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authrotiy;
  • Fiscal incentives and transition assistance for micro, small and medium enterprises; and,
  • Other forms of aids as may be necessary.

Interestingly, the enumerated PAPs do not include the assurance that: (1) there will be food or at least a market to buy food, (2) jobs that will be immediately available to generate income to buy food, and (3) there will be schools and universities whose caliber is as the same as that in the cities or in Metro Manila. These three are among the main considerations why people migrate.

But of course, they were considered only that they were “embedded” — that is, not given particular attention — in the medium term PAPs or those that will be implemented at a later time. Simply put, the BP2 is like telling the relocatees cum Balik-Probinsiya beneficiaries to “go to the provinces first and the government will look into your other needs later”. Playing the chicken-or-the-egg guessing game, huh?

The medium term PAPs are as follows:

  • Identification of existing special economic zones, as well as development of MSME-related industries;
  • Livelihood and employment opportunities suitable to rural development;
  • Strengthening and prioritizing the National Spatial Strategy integrated in the Philippine Development Plan;
  • Integration of institutional assistance, such as progression of formal education, improved health care services and medical facilities, maintenance and promotion of peace, order, security; and,
  • Establishment of new economic zones in Visayas and Mindanao including the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

Second, assurance of a WiFi connection and cellphone signals, along with electricity and water connections were also not factored in. WiFi connection is included because it has now become, and will mark its place as among, the basic needs under Covid-19. People need to search for jobs, connect with their friends through their Facebook accounts, watch YouTube videos, check their e-mails, or search Google. Absent WiFi or at least a mobile data connection, the government will not be able to keep their “relocatees cum Balik Probinsiya beneficiaries” in their new places of residence.

The BP2 is being pushed to be funded with P 711 billion stimulus package and P 160 billion of these will be a fresh funding. The rest of the P 711 billion will come from current government spending, relaxed monetary policies, loans, and contributions from the private sector, among others. Solons have even passed bills to make the program a reality.

But if the BP2 is to succeed, maybe the government should learn from the gold rush. People — adventurers, treasure hunters, miners and eventually entrepreneurs — migrate to areas with alleged gold fields not because these people already found gold but because of the hope that there is gold. And they went there anyway because they heard that people flocked the goldfields and, second, there was news that some found gold. That is clearly bandwagon mentality reinforced by the “golden news”.

In the present case, the reason why people left their provinces is because they were “in search of gold”. Asking them to go back to their provinces, therefore, requires some hope that the “gold is in their respective provinces only that they failed to dig”. Without that hope and providing only palliative incentives to lure the people out of the cities, just like the first Balik-Probinsiya Program, will not work. Instead, it will just be another “Pasyal Probinsiya Program” funded by the Philippine Government.

So, how are we going to make the BP2 or a similar Balik Probinsiya Program work? Maybe the government can consider the following:

  1. Ensure that the host province or area contains at least the basic elements for living and make these a priority not some post-Covid-19 cum medium term plan. These include the availability of WiFi, electricity and water; and the assurance of the presence of food, income opportunities, and quality education. Provincial graduates have been and are being bullied not because of what they learned but because of the geographical location of their schools. Commission on Elections Commissioner Rowena Guanzon could perhaps enlighten us on this.
  2. With a functioning Internet connection and communication infrastructure set in place, highlight stories of development and economic opportunities in the provinces. Why will anyone go back to a place that never makes it on a a map, anyway? Unless, of course, he/she has become an introvert or wants to be an hermit wanting to meditate in a secluded place.
  3. Relocate the business establishments and major industries in the provinces. This includes provision of incentives — possibly lower taxes, availability of raw materials for production, and the like. This should not be in the medium or long term but in the immediate. The BP2, it appears, is more concerned on the relocation of the lower-income population and not the businesses that provide income to these population. In fact, the executive order only mentions of the MSMEs and not the large enterprises.
  4. Focus on, prioritize and provide appropriate support to promising socio-economic hubs. The government should not drive all at once the people back to the provinces wherever on earth that may be. Whitney Houston’s “All at Once”, literally, is not applicable here and will be a shot in the dark. Even birds migrate by batch. The program should be implemented phase by phase, location by location, focusing first on geographic hubs and expanding the relocation areas as the hubs develop — possibly the spokes, and other emerging hubs. This “hubs and spokes” development concept was started in 2015 and 2016 by the National Anti-Poverty Commission, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and the members of the Human Development Cluster through the Accelerated and Sustainable Anti-Poverty or ASAP Program. Maybe this could be revisited, enhanced and implemented as the program did not see the light of day due to funding support from the government.
  5. Provide job-matching and education-linking services. Again, you just don’t release them to the wilderness as they are not some animals that you need to free pronto. Remember that they will be your best marketing agents for your Balik-Probinsiya Program. If they are unsatisfied, they will be the more influential opposition as they themselves have experienced the program.
  6. Ensure the peace and order situation of the area. Well, who would want to live in a security-challenged community? Even security guards would avoid such places.
  7. Ensure regular monitoring of those who availed of the program and regularly checking on what their constraints are and what can be done. The previous Balik Probinsiya Program was implemented like freeing animals on the wilderness and leaving them to feed and die on their own.
  8. Market the program and sell the place not just as a tourist destination but a dream place for living.
  9. Document not only the program but also the beneficiaries complete with contracts that prohibit them to transfer to other areas for at least a period of five years. Of course, the contracts should also stipulate that appropriate government agencies should provide the necessary services to these relocatees. If and when these relocatee still returned to the cities where they came from despite the appropriate services given them, penalize them. Similarly, penalize the concerned agency officials if they failed the agency failed their part of the contract — that is, the provision of the appropriate services stipulated in the contract.

Only through these that the Balik Probinsiya Program of the Government will succeed.

Any other thoughts? Feel free to drop them at the comment box.

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