Philippines' elite swallow country's new wealth

Optimism is soaring that the Philippines is finally becoming an Asian tiger economy, but critics caution a tiny elite that has long dominated is amassing most of the new wealth while the poor miss out.

President Benigno Aquino has overseen some of the highest growth rates in the region since he took office in 2010, while the stock market has hovered in record territory, credit ratings have improved and debt ratios have dropped.

"The Philippines is no longer the sick man of East Asia, but the rising tiger," World Bank country director Motoo Konishi told a forum attended by many of Aquino's economic planning chiefs recently.

However economists say that, despite genuine efforts from Aquino's team to create inclusive growth, little progress has been made in changing a structure that for decades has allowed one of Asia's worst rich-poor divides to develop.

"I think it's obvious to everyone that something is structurally wrong. The oligarchy has too much control of the country's resources," Cielito Habito, a respected former economic planning minister, told AFP.

He presented data to the same economic forum at which Konishi spoke, showing that in 2011 the 40 richest families on the Forbes wealth list accounted for 76 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

This was the highest in Asia, compared with Thailand where the top 40 accounted for 33.7 percent of wealth growth, 5.6 percent for Malaysia and just 2.8 percent for Japan, according to Habito.

According to the Forbes 2012 annual rich list, the two wealthiest people in the Philippines, ethnic Chinese magnates Henry Sy and Lucio Tan, were worth a combined $13.6 billion.

This equated to six percent of the entire Philippine economy.

In contrast, about 25 million people, or one quarter of the population, lived on $1 a day or less in 2009, which was little changed from a decade earlier, according to the government's most recent data.

Some of the elite families have dominated since the Spanish colonial era that ended in the late 1800s.

Prominent Spanish names, such as Ayala and Aboitiz, continue to control large chunks of the economy and members of the families are consistent high placers on Forbes' annual top-40 wealth list.

Their business interests range from utilities to property development to banking, telecommunications and the booming business process outsourcing industry.

Many of the ethnic Chinese tycoons, such as Sy and Tan, got their start soon after the country gained post-World War II independence from the United States.

The tendency for the same names to dominate major industries can be partly attributed to government regulations that continue to allow near monopolies and protections for key players.

For decades after independence from the United States in 1946, important sectors such as air transport and telecommunications were under monopoly control, according to a Philippine Institute for Development Studies paper.

Despite wide-ranging reforms since 1981, big chunks of the market remain effective oligopolies or cartels, it said.

Habito said the path to riches for the few is also helped by a political culture that allows personal connections to easily open doors.

The Aquino government's mantra since succeeding graft-tainted Gloria Arroyo's administration has been good governance and inclusive growth, and their efforts have been applauded by the international community.

The government is spending more than $1 billion this year on one of its signature programmes to bridge the rich-poor divide.

The conditional cash transfers programme will see 15 million of the nation's poorest people receive money directly in exchange for going to school and getting proper health care.

However Louie Montemar, a political science professor at Manila's De La Salle University, said little had been done at the top end to impact on the dominance of the elite.

"There's some sense to the argument that we've never had a real democracy because only a few have controlled economic power," Montemar told AFP.

"The country dances to the tune of the tiny elite."

Nevertheless, the government and economists say there are many other reforms that can be taken to bring about inclusive growth.

Analysts said the most direct path out of poverty was improving worker skills, using higher tax revenues to boost spending on infrastructure, and rebuilding the country's manufacturing sector.

To this end, many economists endorse the Aquino government's cash transfer programme as well as reforms to the education system, which include extending the primary and high school system from 10 to 13 years.

But for people such as mother-of-five Remy del Rosario, who earns about 1,500 pesos ($36) a week selling cigarettes on a Manila roadside, talk of structural reform and inclusive growth mean little.

With her bus driver husband out of work, the family has no savings and her income is barely enough to cover food, bus fare, and prescription medicines.

"Other people may be better off now, but we see no improvement in our lives," she said.

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