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Decades after EDSA: Why poverty remains a challenge in the Philippines

By IRIS GONZALES, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 25, 2023 3:43 pm

You can get to almost anywhere in Metro Manila if you pass by EDSA, that 23-kilometer highway. Pick an intersection to turn to or a lane and you'll soon find yourself either off to the eastern part of the metropolis or elsewhere. 

And there are times, you can be stuck for hours on end in any part of this long, busy road. Oh how much time have you wasted just stuck in the legendary EDSA traffic?

This long, historic road that we call EDSA and these two extreme experiences that it gives us during rush hour or on the most ordinary days, is the perfect metaphor to describe what that historic EDSA Revolution brought to our country and our economy—it brought us hope and a promise of a better tomorrow but then it also set us backward.

As Charles Dickens said in his Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Before the EDSA Revolution 

To understand the cost of EDSA on us and our economy, we must look at the situation before and after that period. 

A series of events—20 years in the making; of the long brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and then the death of Benigno Aquino, Jr.—led to the People Power uprising of February 25. 

But the biggest driving factor is perhaps the fact that the economy was in shambles during the Martial Law period. Who was it who said that hunger, almost always, drives a man to revolt? 

As explained in a November 2021 paper, Martial law and the Philippine Economy by Emmanuel S. de Dios, Maria Socorro Gochoco-Bautista, and Jan Carlo Punongbayan, the years during which Ferdinand Edralin Marcos ruled the Philippines, which spanned roughly two decades or 1966 to 1985, saw only two exceptional years of high growth. 

"On the crudest measure, how did the economy fare in each of those periods? Average annual GDP growth for the entire Marcos era, 1966 to 1985, was 3.8 percent. Over the period of dictatorship (1972 to 1985) it was 3.4 percent. For the narrowly defined martial law period, it was 5.98 percent, a figure that includes the exceptional years 1973 and 1976." 

Presidential Museum and Library PH/flickr

Why then do people regard Martial Law as the golden years? 

"Those who propagate or subscribe to this view typically cite GDP growth—the usual metric used to assess economic performance—as evidence. Their assertion is lent half-credence by the fact that, in two years of the martial law period, the economy showed the highest annual GDP growth it has ever attained since the 1960s—8.9 percent in 1973 and 8.8 percent in 1976. Those rates have not been surpassed to date. But just as it is unfair to evaluate a pupil based on one or two quizzes, so it is anomalous to judge an entire historical period based only on a few years’ performance. Viewed from a longer and comparative perspective, the remarkable economic numbers for just those two years, or even the martial law period itself, are the notable exceptions rather than the rule," the UP economists said in their paper.

And yet, only eight years later, the economy also plunged to a record low of 7.3 percent toward the end of the Marcos regime in 1984 and 1985. 

Inflation also hit a glaring high of 50.3 percent in 1984, a record high since 1960 or the earliest year with available data. 

In fact, the Martial Law's last years, or from 1984 to 1985, saw the Philippines’ worst economic recession since World War II. 

Presidential Museum and Library PH/flickr

And then came 1986. Marcos Sr. was finally removed from power through that historic peaceful People Power revolution. 

Corazon Aquino, the widow of Ninoy, became president, and a new constitution was approved in 1987. 

Economic growth rate increased steadily from 3.5 percent in 1986 to 4.3 percent in 1987, peaking in 1988 at 6.7 percent.

She instituted reforms which brought the economy back to its feet. 

Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse
Philippines 2000

Her successor Fidel Ramos sought to institute more reforms to make the Philippines a tiger economy.

He unveiled an ambitious development plan dubbed "Philippines 2000" where several industries critical to economic development were privatized, such as electricity, telecommunications, banking, domestic shipping, and oil. 

By 1996, GDP reached 5.2 percent and the annual inflation rate had dropped to 5.9 percent from its high of 9.1 percent in 1995. 

Ramos, one of the instrumental figures behind the EDSA Revolution as we know now, put the country back on the radar screen of investors, comparable to its neighbors, Thailand, South Korea, and Malaysia.

The real cost of EDSA

But what went wrong?

Today, 37 years after EDSA, and in the 50th year of Martial Law, the Philippines is under the leadership of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the late strongman's only son, voted into power by 31 million Filipinos.

New York Stock Exchange/Facebook

Perhaps, the real cost of EDSA is difficult to measure in terms of economic growth or numbers but it has to do with how it made millions of poor Filipino people forget the hope that EDSA once promised.

Indeed, EDSA bequeathed the promise of a better tomorrow but what happened after was a failure in governance.

It left us a new constitution, the 1987 Constitution which allowed corrupt officials to return to power through a multi-party system, as veteran journalist Tony Lopez pointed out.

"The Constitution banned foreigners from owning the majority of real estate and other key areas of the economy. This turned off investors and the Philippines missed the flood of foreign investments that swept through Southeast Asia in three waves in two decades," he also said. 

To measure the cost of the 1986 EDSA Revolution therefore is to look at what happened before and after those February days of the Tiger Moon Revolution.

The years prior to EDSA saw the near collapse of our economy and a debt-driven growth that was not sustainable. Our economy is still paying for it.

Presidential Museum and Library PH

And then we must also look at how Corazon Aquino and her successors later on failed to do enough to protect the gains of EDSA. It could have been a chance to create stronger institutions—from justice to education to health—to create a more inclusive economy for the Philippines and to get millions of people out of poverty.

Thus, in the years that followed, it was still more of the same, the same elite-driven economy that isolated the poorest of the poor. Last year, the economy grew 7.6 percent, the fastest in four decades, but so did the number of poor people, at least according to the latest indicators.

The number of people living in poverty in 2021 rose to a total of almost 20 million or 18.1 percent of the population from 16.7 percent in 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

And so here we are again, circling back to another Marcos presidency. 

With the EDSA Revolution in the middle of our long, storied journey, the Philippines is in many ways, still in limbo. We are in that spring of hope and yet, also in the winter of despair.

In many ways, it's exactly like EDSA, the avenue—a few good lanes but riddled with countless potholes and all.