Republic of Sisyphus


There is no shortage of well-meaning activity in this country; but there are times when it seems like all the effort is an essentially futile task, and that our country’s like Sisyphus, condemned to roll a stone up a hill, only to see it roll down again, every time.

Last February 19 I went to the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Malate, to represent the family in the school’s commemoration of my grandmother’s birth anniversary.


Before the program started, I had a chance to talk to some of the teachers and the principal about the situation of the school, which has long had a very good reputation for the excellence of its teaching, teachers, and the scores and marks the students obtain in contests and national tests.


One thing she told me about bothered me. The PAGCOR has a feeding program in the school, which helps 50 malnourished kids. Assistance is to the tune of 30,000 Pesos a month, at 30 Pesos a meal. Now what bothered me was the arbitrary nature of the program (stuck at 50 kids, irrespective of the actual incidence of malnutrition in any school; my impression, though the principal didn’t say it, is that there’s simply a quota of 50 kids per school, so that PAGCOR can provide assistance to many schools). The program has a limited duration, 120 days. The principal said, when I asked her what this sort of limited assistance accomplished, that the program, ideally, rescues kids and restores them to health; that afterwards, hopefully, parents can be convinced to devote more of their resources to feeding their kids.


The principal added that there are other projects taking place at the same time, with various sources of funding, both local and national (noodles, nutritious bread and milk, etc.) but they all have limited durations and teachers just have to hope it helps some but not all. The programs require ingenuity, too; the school has taken to planting vegetables to keep the costs of subsidized meals low, for example.

One interesting problem schools face is that because of the UN policy that kids cannot be refused an education, schools can’t impose limits (academic, or enrollment, or locality, etc.) on those applying, which means some schools are swamped with kids even from far flung areas when there are other public schools nearer the kids.

But the growth in population is taking it’s toll. 7 years ago, when the principal started, they had an enrollment of 3,500; this year, they have 5,700. And while proud of their completion rate of 87%, the 3% who drop out is still quite high.

Like most public school teachers I talk to they also have major problems because many kids lack one or both parents and any discipline efforts can result in Bantay Bata lawsuits. Another problem is kids being withdraw from school to help the family by working, in some cases, by begging.

A heartening thing, and this is something apparently growing in strength in some public schools (two or three years ago, the principal and teachers of Manuel L. Quezon elementary school in Manila told me similar stories), is that cooperation between parents and teachers is close, and parents go out of their way to help the school with its needs. This is particularly noteworthy because regulations exist, in Manila, forbidding teachers and principals from actively seeking monetary or other assistance from parents or students. It seems the parents have taken to actively finding out what the school needs, and how they can help, whether by donating a single can of paint (a great sacrifice for most families), or providing coffee and snacks to other volunteers who help with maintenance, etc.

The head of the PTA (a phenomenon entrenched since martial law) is a Police Major, who himself went to the school, has one daughter in Grade 6, and two children in college, all of them in state schools. His two eldest plan to be a doctor and an engineer, respectively, treading the path from lower to upper middle class. But is stories were of the rise of petty crimes and of syndicated crime.

The result of this visit was three columns: Permanently poor, The end of social mobility, and Insecurity and the Invisible Class.

In them, I made reference to the following.

The 1971 roundtable on the Philippines, and the quotations of Sixto Roxas and Onofre Corpuz are from President Marcos and the Philippine political culture by Lew Gleeck (to my mind, this is the most insightful book on the late dictator).

Information, too, from “The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World” (Niall Ferguson) You can read a synopsis here, or better yet, find a way to grab hold of the documentary series on which he based his book.

For population figures, there’s Jan Lahmeyer’s historical demographical data of the whole country.

There’s the Asia Economic Forum‘s online report (for the 1st AEF) on The Human Development Index (HDI). The Philippines falls under the category of “Medium Human Development.” Countries in the region were classified according to three clusters, with the Philippines in Cluster 2: Malaysia (61), Thailand (73), the Philippines (84) and China (85), and with the following observations:

Using comparable data-sets where available, there has been a general upward trend in HDI values over the past almost 30 years. Major points of interest are that:

the ‘Asian tigers’ (Hong Kong, Singapore and the Republic of Korea) clearly became part of Cluster 1 over the period prior to 1995;

the Philippines has progressively dropped since 1975 to a relatively low position in Cluster 2; and

Mongolia has transitted from Cluster 2 to Cluster 3 over the period 1985-1995; whilst

China has done the opposite since 1995.

However, while our overall rankings are pretty low, and our rankings suggest an overall deterioration over time, in individual, current, rankings we’re actually rather decent.

This may help explain why a holistic look at the country is depressing but if individual constituencies are asked, who might be inclined to focus on particular aspects, they might answer that things are pretty good and even improving.

And then there’s the UNDP’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report on the Philippines. (Additional data on various indices can be found here). You can also compare this recent report with the 1994 Philippine Human Development Report). In particular, these charts and graphs.


The Human Development Index, as a more accurate measure of the development of a nation’s population than the more traditional per capita GDP.


This suggests that the overall trajectory of the Philippines is one of steady improvement, though not as steeply improving as regions as a whole. But as I pointed out in my column, the Philippines has dropped in its rankings.




I also referred to this report:

And while Dean Jorge Bocobo often points out that self-rated poverty is essentially meaningless, I think it goes a long way in explaining the gulf between official statistics and the skepticism to outright hostility with which public opinion often meets official pronouncements of slight to significant gains.

This is all by way of exploring the question of social mobility. This recent story from a British newspaper makes for interesting reading: Social mobility: Labour tries to revive flagging crusade to help poor childrenMinisters are promoting a series of policies in an effort to bring their key project back on track.

Two other stories that make for relevant reading: Marooned on the Fal: sailors stranded on the ships that are going nowhereShipping crews from all over the world caught in Cornwall as global trade slows and Downturn hits Philippine remittances.

Ctr Alt Del wrote an entry on one of my previous columns, and his entry makes the document below, provided in a link in the previous entry, interesting reading; compare it with another document, which I’m reproducing below it:

The entry also mentions the the Reproductive Health Act, now being interpollated in the House (sponsors of a counterpart bill in the Senate have withdrawn their endorsements). An insight into the arguments of some of its opponents can be found in Rep. Teodoro M. Locsin Jr.’s exhaustive commentary on the bill: see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of his dissection of the bill.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

42 thoughts on “Republic of Sisyphus

  1. “that cooperation between parents and teachers is close, and parents go out of their way to help the school with its needs. …..regulations exist, forbidding teachers and principals from actively seeking monetary or other assistance from parents or students.”

    that is worth mentioning. we really can’t wait for the government to provide because we know what kind of government we have. there are lots of similar stories about this, for example, inquirer’s report on the “bridge of life” project in nueva viscaya:

    and… do we still need to mention why teachers are forced to sell longanisa?

  2. ahh..

    so if we are to look at key development indicators, even in macroeconomic data, we are doing ‘relatively decent’

    but since social mobility(the ability to improve one’s socio-economic status in a lifetime) is highly impaired and nearly impossible to accomplish, unless you become an Expat Worker, the negative views on poverty, government efficacy, development etc. are as a result exaggerated..

  3. Sisyphus was almost at the top of the hill during the height of Marcos rule until he rolled back a little.

    And then Edsa 1 brought Sisyphus down flat to the ground again.

    From then on it was a rough and tumble effort of a climb, Sisyphus barely managing to lift the stone any distance from the ground.

    Until GMA sunk it to the basement.

  4. but to bert: don’t the Abe Margallos and a few other Filipinos hold up the “miraculous bato-bato-sa-langit instrument called surge-the-gate EDSA” as the country’s best contribution to posterity?

  5. And I know what Q3 raises is only anecdotal (one school only), but I reproduce it anyway to point to population growth as an issue:

    But the growth in population is taking it’s toll. 7 years ago, when the principal started, they had an enrollment of 3,500; this year, they have 5,700.

    . . . they also have major problems because many kids lack one or both parents . . . Another problem is kids being withdraw from school to help the family by working, in some cases, by begging.

  6. but UP n, the basement is so dark and there is no way for Sisyphus to fall down any further therefore ‘there is no way to go but up’, assuming Sisyphus finds the stairway, better if he find the elevator instead.

    the abe margallos are romantic people, but the “other few Filipinos” who are not few but many, in wanting to “surge-the-gate”, merely just want to help Sisyphus carry the stone.

  7. and UP n, if only Sisyphus was allowed to roll the stone on to the top of the hill thereby allowing him to do other tasks as well, he could have been as good a farmer/landowner as he was a stone roller thus his prolific contribution to population growth be no problem.

  8. “…why a holistic look at the country is depressing but if individual constituencies are asked, who might be inclined to focus on particular aspects, they might answer that things are pretty good and even improving.” – MLQ3

    And there are different appreciation among regional constituencies, I must say. For example, President Arroyo seems to always get a bum rap in Luzon, particularly Metro Manila, but is perceived to be doing a good job by the people in the Visayas (particularly Cebu), and Mindanao.

    So people from different regions would have different takes as to their well-being. But of course, the daily chaos and decay in Metro Manila would would result to a failing mark for the government. lately, I noticed that people from Cebu are more gung-ho about RP’s progress.

  9. It is wrong to use PPP based GDP since only a micro percentage of the population actually are capable of having a level of consumption (disposable income) wherein parity can be established as a benchmark with other more advanced economies.
    (Flat screen TV or the Big MAC Index)

    Using a simple family income level of Php 75K (in nominal terms) for 60% of the population as the border line of poverty for a representative family of 5-6.

    Double that to Php 150K and still it would be difficult.

    Hence you have a huge invisible class in the Philippines.

    The tropical and subtropical climate is an added natural endowment as one does not need substantial shelter against the elements. A large proportion of the population are existing in the most basic form of the economics of the commons.

    There is a little twist to that in the sense that our garbage dumps have become part of the economy of the commons. The slums are organized around the refuse of the more prosperous.

    The perception of Cebu as more pro GMA is not surprising. She has made tourism one of her pet projects and the Visayas are the center of the more successful tourist areas.

    She can get away with it as most people are clueless that the tourism sub sector contributes less than 4% to the national economy. But it is glamorous as the landed oligarchy has made that and the BPO their new haciendas.

    The Ayala Model and the Tourism model is still a land based business. If we were an island state like Hawaii it would be great. But we are not.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years as the countries and areas that have mostly integrated their trade and finance (Singapore, Thailand, S. Korea, HK) with the world economies have suffered the greatest downturn in such a short time.

    They are now in negative territory.

  10. I’d still say so little to show for within one generation. Social services and eduction obviously need to be primary focus — two key resource-draining factors contribute to poverty: graft and an absence of a clear population policy since 1986.

    A huge part of our schoolchildren (probably one-third or one-fourth of the national total, going by the percentage of households meeting below poverty criteria)) goes to school in a liminal stage between nourishment and hunger (not really faminished, but the specter of hunger is always there). Just imagine how learning is supposed to come in if one is in that stage always. Your brain is so addled from carbo shortage nearly everyday — how is SIBIKA supposed to sink in?

    Within this background, charity and feeding programs seem futile and “panakip butas”. Like pouring water in a pail shot with wholes. And ABS-CBN Foundation could always parade its charity for generations to come and Korina Sanchez would always have the unshod feet of our younglings to give her tsinelas gifts. All in the adoring public glare.

    Cebu is actually like Metro Manila — lots of poor people in the sideline.

    And so there goes our hero, Sisyphus.

  11. cut-and-paste from above:
    One interesting problem schools face is that because of the UN policy that kids cannot be refused an education, schools can’t impose limits (academic, or enrollment, or locality, etc.) on those applying . . . If they can do this (set limits) at UP-Diliman, why not at elementary schools?

    No one will win any elections with the following question, but is this the time to call that other hero — TRIAGE ?

  12. UP n, what are you, crazy. This is the most inhuman suggestion I’ve ever heard. You can keep raising taxes but you cannot choose to save only what you can. If our govrnment cannot budget for everyone’s elemntary and high school education then this country deserves to burn. Crazy, crazy, crazy, misguided, masturbatory intellects.

  13. Watch people: this is really what the middle class is up to: a permanent division of haves and have nots.

    And eventually, water will have a price (right now it’s free, we are paying solely for treatment and redistribution). Only those who can afford will get running water.

    Some of you may not realize this but these ideals like free education, they are not sourced out of the cloudy imagination of liberals. They are the logical by-product of centuries of spilt blood. We educate to socialize new citizens, we socialize so citizens will follow the law and contribute to the economy. This is acute alienation, UPn is suggesting.

  14. brianB: You don’t say “… save what you can”, you say “…put resources first into the more effective programs”. You see it where “…those in a better position to handle the academic- and other pressures of college” get scholarships into UP or Ateneo or Mapua, while those “…less able” don’t. TRIAGE. Also why USA’s Millenium Fund attaches “performance-metrics” before it gives more money to Pinas.

  15. TRIAGE: The rich, having the most effective program for wealth accumulation, gets the most resources from government; the middle class…some resources; the poor…a pittance!

    Okay, UP n, let’s try it!

  16. Bert: You have to go back to the drawing boards if you want to propose the TRIAGE you described. Firstly, it is vague. Secondly, it sounds off which means GMA and all Pinas’ congressmen, senators, mayors and baranggay-officials will look at your-TRIAGE as unacceptable. Heck, even the CBCP and the Iglesia will reject it, too!!

  17. Why even suggesting to do a triage when natural selection is at work against those who have less since day one of birth (or even earlier since conception): poor maternal care, poor nutrition, poor health, poor sanitation, poor surroundings, etc.

    Look here: we are talking of basic education of learning how to read and write for the child.

    I agree with BrianB: it was an uncalled for call.

  18. Oh, I can relate to this article. I’m a product of public school system. Nothing much has changed since I graduated (not too long ago). Still, our public schools are facing the same old problems, most common of which is funding.

    Public schools are forced to be creative, to use their ingenuity to get the funding that they need to support the education of the children. I admire these public schools. I also admire those parents who are willing to lend a helping hand voluntarily (of course without expecting anything in return).

    In our current state, the government cannot do everything (unless if we cut debt servicing and put it in education). The private sector needs to help.

    I believe that education is the key to our success as a nation. The more educated people we have, the lesser is the ignorant people who would be gullible. Hmmm, let me qualify that, what we need is quality education. Quality education that will help in human development.

    Do private companies nowadays do social development program?
    How I wish that they would be required by our laws to help. Haha. That would be too much to ask.

    Lastly, I want the youth (me included) to realize that we must stop being like Sisyphus. 😀

  19. Triage sounds bad because some one will be left behind.
    On the may look like set aside first those injured that are likely to survive anyway(“malayo sa bituka”) and those with no chance to live and treat those with injured (na”malapit sa bituka”) that has a chance.(puro hula lang yan pano kung internal injury pala tapos mukhang ok naman tapos namatay dahil pinabayaan)

    Someone will always be left behind even without the suggestion of triage.

    There are suggestions that the IRA be distributed to those who needs it most and those rich areas receive less.
    Of course, those that remitted the most revenue to the government will never allow this.

    On Sisyphus:

    Sisyphus may represent pointless and frustrating tasks,but after reading a little greek mythology, hindi sya nakakaawa.

  20. CVJ,

    maiba tayo, remember the suggestion of some one we know to eliminate public schools, I don’t know if it was for the sake of discussion, or if he was serious.

    I know his intention is quality education for all, and if there are no public schools eventually tuition fees would lower.. (you know the rest)

    I have to admit that I still don’t get it.

    correction :
    those with injured= those injured

  21. What happens when a historical event proves that economic dogma of the last 30 years was totally wrong!! That means our BSP, NEDA, DOF and the rest of the students of economics and finance in our universities and schools were taught vodoo economics.

    “The unfortunate uselessness of most ’state of the art’ academic monetary economics”
    March 3, 2009 1:37pm

    “The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England I was privileged to be a ‘founder’ external member of during the years 1997-2000 contained, like its successor vintages of external and executive members, quite a strong representation of academic economists and other professional economists with serious technical training and backgrounds. This turned out to be a severe handicap when the central bank had to switch gears and change from being an inflation-targeting central bank under conditions of orderly financial markets to a financial stability-oriented central bank under conditions of widespread market illiquidity and funding illiquidity. Indeed, the typical graduate macroeconomics and monetary economics training received at Anglo-American universities during the past 30 years or so, may have set back by decades serious investigations of aggregate economic behaviour and economic policy-relevant understanding. It was a privately and socially costly waste of time and other resources.”

    “Most mainstream macroeconomic theoretical innovations since the 1970s (the New Classical rational expectations revolution associated with such names as Robert E. Lucas Jr., Edward Prescott, Thomas Sargent, Robert Barro etc, and the New Keynesian theorizing of Michael Woodford and many others) have turned out to be self-referential, inward-looking distractions at best. Research tended to be motivated by the internal logic, intellectual sunk capital and esthetic puzzles of established research programmes rather than by a powerful desire to understand how the economy works – let alone how the economy works during times of stress and financial instability. So the economics profession was caught unprepared when the crisis struck.” William Buiter

  22. That’s an insightful article, J_AG. I wonder how other economists, especially those who support Keynesian Theory, are going to react to that “voodoo economics”.

  23. Sisyphus… as OFW’s return home :

    Thousands of foreign workers, including London School of Economics graduates with six-digit salaries and desperately poor Bangladeshi factory workers, are streaming home as the economy here/in SINGAPORE suffers the worst of the recessions in Southeast Asia. Singapore is an epicenter of what analysts call a new flow of reverse migration away from hard-hit, globalized economies, including Dubai and Britain, that were once beacons for foreign labor. Economists from Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreigners — or one in every 15 workers here — by the end of 2010.

    Remittances — the financial lifelines sent home by foreign workers — are falling from Latin America to Central Asia. The drop has been so sharp in Kyrgyzstan, which relies on remittances for 27 percent of its gross domestic product, that the U.N. World Food Program was asked to rush in emergency food aid in November for the first time since 1992. “This is a new income hit to people who can afford it the least,” said Josette Sheeran, the program’s executive director.

    In Bangkok, the export industry is in triage. What troubles economists deeply is that there is no easy answer to how countries like Thailand can get back on globalization’s gravy train. One of the Asian tigers that collapsed in 1997 in a debt and currency crisis, it emerged from its ashes like its neighbors, by exporting to the United States and Europe. For now, that route is closed.

    “Look, you can’t sell consumer products to the Chinese because they make everything cheaper there already,” Zarchi a Thai businessman said. “Unless you have a fruit they cannot grow, a fish they cannot catch or medical equipment they cannot make — yet — then it’s nearly impossible. I don’t see how China can be our future. And yet, I don’t know what else will be either. The Americans? The Europeans? Not for a while.”


    GMA may do a Dubya yet, happy as peach to leave the problem of managing a torpedoed economy to the next President.

    “NO” to whoever asked if this is a good time to buy a condo in Makati/Fort Boni/Pasig.

  24. Singapore is running out of parking spaces for tankers and ships. Subic/Manila Bay should be marketed ASAP while the business-opportunity is available (with Pinas needing to address vandalism/thievery as well as SuperFerry-14 threats).

  25. US Banks receiving money from the US Federal government are not allowed to hire people with H1B visa. They might expand it to include outsourcing.

  26. ‘ don’t think we coordinate or sniff around for these opportunities.’

    I agree. Take oil for example. The price went down a few months ago. The exchange was also good but the Philippine government didn’t bother setting up a strategic oil reserve.

  27. Another is real estate. Prices of condominium units in Manhattan went down. This is a good time to buy one each for the Consul General and the Permanent Ambassador to the UN.

  28. the amb. to un has that townhouse in manhattan, no? or was it allowed to fall apart and end up condemned like the ambassador’s house in washington?

  29. my comment March 5 1:24 am…I was only teasing you, UP n.

    You are the elite kasi. Me, I’m deeply committed and always for the interest of my own kind so free education above all for everyone is my beef.

  30. In this global economic crisis, there is some advantage with Philippine Sisyphusian development. RP’s reltively less-integrated economy (trade and finance) coupled with a big population (too many I still say) create a level domestic demand. With a well targeted stimulus program especially to support the repatriated OFWs’ families, I believe we will ride out the financial tsunami.

    Singapore , Thailand, and Taiwan are all getting hit big-time by the economic meltdown. These countries don’t have the population to absorb domestically the excess capacity and production of their export-led economies. And they’re all producing the semi-luxury and luxury items like plasma TVs, electronics, etc (non basic).

    Sometimes, procrastination has its virtues.

  31. mlq3,

    You’re probably talking about the East 66th Street townhouse. The Consul General occupies the top 3 floors. The consul had to rent an apartment at the Trump Towers for a few months for P10k a month while it was being repaired a few years ago. The Permanent representative to the UN occupies the lower 3 floors. From the outside the townhouse looks ok.

  32. Incidence of poverty is a government product. Government and politics promise a lot to the less learned citizens. The government of politicians go to the rescue on a sigh whether its a loan amnesty, free food, free health care cards, anything that send a wrong public care. Since the pseudo givers are found in the urban areas, these places are prone to the hordes of promdis praying that God and these minions could answer their every need. Education and health take most of the burden of the false hopes. Just control the influx and all will be well in the cosmopolitans.

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