Duterte’s losing battle against poverty, drugs and extremism

Duterte has made little progress in solving the main issues affecting the Philippines population. It is about time he acted on his pre-election discourse.

By Oliver Ward

Before Duterte became the President of the Philippines, he stood before a Filipino population eager for change and proudly uttered the words, “together let’s fix this country.”

Today, more than a year after he came to office, the country looks far from fixed. 11.5 million Filipino families still consider themselves poor, the bloody war on drugs has claimed 13,000 lives, and extremism continues to ravage the island of Mindanao.

Duterte’s anti-poverty policies are leaving rural communities behind

At the end of his first year in charge, Duterte released a statement on the presidential office website stating he had “laid the foundation” to “transform the Philippines into a prosperous, predominantly middle-class society.”

But with 50% of Philippines considering themselves “poor” in the first quarter of 2017, his claim appears unfounded. More people consider themselves to be poorer now than they did when he took over the presidency.

Source: Philstar, Rappler, Inquirer

But Duterte has been active. His policies have included raising pensions for senior citizens, giving free medical services to the homeless population, and adding combat pay for police and soldiers. However, none of these policies targeted the heart of the problem.

The rural regions are where poverty is most prominent. In Metro Manila, only 6.5% of the population live below the poverty line. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a rural agricultural region, this figure is at 59%.

To lift the country out of poverty, Duterte must turn his attention to the rural communities. Landowners are using large amounts of land to grow high revenue crops to export abroad, causing the bulk of agricultural profits go to a small number of landowning families.

Antonio Flores, a spokesperson for farmers group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, believes the “existing neoliberal economy is not in favour of the farmers”. He wants to see House Bill 555 passed to break up the monopolies in the countryside and eliminate rural oppression and exploitation.

Instead, Duterte seems more concerned with reviving the Masagana 99 program from the Marcos era. The program promotes the planting of rice crops which fetch high prices on the international market. However, without land reform, only the same few landowners will benefit from the program, leaving the rural masses no better off.

The extrajudicial killings undermine the Philippines’ rule of law

Human rights groups estimate the total death toll in Duterte’s war on drugs is now around 13,000, but the police themselves maintain they are responsible for only 3,811 suspects. This leaves a huge gap where killings are being carried out by vigilantes in the name of the drug war without proper investigation.

The rising extrajudicial deaths prompted the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to recommend the implementation of 257 measures. The measures called for more investigations into the extrajudicial killings. Duterte rejected 154 of the 257 recommendations.

Duterte evidently has little interest in upholding Philippine law and order or investigating civilian deaths at the hands of murderous vigilantes. Nor is he concerned about the 3,811 deaths at the hands of the police, despite suggesting 40% of police officers are corrupt and calling them “rotten to the core”. His message is confusing. He does not trust the police to behave correctly but is not concerned with investigating them when they execute alleged drug dealers in the streets.

Is Duterte really at war with drugs or just the urban poor?

If Duterte’s priority was eradicating drugs in the Philippines, he would allocate more resources to rehabilitation programs. The 2018 budget announcement allocated just US$15 million to drug rehabilitation programs, considerably less than the US$60 million allocated in 2017.

Rather than tackling the drug problem itself and making lasting change, Duterte is content to eradicate the drug users, but he does not want to include the rich in his solution.

Drug use amongst the rich has remained largely unaffected. Shabu, the preferred drug of the poor, now costs up to P15,000 (US$310) a gram, up from as little as P1,200 (US$25) when Duterte took over. However, the prices of marijuana and ecstasy, drugs predominantly enjoyed in rich communities, have remained the same or even decreased. The frequency of drug use among the rich has remained unaffected.

Duterte’s promise of fixing the Philippines “together” looks even more invalid when the poor communities are suffering the bloody consequences of the war on drugs while rich communities emerge unscathed.

He is also making little headway in the fight against extremism

Duterte’s response to Marawi and increased Islamic extremism has failed to tackle the causes of the issue. He has taken an iron-fisted approach to the problem of extremism. He declared martial law in Mindanao and requested a supply of modern weapons from Russian President Vladimir Putin. These displays of aggression have done little to solve the problem.

Martial law has done nothing to affect the Maute group of terrorists in Mindanao. Rather than curb terrorism, it creates the conditions for terrorism to flourish. With restrictions on movement and the local population under constant surveillance, martial law encroaches on the rights of the civilian population. With the government suppressing civil liberties, the measure is more likely to turn the civilian population against Duterte’s government. The local population of Mindanao organised protests in September against the sustained application of martial law.

The government proposal of a Muslim ID card would also only further serve to alienate the local Muslim community, making them find their civil liberties further restricted.

Rather than suppress the local population, Duterte would do far more to prevent the spread of extremism by improving the economic and social situation in Mindanao. If the government can make progress against poverty in the region, the Mindanao public will have little sympathy for terror groups, and their recruitment methods would fail.

The best solutions are not coming from the government, but the Islamic community itself

In Sarangani province, southern Mindanao, Islamic schools are targeting the Muslim youths in the fight against terrorism. The Madaris for Peace program involves 125 teachers promoting peace and Islamic values amongst children in schools.

Government collaboration with programs like Madaris for Peace would help prevent the next generation of Islamic extremists from gaining a foothold in Mindanao. It would leave Duterte with a lasting legacy of success, rather than a legacy of unsuccessful and ineffective policies.

Duterte’s current solutions do not involve the whole population and fail to target the causes of the issues.

His anti-poverty policies fail to solve the issue because they exclude the agricultural communities. His drug policies only go after the urban poor and leave the rich to enjoy their drugs free from the threat of imminent death. His heavy-handed policies to tackle extremism restrict the local population and alienate the local Muslim communities.

Duterte owes it to the population to deliver on his pre-election promise and fix the country together. Without embracing his own mantra of fixing it “together”, when he leaves office the situation in the Philippines will be no better than when he arrived. More likely, it will be significantly worse.