Who determines who is hungry?

By: Leonor M. Briones

Governments, research groups, academics and think tanks have made it their business to determine the status of people in society. They count, sample, classify, group, estimate, develop formulas, run their computers, and voila!—one is rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, developed or underdeveloped, according to their samples, indicators and other tests. One can even be classified as sexy or frigid, peace-loving or violent, and happy or unhappy!

When a formula is changed or adjusted, one can be upgraded from poverty to middle-income. When the counting is corrected, one can be lifted from underemployment to full employment. And yes, one can be hungry or overfed, depending on the methodology!

Last week I watched Dr. Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations (SWS); Dr. Jessamyn Encarnacion, OIC-director of NSCB Social Statistics, and TV host Prof. Winnie Monsod; discuss the state of hunger in the Philippines. Mahar maintained that hunger and poverty were rising, according to the first-quarter survey conducted from March 4 to 7. The proportion of families experiencing involuntary hunger had gone up to 20.5 percent. Self-rated poverty had risen to 51 percent.

How did they count the hungry? Mahar answered that his team did asked the same simple question which they always asked: “In the last three months, did it happen even once that your family experienced hunger and not have anything to eat?”

Jessamyn explained their newly refined formula and described how they calculated the cost of food, which would provide the required minimum calories of energy per person, and matched this with income. Thus, their monthly food threshold for a family of five is P4,869, which translates to P33 per person, per day for three meals, at P11 per meal! The monthly poverty threshold for a family of five is P7,017.

Which numbers are right? The SWS numbers, which show that hunger and poverty are rising, or the government numbers, which show that poverty and hunger are on the downtrend? Who declares whether a person is hungry or not? The person or the government?

There are reasons the numbers are different, aside from the fact that the surveys were conducted during different periods. The SWS survey was accomplished in March of this year; the government data were based on the 2009 survey. The methodologies are also different, from the overall research design, timing, use or nonuse of sampling, and so on.

There is one major difference: the SWS surveys rely on how the respondents see their status—whether they are poor, hungry, happy or unhappy. Government surveys decide and classify people based on food, income and expenditures of households.

I am bothered, however, by the impression that Mahar’s survey on hunger might be less reliable because it is “based on perception” compared with that of the government’s, which is based on “facts.”

Hunger is not a perception. It is a fact. It is a reality. Beauty or even happiness can be considered a perception, but certainly not hunger! When a person is hungry, his stomach is empty. An empty stomach is a fact and not a perception.

An empty stomach growls, churns, twists and squeezes. It makes babies scream and adults groan. The pain is real; it cannot be soothed by statistics and charts.

Let us not insult the hungry by saying that the hunger they report is only a perception.

Releasing P800 billion in 3 months

The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has announced it had already released practically one-half of the P1.645-trillion budget from January to March. This means good news and bad news.

The good news is that projects scheduled for the year are already being started. It also means that efficient organizations can schedule the implementation of their plans, programs and projects without worrying about funds.

The bad news is that the release of huge allocations is putting tremendous pressure on the financial team, led by the Department of Finance (DOF). The first three months of the year are “dry” months for revenue generation. This is because major tax payments don’t start flowing in till April 15 and thereafter.

Because the DBM has been accelerating fund releases, the DOF has been accelerating its borrowings since cash is not necessarily overflowing. It is to be hoped that heightened borrowing will be covered by increased tax collections soon.

Accelerated spending should also be accompanied by accelerated monitoring and, yes, hawk-eyed auditing by the Commission on Audit. A situation where one-half of the budget was released in three months certainly calls for vigilance. Not just from the auditors but from the citizens, most of all.

(This piece originally appeared as an article of the author for the column Boiled Green Bananas found on the Business Mirror on 24 April 2011)