New Neda chief to focus on ‘inclusive growth’

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'I hope I can help on the poverty alleviation efforts of the government because that's really close to my heart' - Balisacan

ARSENIO BALISACAN. The UP economics dean is strong on poverty alleviation and rural development. Photo by Buck Pago

MANILA, Philippines – As the the economic team was rolling out the red carpet for high-level delegates of the recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting, changing of the guards at a key economic agency was also being worked on.

On Thursday morning, May 3, the 2nd day of the 45th ADB Annual Governors Meeting at the PICC and SMX Center, President Aquino met with University of the Philippines (UP) economics dean Arsenio Balisacan to chat about “inclusive growth.”

Incidentally, or suggestively, that was also the theme of the Manila-hosted ADB gathering.

“I told the President earlier I’ll do my own share,” Balisacan told Rappler on Saturday, May 12, when news of his appointment as acting chief of Neda was  announced. 

Balisacan added, “He (Aquino) already knows my work on poverty alleviation and rural development,” which fits the requirement of a person who will head the government’s economic planning agency.

After that meeting at Malacañang, Balisacan proceeded to the ADB meeting upon the invitation of incumbent Neda director-general Cayetano Paderanga Jr. They sat together in a seminar led by a Stanford University professor whose work both UP colleagues are familiar with. 

Balisacan chatted some more with Paderanga about the Neda post, which is about to be vacated. Paderanga’s family has been requesting him to give up the government post so he could take a rest. 

Deputy Secretary Abigail Valte confirmed on Saturday via a radio show that Paderanga resigned over health issues.

Last Friday, May 11, Balisacan said his appointment papers from the Palace were sent to his office in UP, but he wasn’t there. He will start reporting at the Neda headquarters in Pasig City on Monday, May 14.

Inclusive growth

Balisacan is low-key but is well-regarded among groups of development economists, policy makers, academe, and funding agencies here and in the region.

He said he hopes to tap on his poverty alleviation expertise as he steers Neda towards more rural development-related efforts.

“I hope I can help on the poverty alleviation efforts of the government because that’s really close to my heart,” he said.

“My interest is really is getting the growth process to be more inclusive because our experience is, we have [economic] growth but it does not spread to the poor,” said the author of several books and academic papers on poverty and development. 

“Even the President understands that we are so Manila-centric. You’ve seen some of my mumbers, the poverty is in the countryside. If we tackle that, even urban problems will be mitigated,” he added.

He said the much touted and big ticket items under the banner public-private partnership (PPP) program is not enough to address poverty since these projects, too, are concentrated on the country’s capital.

“PPP is just one of the many tools to get people work, but it can’t be the one-for-all solution for our problems. These projects are very attractive [to investors] for urban areas because there is market growth here,” he stressed.

Projects that involve “highways in the provinces or irrigation for small farmers,” among others, are infrastructure projects that “address rural problems but are not really attractive for PPP investors,” he explained.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are opportunities and challenges to get these done as a government official, some of which have already been laid out for him by his predecessor.

View of the inside

Given his previous stint as Agriculture undersecretary, is the Neda portfolio something he will immerse in easily?

“I’ve been an observer from a distance. But we will see the dynamics inside. I know it’s not as simple as it appears from the outside,” he shared.

Neda is a coordinating body and a secretariat of other agencies that have an impact on the country’s ability to meet long and short-term economic growth and social targets.

“There are many processes in place, including inter-agency coordination, social development meetings and more. Neda works closely with other agencies, and there I will stress inclusive growth. I will share my expertise and give a feel of what’s out there,” he said. –

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