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Opinion

Hidilyn Diaz inspires the Philippines to believe in more than miracles

Country can advance economically with the right government support

| Philippines
Hidilyn Diaz celebrates on the podium after winning the gold medal in the women's 55kg weightlifting event on July 26: the link between the Philippines' putative wealth and its performance in worldwide competition is rather jagged.   © AP

Criselda Yabes is a journalist based in the Philippines. She is author of "The Battle of Marawi," her 10th book, which was published last year.

Philippine economic planners are aiming to reach a 25-year goal they call "ambisyon," a Filipino portmanteau combining ambition and vision. The plan is that by the year 2040, the country's middle class will dominate, per capita income will have risen by 200% and just about every family will be living in a decent home.

By that time, the Philippines will be so globally competitive that, as the undersecretary of the National Economic and Development Authority, Rosemarie Edillon, said almost wistfully last month, "We should be able to produce a Nobel laureate."

Such optimism was borne out of the astonishing, once-in-a-lifetime moment when Hidilyn Diaz won the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, besting world champion Liao Qiuyun of China in the women's 55-kg weightlifting, an achievement that Edillon said "brought a feather to our cap."

More than just a gold medal, Philippine athletes also hauled in two silvers and a bronze -- ranking second only to Indonesia among Southeast Asia's medal-winning nations.

Still, the link between the Philippines' putative wealth and its performance in worldwide competition, in the NEDA official's calculation, is rather jagged. Unlike other Asian countries celebrating their rising economic status as going hand in hand with the stuff their athletes are made of, the Philippines has always lived for miracles.

The four winners who brought home the medals were from the backwater regions of the southernmost island, Mindanao, their family origins impoverished.

Everyone knows that Hidilyn Diaz's journey to becoming her country's only Olympic champion began with her having lift gallons of water each day for her family, whose ramshackle neighborhood was not equipped with running water.

When she was training for the Olympics, Diaz was bashed on social media for asking for more money to finance her team -- which was a lot less than what other countries would spend for a potential gold medal winner. As for the other three medalists, they all came from boxing, the archetypal poor man's sport.

Silver medalist Nesthy Petecio's father was a farmer who taught her how to box. Carlo Paalam was a scavenger before he picked up his first pair of boxing gloves. Eumir Marcial's father was coach of the local boxing team in the same city where Diaz grew up.

Not until recently has the government, through a special law, offered an incentive of 10 million pesos ($200,000) for any athlete who could bring home a gold medal. The incentive package included other social service benefits that a majority of Filipinos abysmally do not have access to. For Diaz alone, business tycoons added to her financial haul five times more than what the government provided, making her a multimillionaire the true meaning of her victory.

But when it comes NEDA's plan to promote ambisyon, it is not even the grand dream of prosperity that is waiting at the end of the rainbow. NEDA's development plan, culled from surveys made in 2015, is based on respondents saying they would be happy just to have a balanced family life, a sturdy roof over their head, good health and peace. In short, they would like to have what their parents could not afford, many of whom were forced to live from hand to mouth.

NEDA's optimism had to be scaled back in light of the pandemic, with the agency either downscaling its forecasts or adapting to the new normal dependence on digital technology -- which is not exactly a bright spot in the scheme of things.

Residents queue to receive cash assistance from the government following the imposition of lockdown at an elementary school in Manila on Aug 11: NEDA's optimism had to be scaled back in light of the pandemic.   © Reuters

Mahar Mangahas, an economist at the Social Weather Stations social and political research organization, said that poverty has equated to unhappiness in surveys spanning three decades from the 1990s. Measurement of progress, he said, should not be derived from GDP figures, but from how the people feel the economic impact in their daily consumption.

The worst years of the last three decades were between 2002 and 2008, gradually opening to a wider space with more people describing themselves as "fairly happy" in the years leading up to the arrival of the pandemic in 2020. What really helped was when Manila began distributing conditional dole-outs in rural villages in 2010 in exchange for ensuring children's education. Despite this, half of Filipino households have not completed high school.

Today, nearly 50% of Filipino households say they are poor, and about 13% say they have suffered hunger -- a situation so volatile that it might continue to spike during the intermittent pandemic lockdowns. Such levels of poverty, triggered by joblessness, could be of a "catastrophic" magnitude not seen in 30 years, Mangahas told reporters.

Starvation is what he would call "undeserved unhappiness," and it is the country's "social obligation" to lessen this. "The community should do something about it," he said in reference to the ayuda plastic bags of rice, canned food and instant noodles that were given to families at the start of the pandemic but which have diminished this year.

Suffering starts at the very bottom of society, Mangahas added, and this is where policy planners should focus their attention, to work out how our country can move up. As Olympic gold medalist Diaz said to the young dreamers of today, "You can have this dream of gold too."

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