Autonomy, decentralization, and poverty

By Joshua Corcuera

In a centralized state, one where economic growth is centered in the capital and its surrounding areas, underdevelopment and slower growth is a real concern in faraway provinces and the countryside. Here in the Philippines, for example, the existence of the so-called Imperial Manila has favored the capital region at the expense of provinces and rural areas. We can see this in the minimum wage per region where Metro Manila has the highest minimum wage. Moreover, the most prominent schools and hospitals are found in the capital region, and infrastructure projects are overflowing in the same territory. Thus, decentralizing economic growth is of utmost importance, so that all people would enjoy a high standard of living which everyone must have a right to. This can be attained through several means, one of which is to increase autonomy to rural regions so that projects and investments for the countryside would not need the long, grueling process in the capital.

There is a caveat, however. Decentralizing is not an automatic assurance of inclusive growth to rural regions. For instance, India, the second-most populous country in the world, home to over 1.3 billion people, is a federal parliamentary republic. As a federation, it is a political entity of self-governing states—28 states and 8 union territories, to be precise. Despite this, our country boasts a slightly higher human development index and gross domestic product per capita. While India has the third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, its enormous population would mean that their economy per capita is not very high at all. While development is not centralized in their capital, New Delhi, this is possibly because of similarly rapid growth in other large cities in other states such as Chandigarh, joint capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana. To be fair with the enormous South Asian country, it is currently seen as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and is likely to lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty in the coming years.

From this case, however, we can see that adopting or resorting to a system of decentralization does not automatically guarantee that states (or provinces, from a Filipino perspective) outside the capital would grow. Sure, there might be one or two or three provinces that would be as developed as the capital, but some rural areas would still lag behind. One possible explanation is how such states or provinces utilize their autonomy to keep up. Henceforth, states where poor governance, cronyism, and are rife with political dynasties, are a reality, their autonomy could not be maximized to ensure that they would grow as fast, or faster, with urban areas. Hence, it is not sufficient that decentralization is adopted, rather political maturity among the electorate, and strong demands for good governance must be championed as well.

Altogether, changing the system would be a thing to consider. Reforming it through certain improvements or overhauling it as a whole are options to choose from so that countryside development would be faster. We must remain vigilant, however, because these reforms are not a magic wand that would automatically resolve all problems, as far as rural growth is concerned, in a short period of time. More importantly, good governance is crucial so that the promise of decentralization providing equitable growth to the countryside would be realized.