(First published in the February 19, 2013 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Have our rural development efforts through the years been a massive failure? Why is it that only around 12 percent of urban families are poor, but 40 percent of rural families are? Why is it that urban poverty incidence has actually dropped from 15 to 12 percent since 1997, but rural poverty has been stuck at 40 percent over the same period?


For many years, government and international development partners have sought to address rural poverty and skewed development by pouring massive resources in direct assistance to our rural areas. Interventions have included a mix of rural infrastructure facilities, input assistance to farmers, and improved health and education services, among others. No doubt, these have been helpful and have uplifted numerous lives. Still, they seem not to have made a real dent, evidenced by the lack of improvement in rural poverty incidence over time. Micro improvements have somehow failed to translate into macro improvements that show up in the aggregate data. Where have we gone wrong?

Most of us have our favorite theories to explain this historical conundrum. Many point to how promised farm-to-market roads turned out to be “farm to pocket” roads, just one example of the corruption that has undermined otherwise sound solutions. Others blame the disparate and fragmented nature of our rural development interventions. The late Agriculture Secretary Roberto (Bobot) Sebastian used to lament government’s penchant to provide for farm-to-market roads here, irrigation facilities there, and postharvest facilities still elsewhere—never all together in the same area so they could complement one another and effectively improve the livelihoods of the farm families therein.

After pouring into our rural areas, especially in Mindanao, millions of dollars in various interventions over decades, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), among others, now believes it is time to change tack. Gloria Steele, USAID’s Philippine-born mission director in Manila, asserts that secondary cities—the so-called “Tier 2 and 3” cities—may hold the key to uplifting socio-economic conditions in the surrounding rural areas that are inextricably linked to them economically. The first-tier cities of Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao, can already stand well on their own, and ample (and in the view of some, too much) resources have already been poured into the development of these cities and their environs. But a more geographically inclusive growth would entail supporting the ability of cities like Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo City, Batangas City and others around the country to expand the scope of economic activities therein. This is because by doing so, the cities could actually “pull up” the rural local economies inextricably linked to them through existing, emergent and potential product value chains.

I have written before on how such value chain orientation has become another important “new wisdom” characterizing current approaches to promoting economic development in the countryside. The problem of low rural incomes cannot be solved simply by raising the productivity of farmers and fishers via input and technology assistance; it must be viewed in the context of the entire value chains linking them to the final consumers. Strengthening the primary producers’ access to and control over their value chains would ensure that growth in the regional cities would pull up, rather than isolate, the rural areas where such primary producers are. Measures to achieve this include facilitation of clustering among producers, access to value-adding activities like primary processing (e.g., drying of grains or fruits, coffee roasting, etc.), improved access to credit, and others.

A secondary city-based approach also finds basis in the reality that growth trajectories of nations have historically been linked closely to urban environments, with cities serving as engines of growth. Furthermore, secondary cities (rather than megacities like Metro Manila) have tended to be the locus of urban growth and urban population concentration in more recent times. As important contributors to national wealth and productivity, the growth of secondary cities needs to be planned and managed well so that they can truly become engines for growth and innovation, as well as improved quality of life.

To this end, USAID’s new Cities Development Initiative seeks to facilitate the proper planning and management of the growth of selected secondary cities, beginning with the three mentioned above. Every province, municipality, city and barangay is in fact mandated by the Local Government Code to formulate a comprehensive development plan with accompanying executive-legislative agenda and comprehensive land use plan. From what I have seen, these local plans vary widely on quality, timeliness, completeness, people’s awareness, and manner of preparation. It is crucial that such planning exercise finds wide participation, and not just embody the ideas of a small group of experts and politicians “playing God” for the locality. The buy-in, ownership and support of the private sector, civil society and communities who will be affected by the plan must be secured if they are to help make the plan a reality. And for the regional cities that are critical growth poles to pull up their surrounding rural economies, city planning cannot be done in isolation, as the vibrancy of the city economy hinges on its links with the wider provincial and regional economy.


Rural development through better cities development? Contradictory as it may sound, this may yet prove to be the approach that finally works.

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Blog CielNo Free Lunch is the author's column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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