The Remaining Decade: The Challenge of Meeting the SDGs Under the New Normal

Simula nang ipatupad ang ECQ, nawalan ang asawa ko ng trabaho. Nawalan kami ng pagkakakitaan. Ang tanging maasahan ko po ay ang tulong ng gobyerno na ayuda. Subalit hindi po kami mapalad na nabigyan. Kaya ako po ay napilitan ihinto sa pagpapasuso sa aking anak na 1-year old para maka-extra sa fish port sa pagpili ng isda.


– A respondent of the COVID Pulse PH Survey

“While COVID-19 does not discriminate based on status or wealth, its socioeconomic impact has exposed the deep divide between rich and poor Filipinos. The wealthy have reserves to mobilize to weather any pandemic while it lasts. The poor will miss a meal and hope they will survive until the next day. This is the kind of inequality that requires a whole-of-society approach to solve.”

– Dr. Milton Amayun

Global Health, Nutrtion, and Development Specialist

Former President, International Care Ministries

Less than a decade remains—about nine years, in fact—for the Philippines to meet its targets to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequalities, and protect the planet under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 

The country has so far made significant gains since it embraced the global goals in 2015, most notable of which was that about 1.1 million Filipino families were lifted above the national poverty line between 2015 to 2018. These gains in poverty reduction were credited, to a large degree, to sustained economic growth and public spending on social protection and social services. However, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has likely reversed such gains and risks putting the country out of track to meeting the SDGs. 


State of the SDGs Before COVID-19


Before the pandemic struck, the Philippines had made significant progress in its commitments to reduce poverty and make growth inclusive. Based on national income poverty metrics, the number of poor families has decreased by more than 1.1 million from 2015 to 2018. Those living in subsistence poverty have likewise decreased by more than 650,000 during the period. Other key highlights of the 2018 poverty statistics released by the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2018, as well as other relevant data, include the following: 

  • Based on poverty thresholds that average PHP10,756 monthly at the national level. 12.1% of all Filipino families were poor in 2018, decreasing from 18% in 2015. This translates to about 3 million poor families. Subsistence poverty or food poverty, meanwhile, decreased to 3.4% (or about 840,000 families) from 6.5%. 
  • Across regions, poverty incidence remained highest in the Bangsamoro at 54.2%. Four of the five poorest provinces in the country belong to the region: Sulu (75.3%), Basilan (66.3%), Lanao del Sur (64.2%), and Maguindanao (40.6%). The fourth poorest by incidence is Eastern Samar (40.9%).
  • Despite having a low poverty incidence of 11.3%, Cebu has the largest magnitude of poor families at nearly 134,000. Cebu is followed by Sulu (110,000), Lanao del Sur (109,100), Negros Occidental (108,000), and Leyte (107,000).
  • Among basic sectors, farmers and fisherfolk remain the poorest at 31.6% and 24.5%, respectively. Poverty among farmers and fisherfolk were highest in the Bangsamoro region (69.9% and 54.3%, respectively) followed by Zamboanga Peninsula (49.8% and 35.7%) and Eastern Visayas (42.5% and 30.5%).

[Graphics: Spatial Distribution of Income Poverty]

Poverty is not just the lack of income but also deprivations of other dimensions of human development: it includes education, healthcare including food, and quality of life including sanitation. Based on the 2017 Multidimensional Poverty Index of PSA, 17.3% of Filipinos (about 18 million individuals or 3.6 million families) were multidimensionally deprived. These are key indicators of multidimensional poverty in which ZEP2030 is interested:

  • Education. 3.8% of families had a child aged 5 to 17 years old who was not in school. Meanwhile, 49.4% of families had an adult member who did not complete high school. 
  • Hunger. 0.6% of families experienced involuntary hunger at least once a week. Also, for 21.8% of families, their actual food spend was less than the food threshold. 

Additionally, based on the 2018 National Nutrition Survey, undernutrition among children below 5 had slightly decreased but remained high: 19.1% were underweight, 29.6% were stunted, 5.7% were wasted, and 3.5% were overweight.  

  • Water and Sanitation. 14.6% of families did not have access to potable water sources, while 22.6% did not have access to improved sanitation facilities. 

Also in 2019, the Philippines undertook a Voluntary National Review (VNR) of its progress in attaining the SDGs. The VNR is a nationally led and consultative process of assessment, the results of which were presented in the 2019 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The report covered Goals 4 (Quality Education), 8 (Decent Work), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 13 (Climate Action), 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Key results reported in the VNR include: 

  • Goal 4: Quality Education. Net enrolment in primary and secondary levels increased to 94.2% and 75%, respectively (from 91% and 73.6% in 2015), as well as completion and cohort survival rates. Access has been improved through reforms such as the Alternative Learning System, though gaps remain in ensuring the delivery of the K to 12 curriculum. 
  • Goal 8: Decent Work. The Philippines’ rapid growth in the previous years increased per capita income to PHP172,712 in 2018. Unemployment and underemployment rates were also reduced to 5.3% and 16.4%, respectively (from 6.3% and 18.5% in 2015), although participation rate of females in the labor force dropped to 46.6% from 50.1%. 
  • Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities. Incomes of households in the bottom 40% grew faster at 28.3% from 2015 to 2018 when compared to the whole population (21.2%). This resulted from the country’s overall growth as well as massive investments in social protection. Inequalities, however, persist among localities and social groups. 
  • Goal 13: Climate Action. Unfortunately, deaths and missing persons attributed to disasters increased to 351 and 38, respectively, per 100,000 population (from 116 and 29 in 2016); though the number of persons directly affected by disasters has declined. Local governments’ capability to implement disaster risk reduction remains limited. 
  • Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Violent crimes, particularly murder and rape, have decreased from 2015 to 2018, although these report-based statistics may inadequately show reality. Reforms promoting open government, transparency, and accountability pursued, although corruption perceptions remained static. 
  • Goal 17: Partnership for the Goals. Domestic resource mobilization has improved, with the revenue effort increasing to 16.4% of GDP in 2018 from 15.8% in 2015. Government debt servicing (compared to GDP) and interest payments (as a percent of total spending) has decreased, although there are volatile trends that need to be addressed. 



Poverty and the SDGs Under the Pandemic


According to various estimates, the COVID-19 crisis has potentially pushed about 1.5 million to 2.7 million Filipinos into poverty in 2020, reversing gains since 2015. But more than national-level estimates, how have the communities and families, whose circumstances differ, been affected by the pandemic? Unfortunately, the lockdowns prevented face-to-face data gathering on the condition of the poor under the pandemic.

ZEP2030 and UNDP thus commissioned the COVID Pulse PH to take a pulse on how the poor in the Philippines have been affected by COVID-19. The innovative survey is deployed through messenger chatbots that are socialized through ZEP2030’s networks. COVID Pulse PH was conducted in three phases, the last one covering six provinces, Metro Manila, and Metro Cebu. Conducted in March to April 2021, Phase 3 of COVID Pulse PH assesses impacts of COVID-19 on the well-being of poor families throughout the country and looks into signals for future planning. 

The results of COVID Pulse PH Phase 3 confirm that the poor have barely recovered from the onslaught of the pandemic and the restrictions that had to be imposed to control it:

  • Baseline Income. Nearly 90% of the more than 18,000 low-income households surveyed earned PHP10,000 or below per month before the pandemic struck. A majority earned their keep from informal sources of livelihood. 
  • Multidimensional Impact of COVID-19. Three-fourths of respondents experienced a decrease in their income in 2020, while another 47% lost their job or business. Income decreases were slightly higher among those with informal sources of income (76% vs. 74% among those with formal work); and were highest among seasonal or casual workers (81%), ambulant vendors (80%), and contractual workers (76%).

Substantial proportions also experienced food insecurity (41%), difficulty in accessing healthcare services (36%), and needing to stop their children’s schooling (10%). 

  • Slow Recovery in 2021. 58% of the respondents reported that their situation has so far worsened, mainly because it was difficult for them to maintain regular income due to COVID-19 restrictions, broken value chains, and dampened confidence in the economy. This most affected those who earned the least and who depended on informal livelihood.

In contrast, 12% of respondents reported an increase in their income while the situation remained the same for 30%. Among those who improved their situation, government support, securing a sideline job or business, and returning to their previous work were the most cited reasons.


[Key Infographics from COVID Pulse PH 3]


The following SDG indicators reported in the previous section have updated data during the pandemic, based on the latest SDG Watch released by PSA in 2021 and other relevant sources: 

  • Goal 1: No Poverty. Official income poverty estimates are still being collected in 2021, expected to be released the following year. On other key dimensions of poverty (based on 2020 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey):
  • Education. Of families with children aged 6-11, 13.1% of them had children who were not attending school; while of those with children aged 12-15 years old, 31.5% were not attending junior high school. Meanwhile, in 46.8% of families, the household head did not finish junior high school.  
  • Water and Sanitation. 10% of families did not have access to safe drinking water, while 19% did not have access to their own improved sanitation facilities. 
  • Goal 4: Quality Education. Although net enrolment, completion, and cohort survival rates have not yet been reported for 2020-2021, DepEd had reported that enrollment for 2020-2021 had dramatically declined by about one-fourth from the previous year
  • Goal 8: Decent Work. The Philippines under the Pandemic experienced its worst recession in decades, with GDP dropping by -9.6 in 2020. Real per capita income is now at a decreased PHP161,137. Moreover, unemployment increased to 10.3%. While underemployment slightly decreased to 16.2%, labor force participation rate was also slightly lower at 59.5% compared to 60.9% in 2018.


Conclusion: Prospects for a Better Normal for the Poor

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimates that, despite these setbacks, the government’s 2022 poverty reduction goals can still be met. Under the Updated Philippine Development Plan (PDP) for 2017-2022, strategies were fine-tuned to achieve a healthy and resilient country while pushing for a rapid economic turn-around. It set the following key programs for recovery and resilience: 1) health system improvement; 2) food security and resiliency; 3) learning continuity; 4) digital transformation; and 5) regional development. There are nevertheless significant risks to poverty reduction that loom under the volatile pandemic situation.

In an attempt to identify the many possible scenarios moving forward, ZEP2030 underwent a reflection session for 2021 to take stock of its gains and look forward to the future. Through issue mapping and foresight exercises facilitated by UNDP’s Accelerator Lab, ZEP2030 identified the following top issues that matter to the movement and how these could play out in the future:


  • Job security at risk in the new normal. The job and income losses imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected those who were already poor and vulnerable. COVID Pulse PH shows how income losses and slow recovery affect those in the informal sector worse than the rest. In addition, the chronic issue of job-skills mismatch is seen to persist into the future if education is not strengthened.   
  • Increase in LGU budgets due to Mandanas. As a result of the landmark Supreme Court decision on the Mandanas case, local government units (LGUs) will receive a windfall of resources in 2022. While this is seen as progress towards greater devolution of services, there are concerns on the LGUs’ capacity to utilize resources efficiently and effectively.  
  • Climate emergency leading to more frequent disasters. In the Philippines, the natural calamities caused by climate change disproportionately hurt the poor and marginalized, who are inadequately protected. The climate emergency is also very intimately linked to other maladies affecting the poor: from health and safety hazards, to loss of livelihood. 
  • Hunger and food insecurity on the rise. The Philippines’ progress in meeting the SDGs for ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030 had already been at risk before COVID-19 struck. The pandemic has dealt acute hunger and food insecurity and is foreseen to cause long-term disadvantages to the poor and vulnerable: their ability to learn and live productive and healthy lives are at stake.  
  • Human rights defenders at increased risk. The Duterte administration’s aggressive drive against the communist insurgency and disdain for human rights workers have also endangered the NGOs and CSOs who are working on the ground. Such risks are increasing with the upcoming 2022 elections and the violence it traditionally brings. 
  • Overlapping coalitions spreading civil society out thinly. ZEP2030 may proudly claim to be the biggest anti-poverty coalition to date. However, ZEP2030’s member-organizations are themselves part of various other interlocking coalitions and other formations on various topics–from hunger and education to open government–and some have started to express feeling overstretched through these overlapping movements. 


What does the future hold in the eyes of the poor? Through COVID Pulse PH 3, poor families were asked about the capabilities that they have and the services they can access for the new normal. They were also invited to express their aspirations for the future: 

  • Assets for Recovery. When asked to name the top three assets and capabilities that could help them thrive in the new normal, 56% of respondents said they have basic business skills. Other often-cited assets, depending on context, are ability to do online work, ownership of livestock, having technical and vocational training, etc. 
  • Transversal Skills. Respondents were also asked to name their transversal or “soft” skills that will be helpful for the new normal, and they overwhelmingly cited intrapersonal skills: majority (51%) said that they are capable of learning independently, while sizeable proportions are resourceful and enterprising and have initiative and are hardworking.
  • Access to Coping Mechanisms and Markets. Social security matters. Access to safety nets—both formal (government) and informal (personal connections and savings)—were important to the respondents for recovery. These safety nets have so far been instrumental for the few who were able to improve their income situation in 2021. For market services, 75% respondents said that microfinance, loan, or insurance agents were most accessible across all provinces. 
  • Preference for Opportunities. Majority of respondents hope to succeed in entrepreneurship in the new normal, mainly in agriculture and wholesale/retail trade and services, although industry preferences vary across different contexts.  
  • Aspirations for the Future. When asked about the top three aspirations that they have for themselves and their families, respondents said that having good livelihood (76%), enough food and basic needs (69%), and quality education for their children (41%) are most important to them. These top three aspirations are the same across provinces.

Achieving the Global Goals under the “new normal” has become more challenging. First of all, as the situation remains highly volatile. With the emergence of deadlier variants of the virus, and with no letup in the increase in cases, COVID19 could very well be a permanent pandemic, as some pundits believe. Society has also been forced to adapt to a new way of living enabled by technology: the ubiquity of Zoom, the omnipresence of chat, the rise of remote work, among others. Technology and the internet have become necessities that not all people can access. 

A third issue is the increased localization of resources and roles. Pandemic management—from administering vaccines to delivering income relief—has largely been foisted upon LGUs. With the Mandanas decision described above, more local resources could potentially be used to manage and recover from the pandemic and meet local SDGs. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for ZEP2030, through its Local Convergence work, to demonstrate the power of collective impact. For only through multi-stakeholder action—between government, civil society, business, academe, other sectors, and the people themselves—can a better normal be possible.