Poverty in the Philippines has regressed to levels last seen eight years ago and the government must act decisively to stop the problem getting even worse, experts say.
The poverty rate has increased to 40 percent of the population in 2000 after steadily declining from 1985 to 1997, when the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis and the El Nino weather phenomenon, researchers from the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) told a briefing.
Poverty has been a chronic problem in the country, stoked by one of the highest population growth rates in Asia and rising unemployment.
"It is extremely important for the Philippines to break away from old patterns if it is to win the battle against poverty," said Rosario Manasan, a PIDS researcher.
She said agrarian reforms and measures to boost farm production would directly benefit the poorer sectors while the cash-starved government should find new sources of revenue to fuel more poverty alleviation programs.
Experts say the government should also review its policy of strictly controlling its budget deficit, which has restrained spending.
According to recent government studies, 39.6 percent of the 78 million Filipinos live on less than US$0.75 a day.
Based on international standards, the Philippines is worse off than many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, with 26 percent of the population earning less than US$1 a day.
This compares to 11 percent in Indonesia, 4 percent in Malaysia and 1 percent in Thailand.
Celia Reyes, another PIDS researcher, also said the country's high population growth rate of 2.4 percent further complicated the struggle against poverty.
She contrasted the figure with Thailand, which had a population growth rate of just 1.4 percent.
An active population management program is essential to alleviating poverty in this country, the researchers warned.
However, the dominant Roman Catholic church has stringently opposed all moves by the government to curb the birth rate.
Reyes also warned that despite a recent economic recovery, the country faced deepening rural poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor.
Manasan said their findings showed that while economic growth, which rose to 3.4 percent last year, benefited everyone, the rich enjoyed more benefits than the poor.
This was evident from figures showing less than 25 percent of the population in urban areas living in poverty compared to more than 54 percent in rural areas, Reyes said.
In Manila, for example, only 11 percent were considered poor but in a Muslim autonomous region in the south more than 71 percent were trapped in poverty, with four out of 10 people not even getting enough to eat, Reyes said.
Rural poverty has fuelled decades of violent insurgent movements in the Philippines, including a nationwide Maoist communist guerrilla movement and various Muslim separatist groups in the south.
Politicians such as deposed president Joseph Estrada have also played on the conflict between rich and the poor to threaten to destabilize his successor, President Gloria Arroyo.
Reyes also said malnutrition among children aged five and under had risen, warning "enough food is available but many do not have enough income to purchase the food they need."
Despite its setbacks, Manasan said the government's key target of cutting the poverty rate to about 22.6 percent by 2015 is attainable if economic growth is accelerated and population growth reduced.