Economic secretary a marathon runner

Arsenio Balisacan, the 56-year-old Cabinet secretary in charge of economic planning and development, can accomplish something most men half his age would never even attempt. He can run a marathon, the full 42-kilometer distance.

Balisacan joins the Makiling Run
Balisacan, the economic planning secretary and director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority, regularly runs 15 to 20 kilometers in the morning, and only his government position keeps him from doing it more frequently.

“Before I joined the government, I ran five times a week. Now, it is just three times a week,” says Balisacan, an Ilocano.

He runs regularly to train for marathon this year, after completing one in Hawaii in 2012.  It was in Hawaii where he discovered the sport of long-distance race, three decades ago.

“I acquired the running habit while I was working on my doctoral degree [in Economics] in Hawaii. That was in the early 1980s,” he says.

He began with 10-kilometer and half a marathon (21-kilometer) distances, before fully developing the skills and stamina for a full marathon several years later.

“My runs then were limited to the 10K to 21K distances. My really first full marathon, the 42K variety, came much later, in the late 1980s when I joined the PAL International Marathon in Manila,” he says.

Balisacan has joined long-distance races in the Philippines and abroad. “I never left long distance running [over 15K] since then, though there were years when I skipped 42K marathons,” he says.

“The last one I had was the 2012 Honolulu Marathon. I had my best time ever in that marathon. I plan to have one full marathon this year,” he says.

Running, or brisk walking, is one of the best types of physical exercise and it is free, although Balisacan says runners need to protect their feet.  He considers his running shoes as his only luxury.

As a serious runner, Balisacan invests in shoes.  “I’ve tried them all, but I’ve always been a fan of Nike shoes,” Balisacan says.  “That’s my only luxury—running shoes.”

While he is not endorsing any brand, Balisacan says running shoes should be comfortable and suit the feet perfectly.  “At around P7, 000, you can own pretty good running shoes,” he says.

Balisacan was born and raised in Solsona, Ilocos Norte in 1957.  He graduated “magna cum laude” from the state-run Mariano Marcos State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture in 1979.

He also earned a Master of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños in 1982 and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1985.

Balisacan worked at the World Bank in Washington D.C. in 1986 to 1987, before returning to the country to become a leading economist with expertise on poverty reduction, rural development, income inequality and globalization.  He joined Neda in May 2012 and was confirmed as director-general by the Commission on Appointments, a congressional body, a year later.

People are often intimidated by the mere presence of Balisacan, because of his unparalleled works as a top economist, author and academician.  As an economist, he knows that gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to resolve the country’s poverty problem.

“Notwithstanding gains achieved in the areas of economy and governance, we still need to do more to achieve inclusive growth,” he tells businessmen during a recent economic briefing organized by the Management Association of the Philippines.

Balisacan makes sure he is fit to run the daily chores at Neda, which includes advising the president on economic issues and recommending infrastructure projects and development programs that the developing country needs.

Exercise keeps him fit and refreshes his mind to deal with the complex economic problems and poverty issues that are unique to the Philippines and its people.

The economic chief, who is also an Economics professor at the University of the Philippines, does not seem to mind running a 20-kilometer stretch around the UP compus in the morning to keep him in shape.  Before he joined Neda, Balisacan served as the dean of the UP School of Economics and executive director of the Philippine Center for Economic Development from 2010 to 2012.

It is also not the first time he served in the Cabinet, as he became an Agriculture Undersecretary for policy, planning and research from 2000 to 2003.

At the Agriculture Department, he was the top chief negotiator in the World Trade Organization’s agriculture issues.

From 2003 to 2009, Balisacan served as director-chief executive of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study & Research in Agriculture and president of the Human Development Network.

As an academician, Balisacan taught at UP and the Australian National University.  As an economist, he was elected president of the prestigious Philippine Economic Society in 2006.

At Neda, he advises the president on economic issues.  Along with the Bangko Sentral and the Finance Department, Neda is credited for steering the economy toward a 7.2-percent GDP growth in 2013, following a 6.8-percent expansion in 2012, something that has not been achieved in recent past.

More importantly, the two consecutive years of growth above 6.5 percent are expected to be sustained until 2016.  Balisacan says the Philippine economy is expected to grow 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent in 2014; 7 percent to 8 percent in 2015; and 7.5 percent to 8.5 percent in 2016.

“In a nutshell, we are on track with respect to our economic targets as laid out in the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016. The country has achieved remarkable progress in being able to sustain its growth momentum, even exceeding planned growth targets,” says Balisacan.

Last year, the Philippines was also accorded investment credit rating status by three major debt watchers including Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s.  This has attracted the attention of global investors, who now seriously look at the Philippines as a thriving economy, offering growth opportunities for businesses.

“The remarkable performance of our economy is supported by strong macroeconomic fundamentals, marked by low and stable inflation, favorable interest rates, sustainable fiscal and external positions, and stable financial sector,” says Balisacan.

Balisacan says despite the remarkable economic performance, the population deemed poor based on official poverty lines has remained high since 2003, with about a quarter of the population considered income poor.

“In addition, the generation of more decent, productive, and high quality jobs that provides adequate income for the Filipino workers continues to be a major challenge,” he says, pointing to unemployment rate of about 7 percent and an underemployment rate of close to 20 percent.

Balisacan says the more important challenge is how to achieve inclusive growth, which means a greater segment of the population should enjoy the benefits of a growing economy.

“The twin problems of poverty and unemployment require no less than sustained high economic growth, deliberate programs and policies to enable the poor to participate in the growth process and reduce vulnerabilities to shocks,” he says.

“Since achieving high economic growth is necessary but not sufficient for inclusive growth, we aim for a substantial improvement in the labor and employment situation in the country.  Our goal is to reduce the unemployment rate from 7 percent in 2012 to 6.5 percent to 6.7 percent in 2016,” he says.

Balisacan says the government also aims to reduce income poverty from about a quarter of the population to a range of 18 percent to 20 percent by 2016, although this will fall short of the Millennium Development Goals target of 16.6 percent by 2015.

As an economist, Balisacan believes that the private sector, with the help of the government, has a greater role to play to create jobs and thus reduce the number of income-less Filipinos.

“We acknowledge that the overall development of the country is ultimately a product of the dynamism of the private sector,” he says.  “The role of government is to set the necessary policy and regulatory framework and provide public goods and services to catalyze private initiative and encourage efficiency improvements.”

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