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High-Level Session on “Reshaping Economic Development through Empowerment of Women in Science” 5th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly

Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Undersecretary Adoracion M. Navarro National Economic and Development Authority Government of the Philippines
UN Headquarters, New York


Thank you for the introduction, your excellency. Distinguished delegates, good afternoon. I am honored to be here upon the invitation of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust and the International Chamber of Commerce.

Economic development is a topic that challenges the field which people have called “the dismal science.” I have actually endured that label given my PhD in Economics, but my experience in economic planning and implementation is far from dismal or cheerless, I must say. Instead, I have seen hope, inspiration, and progress in one set of economic programs… and then hope, inspiration, and progress in another set of programs… and so on. How can you not hope that economic policies would be successful if those are backed by hard science? How can you not be inspired by unprecedented impacts, like lifting almost 6 million Filipinos from poverty in three years, as had happened in our fight against poverty from 2015-2018? How can you not consider it progress when there is voluntary withdrawal by recipients from the country’s primary poverty-reduction program, for the reason that they no longer consider themselves poor?

The 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) Gender Gap Report notably highlights that in the East Asia and Pacific Region, the Philippines ranked second in closing the gender gap, as it has closed 78.1% of the gender gap, next to top-ranked New Zealand, which has closed 79.9% of its gap. Notwithstanding this progress, we remain steadfast in further promoting the participation of women in our economy.

The Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, which is our first medium-term economic development plan grounded on our long-term vision of a Philippines with zero poverty by 2040, lays down many strategies related to science, technology and innovation. We find these strategies imperative due to rapid advances in technology brought by Industry 4.0. According to a 2017 study by the International Labour Organization, 49% of jobs in the Philippines are at high automation risk over the next two decades.[1]

At a time when we are considering the impacts of Industry 4.0 on the labor force, we are also being increasingly concerned with the stagnant labor force participation rate of Filipino women. Given this concern, the Philippine government, through the National Economic and Development Authority, commissioned a study to identify the factors affecting female labor force participation. The results of the study (a science-based one I assure you, as economics is still a science, dismal it may seem to others) showed that Filipino women are more likely to withdraw from the labor force at 25 to 29 years old, their peak childbearing age. Stereotyped gender roles also figured as a factor affecting female labor participation rate. Thus, we have been advocating for policy reforms that would counter this, such as expanded maternity leave, extended paternity leave, and stronger enforcement of the Telecommuting Law.

The Philippine Development Plan also highlights steering career interest toward Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture and Mathematics (or STEAM, with “A” for agriculture), as well as increasing funding for science, technology and innovation. With respect to funding, last year, we formulated two important policies addressing this—first is the Innovative Startup Act, with the funds for startups determined by the science, technology, and trade departments; and second is the Philippine Innovation Act, which established an initial amount of one billion pesos as Innovation Fund, lodged at the National Economic and Development Authority.

But funding may be easier to solve than changing the perceptions on role models in science. This is an area of concern expressed by various speakers since yesterday, and the Philippines has the same concern. But let me share that we are not lacking in women scientist role models. For instance, one of our World War II heroines is a scientist—Maria Orosa, a pharmaceutical chemist and food technologist. When the Philippines was dragged into World War II, Orosa joined the guerilla forces and one of her food inventions—Soyalac, made of soybeans and rice bran—proved useful. She risked her life smuggling Soyalac into prison camps and saved the lives of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war. Orosa is also credited for inventing banana ketchup, which she invented due to a lack of tomatoes during World War II. (Nowadays, the banana ketchup is a big industry and the condiment is a common feature in Asian tables and an exotic feature in international cuisine.) Orosa died when shrapnel hit her body during the Battle of Manila on February 13, 1945, but she left behind over 700 food tech recipes from her experiments.

We also have the late Dr. Fe Villanueva Del Mundo. She invented a wooden incubator, which was used in rural areas without electricity, and  rendered eight decades of pioneering work in pediatrics and public health. She received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize, in 1977. She exhibited groundbreaking achievements at a time when men dominated science and medicine.

Several Filipino women have followed suit in using science to reshape economic development and uplift the lives of Filipinos. They are too many to mention here, but attending this international assembly made me realize that there is still so much to be done in further drawing attention to them as role models in science, and that I as an official in an economic planning agency should work harder toward that. Happy extended celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to you all! And, as we say in the Philippines, Mabuhay!


[1] ILO. (2017, June). ASEAN in Transformation: How Technology is Changing Jobs and Enterprises. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/---ilo-manila/documents/publication/wcms_590071.pdf