DAVAO, Philippines — An Asian country with more than 100 million people, spread over 7,000 islands, the Philippines is probably best known for two things: the boxer and native son, Manny Pacquiao, who just lost a big fight, and devastating typhoons that periodically sweep across the country, leaving widespread death and destruction in their wake.
Despite the onslaught of natural disasters, Filipinos are now experiencing an economic boom, although wide economic disparities, long characterizing the country, persist. Corruption appears to be on the wane, however, with at least two former presidents parked in prison or under house arrest for such crimes.
The country may be on the rise economically, but its high population growth rate — 1.7 percent annually, as compared to 1.3 percent for Asia — presents a large barrier to sustaining the country’s finances. The country’s outmigration continues to be a lucrative source for the economy as well, with remittances flowing back to the state in crucial numbers.
At a Jesuit school in Mindanao, in the south, for example, where the students hail mostly from the region’s elite, the school’s president, in his address to the graduating seniors, deplored the economic gap. He noted that the poor were poor because society worked for those who were included and not for those who were excluded. The excluded, the president said, were often a condition created by the prosperity of the included. Those remarks sounded eerily similar to current debates on the large gulf in income distribution in the United States.
Until recently, the Philippines had endured an anemic economy that stemmed from rampant corruption; but now, its new role as a potential Asian economic tiger can be attributed to efforts by President Benigno S. Aquino III. The son of a revered former president, Benigno Aquino Jr., his economic program, combined with rigorous efforts to root out decades of corruption, have produced brisk economic growth and lower unemployment.
Last year’s growth of 6.1 percent in gross domestic product was one of the fastest in the region, according to the International Monetary Fund. For 2015, the fund expects even higher growth, 6.7 percent. Last year, unemployment fell to 6 percent, a 10-year low.
With Aquino barred by the country’s constitution from running for a second six-year term in 2016, there are fears that the country may revert to the widespread graft and cronyism of the past. Under house arrest, the most recent previous president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is charged with electoral fraud and misuse of government funds. Joseph Estrada, another former president, was convicted of corruption but later pardoned. He is now mayor of Manila, the country’s capital.
My friend’s daughter, whose graduation I attended at the Jesuit school in Mindanao, has enrolled in nursing school. She expects that with a degree in nursing, she will join the legions of similar graduates who have left the country to pursue careers abroad, preferably in the United States.
Eleven million Filipinos, or 10 percent of the country’s population, are international migrants. Of these, 1.3 million are “irregular” — another term for undocumented or illegal migrants. Regardless of their status, migrants continue to be a vital source of foreign exchange. Consequently, for decades emigration has been vigorously promoted through government schemes to ease both departure and sending remittances home.
Successive government leaders have hailed these remitters of dollars, euros, riyals and other foreign currencies as Heroes of the Republic. In 2013, remittances climbed to $27 billion, 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The Philippines is the third-largest recipient of remittances, after India and China.
By contrast, the Philippines received $12 billion in official development assistance and $4 billion in direct foreign investment in 2013. Part of the recent spurt in economic growth is attributed to remittances sent by Filipino workers overseas.
While progress on the economic front is impressive, the same cannot be said for the demographic landscape. With a population of 102 million, which has almost tripled since 1970, it is expected to climb to 157 million by 2050. With more than 80 percent of the population identifying itself as Roman Catholic, efforts to carry out family planning programs have been fiercely opposed by the church.
During a visit to the Philippines earlier this year, Pope Francis weighed in by denouncing the recent enactment of a reproductive health law to provide free female contraception, a measure the church had resisted for years, but it was supported by a wide majority of Filipino Catholics and went into effect this year. Because of church opposition, abortion as well as divorce and same-sex marriage continue to be illegal, proving the church’s strong influence on the government.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that of the country’s 3.4 million births annually, half are unintended and a third are aborted, often in clandestine, unsafe procedures. Only about one in three married women uses a modern method of contraception. Yet sex education is now compulsory in public schools and could potentially reduce the number of unintended birth and illegal abortions, while increasing contraceptive use.
Without a strong, comprehensive family planning program, the country’s fertility declines have stagnated at a comparatively high rate of 3.1 children per woman, far above the 2.2 children per woman for Asia overall. Any future economic successes the country achieves will be tempered by high population growth, as the government will have to provide for a rapidly growing population.
A quarter of the population still has incomes below $1,300 a year. Replacement fertility, a level of 2.1 children per woman, when population neither expands nor shrinks, is expected to be reached only after 2050.
What is necessary to improve the country’s future demographic and economic prospects is the provision of free, safe, simple to use, widely and readily available contraceptive methods. This will need to be complemented by enhanced efforts to improve maternal and child health and sex education, especially in shantytowns and rural areas, schools, vocational training programs, jobs and the status of women. Of course, much will also depend on the commitment of future leaders to continuing the fight against corruption.
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Barry Mirkin works as a consultant on population issues, having retired from the United Nations Population Division in 2009, having worked in New York and elsewhere for 35 years. Mirkin has written studies on such areas as population and development policy, population aging, retirement and international migration. He received his graduate training in population and economics at New York University, the University of Geneva and Princeton University. He lives in Manhattan.