by Serge Berthier

The Philippine archipelago is made up of 7,107 islands and islets, only 3,000 of which have actually been named. The three major island groups are: Luzon (the northernmost part, 77,539, Visayas (the center, 56,605 and Mindanao (the southernmost, 77,741 Owing to its numerous islands, the country has an irregular coastline that stretches 334,539 kilometers. In the Visitors’ Guide to the Philippines published in 1997, Fidel V. Ramos, President of the country, writes that the national vision of a newly industrializing Philippines will no doubt make the visitor marvel at the manner in which the Philippines have successfully harmonized tradition and innovation. The reader learns that his administration, with the support of a vast majority, is gunning to industrialize the nation in preparation for the next century.

Only two years later, we are now told by President Estrada and his Secretary for Trade and Industry, Jose Pardo, that the Philippines are “gunning” to agro-industrialize the economy by the year 2004, its so-much vaulted industrialization being, according to a leading economist, Bernardo Villegas (see interview) a white elephant with little result to show considering that the poverty level of this 73 million people country has remained steadfastly above 30% for the past twenty years. The Philippines is, the Filipinos will tell you with pride, the most westernized country in Asia, the result of four centuries of Spanish colonization and forty years of American colonization. It is the only Christian country in Asia, and therefore its culture and traditions are unique in this part of the world. Indeed where else a conference of Catholic Bishops would have the same influence as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines? Maybe only in the Vatican. Yet, the Philippines is starting to outgrow its religious heritage and to turn Asiaward rather than Westward. The illustrados, descendants of Spain, who, for generations, controlled the country with the help of the Church, enriching themselves beyond belief in the process following a practice well entrenched in Europe in past centuries, are no longer king-makers. They have to make room for the Chinese Filipinos who have emerged as the most dynamic economic force of the country since the demise of the Marcos era. As for the catholic Church, its influence is on the wane. President Ramos, a protestant, was elected against its declared will as was President Estrada.

Social scientists as well as geopolitical experts believe that the Philippines, with this unique mix of Christian and Chinese communities, can play as a bridge between the West and Asia. I am afraid that it is wishful thinking. Asia does not need a bridge and the Philippines have a hard time to find the delicate balance needed by its society to move forward. If its society is westernized, the majority, that is the 60% of it according to a survey, is considered poor. Being poor has a meaning. Although 90% of the population is said to be literate, which does not mean educated, the poor, in the countryside, live for most of them very much like their ancestors did at the heady days of the Spanish colonization, under the spell of a powerful clergy, believing in many superstitions, and very much dependent on the charities and hands-out of a rich landed class that controls the political lever. As it is no longer exactly what, nowadays, one has in mind when one talks of a western way of life, one has to conclude that the western society of the Philippines is very much in the wrong century. But although the majority of its society is in the wrong century, the rest of it is very much aware of the challenges of our time. Education in the Philippines, and particularly the education of women, often neglected in other parts of Asia, has, over the years, reached Western-style levels.

However the sad state of the country's economy resulted in the migration of 755,684 Filipinos (not 3 million as Amando Doronila writes in this issue), among them highly educated and well-trained professionals, financial circumstances creating sometimes extraordinary situations where the bilingual maid from the Philippines has a university degree while her employer in another Asian or Middle-East countries has little or no education to speak of.

The Philippines have, time and time again, squandered opportunities to alleviate poverty and to develop into one of the best economies of Asia. It would be easy to blame the Filipinos themselves for their predicament but they are, in a large part, the victims of the western faith in new political and economic theories which, as Dr Mahathir, Prime Minister of Malaysia said in Asian Affairs : "may not be challenged despite the obvious harm they do to many societies". There have been endless debates about economic theories, but very little has been written about poverty alleviation. It is not because we have yet to agree on what is economics' purpose. It is because there is among economists an axiomatic belief that a positive impact on productivity and profitability, the only measures that really counts in a capitalist economy, brings automatically a positive impact on poverty. But it is wrong because it does not take into account the income distribution factor. As the Philippine technocratic development strategy of the 1960s showed, when such factor is overlooked, the higher the productivity, the poorer the poor. Although food production doubled in a decade, it did not benefit the poor or the mildly poor. Wages declined so much, that even in urban areas, in 1980 the real wages were less than half the 1962 level. The economists have a name for such phenomena in which the slices of the rich in the economic pie grow while those of the poor shrink. It is called strong polarization. The Philippines has strong polarization and has done nothing about it. In the end, 20% of the population share 50% of the GDP, and another 20% share only 3%. And the new global order will not change it but might actually make it even stronger, that is worse and not better. Ultimately, an economic strategy never challenges an inegalitarian economic order. It is up to the political establishment to take up the challenge, and in the Philippines, it was simply not done. (Ironically, it is Marcos, surrounding himself with technocrats during his first term, who came the closest to do it, but then, like the aging Soeharto, he lost his way and the opportunity was gone). Today President Estrada says he wants to do it. Whether he will succeed or fail is a matter of speculation. However, the stakes are against him, because he is up, not only against many conventional economic rules and the deflationary effects of globalization, but also because his policies challenge the Philippines system of governance which is characterized by an oversized bureaucracy, which is thriving on the ghost of the Marcos era and the myth of democracy. They also challenge old habits which, we know, do not die easily. Are democracy and a strong civil society, which the Philippines enjoy, two main assets in the battle against poverty? I am not really sure. I wish luck to President Estrada in his fight against poverty.

Serge Berthier