The Philippines is chasing a 'demographic sweet spot'. Will it fall off a cliff?

We history buffs just love demography. Why? Because demography makes, shapes and orchestrates all that history. A sterling example is found in that lush South Pacific archipelago known as the Philippines.

So here goes.

On Easter Sunday, March 31, 1521, Captain Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet chaplain Father Pedro Valderrama celebrated the first Roman Catholic Mass in the Philippines. In just a few weeks, well over 2,000 natives were received into the Church. Today the Philippines is the only Christian country in East Asia.

But in Magellan’s time not everyone was on board to convert. Unfortunately, the good captain got embroiled in tribal politics, confronting the forces of the anti-conversion Lapulapu, chief of tiny Mactan Island. Magellan was killed in the ensuing battle.

Four decades later Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived from Mexico and established Spanish dominion that endured for over 300 years. The US seized it in the Spanish-American War. After a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, the Philippines became independent in 1946.

The sovereign Philippines, heavily dependent on US aid, is a Pacific outpost of the American Empire. This vexes China, which is quite uptight about the spectre of maritime containment by Western-allied East Asian powers, namely Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Ethnically, most Filipinos would qualify as “Pacific Islanders” under the rubric of the US Census. They are of mostly Austronesian stock, a group with roots in ancient Taiwan that migrated all over the place beginning about 3,500 years ago.

The Philippines has close to 200 distinct ethnolinguistic groups. Over time, people of Chinese, Spanish and other ancestries assimilated to an extent, yielding a unique though diverse Filipino identity. However, close to 10 percent of the population is Muslim, largely of Bengali origin, concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao. While Islam arrived way before Catholicism, over 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic.

Nonetheless, the merciless menace of Modernity is upon them. I was not gobsmacked in the least to see the recent South China Morning Post headline: “As Asia grapples with declining birth rates, Catholic-majority Philippines wants fewer babies.”

The government claims that family planning is essential for “economic success.” This idea is nothing new. In 2014 Philippine academic Oliver M. Tuazon broke the news to MercatorNet readers:


The single, most divisive issue in contemporary Philippine history—the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012—had its sequel last week when the Supreme Court of the Philippines, following a number of challenges to the law, declared it “not unconstitutional”, save for eight items which it struck down.

The RH Law, as it is popularly known, took more than 13 years to pass through Congress, and was finally railroaded through by the newly elected President Benigno Aquino. It does not legalise contraceptives in the Philippines; that happened decades ago. What’s new is that it makes contraception a public health service and birth control an official ideology.

The Philippines, rich in so many ways, is economically impoverished. According to the Philippines Statistical Authority, 23.7 percent live below the poverty level, where “per capita income is not sufficient to meet their basic food and non-food needs…”

With a total population of 113 million, that’s a lot of poor folks. According to the 2020 Census, the country’s fastest growing population is in Mindanao’s Muslim-dominated Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with a growth rate of 3.26 percent in just five years preceding the last census. Yet the nation’s overall fertility rate has plummeted from 2.7 in 2017 to below-replacement 1.9 in 2022. That’s fast.

President Bongbong Marcos has vowed to pull the country out of poverty. Fair enough. Who could be against that? The US even had a “War on Poverty” that was a spectacular failure, though it overflowed the rice bowls of many a bureaucrat and “community organizer.” Thank you, Lyndon Baines Johnson! I digress.

Secretary of the Philippines National Economic and Development Authority Arsenio Balisacan says a major reason Filipinos are not as well off as their East Asian neighbours is that “we haven’t entered the demographic dividend.” The UN Population Fund defines demographic dividend as the favourable prospects for economic growth “when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older).” In other words, an optimum dependency ratio.


Balisacan, a prominent Filipino economist, said the Philippines must capitalise on a “demographic sweet spot” in which population growth is less than the rate of growth of the labour force. The country cannot push up gross domestic product unless enough quality jobs are created.

That “demographic sweet spot” is elusive. A draconian one-child policy brought a short-lived demographic dividend to China. Now the work force falls by millions every year. Other Asian tigers did the same without coercion but lost out as well. Messing with Mother Nature is risky business.

But not to worry, say Philippine authorities. Their problem is just that they’ve got too many people for their limited resources, which impedes getting rich like the Chinese. Family planning is the solution. As Mr Balisacan assures us, “The most basic, most fundamental problem is to get our poor out of their situation and improve access to services so that everybody is lifted up.” Utopia could be just around the corner.

What is happening in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan is no secret. They hit that demographic “sweet spot” and kept going. Now they have the world’s lowest total fertility with no end in sight and are doing backflips urging folks to have children. Does the Philippine government know about that?

When I was a wee lad, my mother once told me “Son, be careful what you wish for.” Momma was right. Somebody leak that to the Philippines.


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  • Tim Lee