Upstart nation provides workers for the world

Flickr / WakxAsk the average informed first world citizen what he or she knows about the Philippines and they are likely to tell you that it is a poor, overpopulated, Catholic country, and that the “Catholic” part explains all the rest. A recent article in the Washington Post is typical of the media coverage that feeds this view: “Birthrates Help Keep Filipinos in Poverty,” ran the heading. “Contraceptives, Rejected by Government, Are Unaffordable for Many in Majority-Catholic Nation,” the subheading explained. Enough said. 

The Post’s pitch faithfully reflects the view of the global family planning industry, which has long viewed the Philippines as “that Asian upstart” for resisting a national population control program. In the past thirty years official aid agencies and non-government groups led by International Planned Parenthood have poured resources into influencing the Philippines government to enact such a program.

Whence comes this resistance? How has it benefited the Philippines?

As much of the world confronts a demographic meltdown caused by very low birth rates and ageing populations, the Philippines is in a strong demographic position to build its own social and economic wellbeing - and contribute to the workforce of the developed world.

Certainly the majority Catholic culture explains a lot. Even when other parts of the Catholic world fell in with the birth control mentality, the Philippine clergy were stalwart in their defence of the principles set out in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae 40 years ago. Asian family values have also played their part.

Now, media messages to the contrary, they stand vindicated. As much of the world confronts a demographic meltdown caused by very low birth rates and ageing populations, the Philippines is in a strong demographic position to build its own social and economic wellbeing -- as well as continue contributing to the workforce of the developed world. That is my ultimate argument in this article. But first, let us look at the facts of our country’s population. 

Population growth

According to the 2007 official estimate the population of the Philippines stands at 91 million – a tremendous leap from the 1.5 million souls estimated to be living in these islands by Fr Manuel Buzeta in 1799. For almost another century-and-a-half it continued to grow slowly, but then surged, sharing in the worldwide postwar baby boom.

At the same time it showed the effects of lower death rates owing to better nutrition, improved housing, sanitary conditions and more hygienic practices. Between 1950 and1965 the population annual growth rate was higher than 3 per cent, but by 1970 growth had levelled off. It then steadily declined to the present level of 1.76 per cent.

It is important to realise that population growth came from survival as well as births. Improved health care and nutrition helped all age groups live longer, but they had their most dramatic effect on child survival. Between 1950 and 1960 alone infant mortality fell by almost 30 per cent.

Growth momentum

The massive fall in child mortality caused population growth to gain momentum. More children surviving to adulthood created unprecedented numbers in the female population aged 15 to 49 between 1970 and 1980. Of course, this phenomenon of growth momentum is not confined to the Philippines. Generally, population “explodes” not because people are “breeding like rabbits” -- as so many think -- but because more children survive and increase the ranks of the fertile population. This is obvious when you remember that the Philippine birth rate was actually declining during this period.

What makes the Philippines a singular case is that its birth rate did not dive down as in other Asian countries, such as Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. Declines in individual fertility in those countries were sharp enough to neutralize the continued increase in their fertile population.

Demographers have coined the term “demographic dividend” to refer to the material benefits countries gain from a labour force unburdened by child support. Contending that this is what helped to launch development in these countries, the family planning industry has continually harped on the Philippines’ failure to bring down its fertility as the cause of underdevelopment and poverty.

Fertility trends

There are actually several factors behind this slower decline in Philippine fertility. A low level of contraceptive use is one of them. Among women aged 15 to 49, around a third in the Philippines used modern methods of birth control in 2002, compared with 62 per cent in Singapore, 72 per cent in Thailand and 86 per cent in Hong Kong. Sadly, in these latter countries contraception has become a lifestyle choice. Around 14 per cent of Filipinas used traditional methods, including natural family planning, and just over half used no method. Many of those who desist from using contraceptives do so because they would like have children.

Yet fertility in this country has declined, and if contraception is not the cause, what is? Fertility behaviour is a complex of biology, economics, cultural values, attitudes and opportunities. The data is difficult to collect and analyze. In order to make sense of the little data available a stylised model will serve to illustrate the multiple factors that contribute to the fall in fertility.

Consider the following life story of a hypothetical Filipina:
• Assume that birth spacing lasts two years after each pregnancy. Each pregnancy will require 33 months (9 + 24 = 33) to complete before the mother is ready for another baby.
• Since the woman’s fertile period lasts 15 to 45 year (30 years or 360 months) this gives a theoretical maximum of 10 pregnancies over the entire reproductive period.
• She then sets aside 6 years to study (4 year college course and roughly 2 years to prepare for a qualifying board exam etc.)
• Then she works for 10 years before she gets married.
• Upon marriage the couple decides to delay pregnancy for another 2 years
• Then her husband works abroad for 5 years.

If all these factors are realised a woman will forego 82 per cent of her (theoretical maximum) fertility and end up having less than two pregnancies.

Obviously this is not happening in the majority of cases, but official data confirm that the model indicates a trend:
• The average age of marriage for Filipinas is rising and in 2000 stood at 24.56 years.
• The average age of a Filipina mother when her first child is born is also 24.
• Average space between births is increasing and could be around 2.5 years by now.
• There is also an increasing number of women not married by age 35, consistent with global trends.
• Finally, there are about 10 million Filipinos working abroad, and it is reasonable to assume that this would have a substantial impact on delayed or foregone pregnancies.

Impact on age structure

We have seen that for population growth to slow down a drastic fall in fertility is needed to counteract the continued rise in the fertile population. A drastic fall, however, means a shrinking of the youth population relative to older age groups. And this reversal of the traditional age structure is hastened by the better living standards and health care that increase life expectancy in both the developed and developing worlds. Thus a rapid decline in fertility goes hand in hand with the ageing of the population.

This can be seen in our Asian neighbours. Singapore, with a birth rate of 1.26 children per woman, has a median age of 37.5. Hong Kong’s birth rate is even lower at .97, and its median age is 39. Its repatriation to China delays some of the effects of ageing, but we all know China has its own problems. Thailand, a late beginner in the birth control stakes, has brought its birth rate down to 2 children and its median age has risen to 27.5. 

But that is not the end of the story. Once the shrinking birth cohorts grow up to reach the fertile age the fertile population will also start shrinking, and the combined effect of low fertility and the shrinking fertile population will reinforce each other to bring about population implosion. The process is already well under way in Japan.

Arguing the Philippine case

Against this background, the Philippine resistance to population control seems vindicated. Even after 40 years of family planning its birth rate is 3.05. It remains a young population with a median age of 22.7. Some 56 per cent of its people are under 25. The slowness of its fertility decline preserved the birth cohort from shrinking radically. This has preserved the healthy triangular configuration of its age structure. “Healthy” because as long as this configuration persists the labour force will not decline—the size of the population retiring and joining the ranks of the elderly will always be smaller than the size of the population joining the ranks of the labour force. The Philippines will not be facing the inevitable social security crisis of the ageing populations.

Certainly the country has a poverty crisis right now. The economy is performing badly compared to our Asian neighbours. The family planning industry blames this on our recalcitrant attitude to birth control. But there are at least three serious handicaps to the Philippine economy: the heavy burden of foreign debt servicing we faced in the late 1980s after the Marcos regime, the graft and corruption of our politicians, and gross economic mismanagement.

Nevertheless, even in the current period of slowed growth the Philippines has sustained GDP growth of over 5 per cent. Guess what is fuelling this growth? Unable to enjoy a level economic playing field at home, millions of Filipinos have gone abroad and it is their remittances that are keeping the economy afloat. This would not have been possible if the Philippines had opted to accept family planning the way its Asian neighbours did.

There is another way of looking at it. Most developed countries have gradually developed a service economy, and their shrinking labour force pushes up their demand for migrant workers. The Philippines has precisely that pool of skilled migrant workers to push its economic growth by exporting services -- to meet the requirements of the first world.

Linda Valenzona is currently General Manager of the Ayala Multi-purpose
Cooperative in Manila. She is a former lecturer in economics at the
University of the Philippines and a former Assistant Secretary for
Legislative Affairs, Department of Social Welfare and Development. She
is also a consultant to Pontifical Council on the Family.


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