These days in Manila, the debate on the Reproductive Health Bill rages on. Of course, the strongest critic of the proposed legislation is the Catholic Church. Being the only predominantly christian nation in Asia, the influence of the Vatican in this part of the world is exercised through the Philippine Catholic Church. The Church obtained the support of boxing champion Manny Pacquiao who has been pronouncing arguments against the bill. It is interesting to know that Jinky, Manny’s wife, has publicly admitted that she used birth control pills. Is the Pacquiao household polarized on this issue? The RH bill debate is, indeed, a polarizing issue among Filipinos. At the bottom of this debate is the underlying notion that a well-informed citizenry would result to responsible parenthood, which would eventually help manage the growing population of the country.
This debate has once again sparked my long-standing view about the RH Bill and how it could be linked with the so-called “population as power” argument. There is this one file that contains my notes on the population policy issue from a previous work. When I opened the files, a blast of memories came flooding in. I remember how the former NSA probed and punctuated holes into my presentation. The impression that I got from him is that he has this nontraditional view about the Philippines’ burgeoning population. He wanted to conduct a study on how a large population such as ours could be tapped so we could at least attain economic, if not political power. The Philippines, a superpower by sheer large population? Was that wishful thinking on my naive mind 10 years ago?
But good ole’ NSA had my young mind asking tough questions back then. For a second there, he had me thinking about the plausibility of such an occurrence. History tells us that the old superpowers attained dominance by sending out armies to conquer new lands. Spain, Great Britain and France once commanded the biggest armies that raided continents in the name of imperial glory. And their common denominator? They had the largest populations at that time which was successfully utilized to invade lands, colonize them and perpetuate their influence through trade and political subjugation of the conquered peoples.
Even now, we see some vestiges of their clout in world affairs. The United Kingdom, France and Germany are still regional powers. But theirs have diminished with the rise of the USA and its 311 million people as the superpower of this century. India, China and Japan have wielded theirs not only in the Asian region, but has also flexed their muscles in world affairs. Don’t start me about Russia and its 138 million population. In the Latin American continent, Brazil with a population of 190 million has been demonstrating its growing affluence and rising influence in international events. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines are the world’s 4th and 12th most populous country, respectively. But do these countries command that kind of power?
Okay, so I dug my notes and these are some points:
Historically, the growth of Western economies was explained by the phenomenon called demographic transition. As fertility declines, the working-age population increases relative to the younger and older populations. THAT CREATES A ONE-TIME OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH, a DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDEND.
If we would plot the Philippines’ population in the next 40 years, we would see a peculiar characteristic. Up to the year 2050, the country would see a widening of middle portion of its population pyramid. This portion is called the youth bulge. This youth bulge would comprise the country’s future workforce, a reservoir of manpower if you like. A unique characteristic of this youth bulge is that it is bigger than the ones preceding and following it. By then, the country will have a work force constituting 68% (NSO estimates) of the total population. Just imagine the potential productivity this enormous manpower could bring if absorbed and harnessed into the country’s production activity – they are the engines that would the run economic machine of the country. Also, it can be observed that in the next forty years or so, the country would experience decreasing dependency ratio, meaning there would be less children and older people who will get support from the productive age group. When analyzed, the dependent and productive age groups will have distinct economic and social behaviors. An understanding of their behavioral patterns could aid in formulating responsive policies to make sure their behavior works in tandem with the economic goals of the country. Certain conditions have to be prepared, however. Policymakers are being challenged to make the best out of this behavior i.e. the propensity to consume in the young-age population, the need for larger pension system for the old-age retirees and the tendency of the economically active population to be mobile in search of employment.
It has been the common observation that nations lag in economic development because of their high population growth rates. But until a person reaches the productive age, he holds no purchasing power, rendering him dependent on others for his needs. In the case of the Philippines, when the young people enter the labor force, they have to contend with the reality that employment is hard to find these days and even when employment is to be found, the pay is not enough for their self-actualization needs, much less basic needs of food and shelter. As of today, a tenth of the Philippine population is working overseas in search of better employment. What has been a temporary labor policy in the 1970’s has now become a well-entrenched economic practice. The huge remittances of overseas Filipinos is the biggest reason why government maintains this policy. In its failure to generate proper jobs in the local economy, the government opted to take advantage of this labor situation. Yet this labor diaspora leaves the local economy in wanting. The more mobile labor group are those with highly valued skills and are most likely to migrate to find work. What happens is that the key human power, those that are called nation-builders, are leaving the country. No study has been done yet on this but the general view is that this could have detrimental effects for the country in the future. Combine this with a large dependent population, then we have the formula for a social volcano waiting to erupt.
But what really is happening right now? In 2000, the young age population comprised 37 percent of the total population. Add to it the 3.6 percent old-age dependent population. But it should also be noted that the supposedly productive population is already half of the total. By now, the country should have been experiencing higher than usual economic growth as translated from the entry of the productive ages into the workforce. The robust national and domestic output may be an indicator of this, but the country could still do better. Half of the country still lives in poverty. Millions of children don’t have access to quality education. which by the way, is the most important foundation of this population-as-power argument. Millions of less skilled people are no better than obsolete mobile phones in this day and age.
Now back to the RH debate. There are aspects of the population where passive intervention has no effect on population growth rate at all. Ultimately, the issue on population boils down to INFORMED CHOICE. Whether the method is natural or artificial, the important thing is that Filipinos should be made aware of the options available to them. It is their right to know the choices that family planning offers. One should not underestimate the intelligence of the Filipino people when it comes to deciding the kind of family they want and how they would live their lives. By scaring church-goers with morality fallacies, the Church may have stifled the one thing that would have liberated the Filipino’s cultural psyche when it comes to making a decisive stand on this issue. How do you prevent the masses from being gullible or from twisting the teachings of the Bible? Radical as this suggestion may seem, but perhaps, it is now high time that the Church start to be less dogmatic and begin to get in tune with the realities of our modern world. The Church as the proverbial shepherd will run out of green pastures for his flock if it remains adamant to change.
As for the population-as-power argument: Is the Philippines going to be left outside of this demographic opportunity? The demographic transition is only but a rare chance for the Philippines to capture this advantage. Is the Philippines prepared to harness its ‘population’ power? Most importantly, is the national leadership drafting a damn good blueprint on how to tap this potent human power? Does it even catch the national leadership’s imagination to inspire a skills-led development roadmap? Or will it only remain as an unrealized imagination?
Food for thought: what will the millions of young Filipinos do by 2050? Brain gain or brain drain? But that’s another topic. If indeed a large population should be the means by which a nation could become economically and politically influential, then why are the most populous countries today the poorest and the most politically disadvantaged?