FORMER Socioeconomic Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia recently lamented the high Philippine population growth rate that had caused the stunting of the economic growth of the nation. Pernia was the sixth of six former NEDA heads who spoke at the UP School of Economic Auditorium in 2023- reflecting “50 Years of Economic Policy-Making.”
He narrated that it was in the mid-1970s that the country’s population growth rate policy, mainly through the pressures coming from the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative growths, egged president Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. to follow a conservative route. He did so for political expediency.
Family planning, which is the core of the population-control program, has been a failure in the country compared to our neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region and partially caused the Philippines to lag behind economically. He said reducing the fertility rate (leading to demographic transition) leads to economic growth, savings rate and inclusivity when coupled with correct government policy.
Such population policy, Pernia asserts, can lead to as much as “one-third of a nation’s economic growth.” Thailand had the same population as the Philippines before the year 2000 and the two diverged into different economic growth paths due to differences in population control policy.
Results vs. Asean
PERNIA presented a set of economic and population data from various sources (2021-2022) showing that the Philippines has the highest population growth rate of 1.6 percent (more current data shows it at 1.9 percent). The best ratio is Thailand with only a 0.25-percent population growth.
Our population of 117 million, on the other hand, is the second-largest after Indonesia at 279 million; and our median age of 25.7 is the youngest in the region.
Countries in the comparative analysis included Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Poverty incidence in the Philippines of 18.1 percent was the 6th worst in the group of 8; only better than the 18.3 percent of Laos and 24.8 percent of Myanmar. “Gross Inequality,” or disparity in wealth, showed the Philippines to be in the worst situation (42.3) with Vietnam with the most democratically spread wealth among its populace at 35.7.
The 2023 projected per capita gross national product of the Philippines at $3,764 is the 8th worst in a nation-list of 11 countries: the Philippines is only better than lowly nations like Laos, Cambodia, East Timor and Myanmar.
ASIDE from population policies leading to better employment opportunities, enhanced savings rates and higher economic growth, human capital is the most important resource of the nation. Pernia postulates that it is important to shift the emphasis in both policies and budget allocation towards more towards health and education rather than physical infrastructure.
Unfortunately, realities on the ground indicate that physical infrastructure projects attract more PPPs since they are more lucrative to the private sector partner and even Official Development Aid (ODA). Theoretically, such a happenstance (PPP/ODA participation) should free some of the public sector budgetary funding sources towards the human and the social. But does it, really?
Lesser investments in schools and hospitals have led to unfortunate consequences. According to one of the panelists, Dr. Jaine Galvez-Tan, the Philippines has a very poor hospital bed/population ratio. Further, he said that even if the Philippines prides itself of having a so-called “sweet spot” of the young populace (primarily between 15-25 and even up to 35), the stunting of kids due to malnutrition and general poverty as they grow up has resulted in a “poor quality” of this “sweet spot.”
For instance, the Philippines is the leading nation with HIV-infected people, a very-high teenage pregnancy situation (and all its dire consequences) and tuberculosis is still a curse among many. Of the 194 flagship projects of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., only five are related to health, laments Galvez-Tan.
In education, the Philippines spends only one-third per student compared to what Thailand spends. One-fourth of the Philippines population or about 29 million are enrolled in K-12; but the budget allocation is minuscule compared to the Asean peers.
Ninety-five kids die daily from malnutrition and one-third of children below 5 years old are malnourished. It is a tragedy since the brain of a 5-year-old child is already 90 percent of the size of an adult. Thus in a survey of 10 Asian nations, the Philippines was ranked at the bottom in that 90 percent of the Filipino kids aged 10 could hardly read a simple text.
Indeed, schools and hospitals need trained teachers and medics and maintenance to ensure human development. We direly lack both and these institutions are not even distributed equitably nationwide.
Pernia emphasized the need for a more enlightened population-growth policy and more funds for human and social infrastructure over the physical.
Bingo Dejaresco, a former banker, is a financial consultant, media practitioner and author. He is a Life and Media member of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (Finex). His views here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex and the BusinessMirror. E-mail: Dejarescobingo@yahoo.com.