A Complicated Question: Why is the Philippines Poor?


MANILA — The Philippines is a country situated off the coast of mainland Asia consisting of over 7,000 islands. Despite the island country’s abundant natural resources and unique cultural and historical characteristics, widespread and severe poverty leaves much of the Philippines poor.

In 2015, 21.6 percent of Filipinos lived in poverty, placing the islands amongst the poorest Asian and Pacific countries. Of the roughly 100 million people in the Philippines, most of those living in extreme poverty reside in rural areas. Around 10 percent of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

The disappointing statistics regarding the Philippines’ poverty rate may seem surprising considering that the Philippines is an English-speaking country with Western institutions and is one of the United States’ closest allies. The Philippines’ debilitating poverty rate and dejected economic state are even more perplexing when compared to other close U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region which had far more success in economic development, industrialization and modernization.

Many of the economically formidable countries in the surrounding region also came from destitute circumstances, namely Japan and South Korea. If these countries could ascend from poverty and become global economic powerhouses, then why is the Philippines poor?

As a result of the Philippines’ incredibly unusual cultural and historical context, there is no one, clear-cut answer.

Similar to many other countries in the Global South, invading Western powers dominated the Philippines in its past. The Philippines was subject to a distinctly extensive and chaotic experience with imperialism; as a colony of Spain for over three centuries and a territory of the U.S. for the decades between the Spanish-American War and World War II, the Philippines has a long history of subjugation. Consequently, there are several profoundly deep-rooted issues in Philippine’s government, institutions, economy and society.

The hierarchical nature of Filipino society attributes to the stark inequality. Similar to many Latin American societies, Filipino society under Spain divided into different socioeconomic classes. Because the remnants of these social institutions persist today, the Philippines aggregate wealth accumulation does not actually lift many of the poor out of poverty. Instead, the Philippines’ economic growth overwhelmingly favors the same elite families who have been in power since the Spanish rule.

Income inequality remains a significant barrier for holistic development of Filipino society and quality of life, keeping the Philippines poor. The island nation has the highest level of income inequality between the richest 20 percent and poorest 20 percent of the population out of all of the ASEAN states. As of 2006, the richest 10 percent of families boasted 19 times the income of the poorest 10 percent.

In addition to income inequality, the perpetuation of archaic colonial-era socioeconomic institutions negatively affects the government. Corruption and incompetence plague the Philippines’ government, commonplace problems in countries with genuine inexperience with self-determination and democratic governance.

Because of corruption and inadequate legislation, the government does relatively little to meaningfully reduce poverty, deal with rapid population growth and raise standards of living. Poorly planned and implemented public goods, infrastructure and property rights inhibit economic growth in all sectors.

The Philippines also struggles to mitigate poverty because of frequent violent conflicts, primarily in Mindanao, the Philippines’ large southern island.

Mindanao has always been a hotbed of violence and chaos. In colonial times, both the Spanish and the Americans never fully conquered or pacified the island, and to this day Mindanao has not integrated into the Filipino government. Since the late 1960s, the island has dealt with a violent communist insurgency as well as several Muslim extremist groups. The consistent conflict has made it difficult for the Filipino government to fully apply its efforts towards anti-poverty measures.

Aside from social, economic and political issues, environmental factors also contribute towards making the Philippines poor.

Many rural Filipinos depend on the country’s extensive natural resources, particularly for the fishing and agricultural industries. However, environmental degradation brought about by climate change and human irresponsibility negatively affects the lives of rural Filipinos. Also, frequent natural disasters disproportionately affect poor Filipinos and worsen their already impoverished situation.

Overall, one cannot determine, “why is the Philippines poor?” with a single answer. Rather, the country’s poverty is a consequence of several issues, many of which a result of the Philippines’ troubled history.

While the challenge of overcoming poverty is especially complicated for the Philippines, it is by no means impossible. The Philippines benefits from assistance from powerful Western allies such as the U.S. as well as intergovernmental organizations such as the Asian Development Bank.

Although the Philippines’ unique cultural and historical background has made it difficult for the country to counter poverty, good governance and meaningful support may allow the Philippines to turn these liabilities into assets. It is not impossible for the island nation to join Japan and South Korea as an underdog economic success story.

Isidro Rafael Santa Maria

Photo: Flickr


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