Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Population Matters

Bernardo M Villegas

There are two sides to the oft-used title of this column. The positive side: the size of the population is a tremendous asset, both as a source of manpower and as a base for a domestic market on which the economic growth of a country can be sustained, despite periodic ups and downs in the global market. Without a large population, many of whom have been sufficiently educated through the decades, the Philippines would not be attracting such high-growth sectors as electronic and semiconductor manufacturing and business process outsourcing. It would not have been able to send abroad millions of Filipinos to earn billions of dollars that they remit back to the Philippines. Without a large population, the Philippines would not have been able to avoid a recession in 2009, when most of our neighbors with smaller populations suffered negative growth rates in their GDP. The other two countries in Southeast Asia that avoided a recession are Indonesia and Vietnam, two populous countries with large domestic markets. Indeed, population matters.

The other side is negative, as can be inferred from a recent interview with one of the best demographers the Philippines has produced. A person I highly respect for her professional competence, U.P. demographer Mercedes Concepcion recently lamented the lack of a population management policy in the Philippines. She would like to see a much lower fertility rate than the 3.1 babies per fertile woman we presently have. She considers the current population growth rate (about 1.95 % annually) too high for the country's resources. Like a top business executive to whom she referred, she is alarmed at seeing large families populating squatter areas in places like Pasay, Payatas, Taguig and other depressed areas in the Metro Manila area.

She looks back with nostalgia at the Marcos era when she claims there was an effective population management program.

I respectfully beg to disagree with Dr. Concepcion. The squatter areas with large families in the Metro Manila area are only a consequence of at least three decades of an erroneous policy of utterly neglecting countryside and rural development. The National Capital Region is overpopulated (with 18,163 persons per square kilometer as compared to the national average of 313 persons) because for decades, we used up most of our resources in trying to create inward-looking, import-substitution industries that sooner or later collapsed when subjected to global competition
towards the end of the last century. If we had instead devoted the same resources to building farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems (for all the major crops and not only for rice), post-harvest facilities and other rural infrastructures, today our per capita income would be higher than those of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, because we had a head start in the l950s as the most developed economy in the region with the exception of Japan.

Countries with much less land and even less natural resources like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have population densities far higher than ours. Singapore has 7,223 persons per sq.km., Hong Kong 6,501, Taiwan 625 and South Korea 483. Ours is about 313 persons per sq.m. Except for overcrowded Metro Manila, the most densely populated regions are Region VI (Central Luzon) at 473 persons; Region VII (Central Visayas) at 472 persons; and Region 1 (Ilocos) at 402 persons All their population densities are less than that of South Korea, that has a per capita income close to $20,000 (as compared to our less than $3,000). If we had made use of our resources in a more intelligent way, even if our population continued to increase as it did, we would have had the wherewithals to eradicate poverty in the countryside, which today is where 70 % of the poor in the Philippines reside.

Those who advocate bringing down the growth rate of the population by birth control are barking at the wrong tree. They should focus all their efforts on correcting the biases against agricultural development, labor-intensive industries and small and medium-scale enterprises that decades of the wrong economic policies created. The poor in the rural areas need many children because the only resources they have are these human resources. It would be the height of insensitivity to ask a small farmer with a few hectares of land to stop at two children.

Abandoned by society, with poor roads, no irrigation, no post-harvest facilities, he needs as many hands as possible just to eke out a living. With better infrastructures and education, this

need will disappear and there will be natural forces that would lead to a more rapid decline in fertility. There would be no need for a state-sponsored population management program.

Development--especially of the rural areas--is indeed the best contraceptive, as the late President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. insisted.

My perception of the population control program aggressively pushed by the Marcos regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s is different from that of Dr. Concepcion. During the deliberations of the Constitutional Commission convoked by the late President Cory Aquino, I chaired the Committee on the National Economy. In some of our committee meetings, there was a lively debate about whether or not to remove the provision in the so-called Marcos Constitution mandating the State to adopt a population management policy. The late Blas Ople, who was Minister of Labor during the Marcos era, reported that the population management program under the Marcos Administration was ineffective and wasteful of resources. I remember him describing how disorganized the program was so that condoms being distributed in the countryside were not being used for preventing birth but in covering hanging fruits to protect them from insects. After hearing this and similar reports, the whole Constitutional Commission voted in a plenary to remove any reference to population management from what became the 1987 Constitution.

I also highly suspect survey findings which state that Filipina mothers have one child more than they actually desire. These surveys are funded by agencies that have a birth control bias. Although there may be exceptional cases, the poor are more intelligent than population control advocates describe them to be. If they have four or more children, it is because, as in the case of the farmer's household, they need workers in their farms to make up for the lack of infrastructures. Those who have large families in urban areas are thinking of the long-term insurance that many children can give to them. Because of their being left to their own devices by society, they find safety in numbers. To make a sweeping generalization that married couples who are poor but have

many children have been irresponsible is a typical condescending view of the well-to-do. Wittingly or unwittingly, the educated elite who talk about the poor producing children like rats are implying
that only the rich should have many children. I know that this is not the intention of all birth control advocates. But their constantly harping on the need for the poor to limit the number of children smacks of the selective breeding for which Hitler was infamous.

The motives of professionals like Dr. Concepcion are noble. They are truly concerned about the sufferings of the poor. They are, however, proposing the wrong solution. Limiting population can backfire. It is much better to spend our resources on the direct solutions to mass poverty, such as countryside development, technical skills training of the unemployed youth, microcredit for the poor, social housing, the nurturing of small and medium-scale entrepreneurs and many others. Countries like Singapore and Thailand that implemented aggressive population control programs are now regretting the dire consequences of family planning, such as the rapid aging of the population and the scarcity of manpower. There is no need for us to inflict these problems on future generations.

For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph

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