Business World, 13 November 2011

As heralded by the media, Oct. 31, 2011, marked the day when the world’s population hit the 7-billion milestone. To some, the number may be meaningless and so easy to shrug off; to others, it may be good news since more babies are considered a blessing. To still others, it depends on where the new births are occurring and at what pace — in the highly advanced and rich countries where population is declining or in the impoverished countries having difficulty coping with high birth rates.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it succinctly, saying that the seven billionth baby will be entering a “world of contradiction,” especially if the child is born on the wrong side of the poverty line; that child would be facing an uphill battle. It seems clear Ban Ki-moon was expressing a concern about the developing world that is home to the huge majority of the earth’s 1.2 or so billion people living in deep and grinding poverty, not to mention the environmental impact that is sparing no country on the planet.

It now appears that the UN head’s concern was right on the mark in the Philippines with its 7 billionth baby in Danica May. Her parents Camille Galura and Florante Camacho are on the wrong side of the poverty divide. Thanks, however, to a shower of gifts (a college scholarship and health insurance plus money to help her parents open a sari-sari store) for being the symbolic one, Danica may be able to escape poverty sometime, and perhaps her parents, too. But how about the 1,380 or so babies (minus Danica!) born every day on the wrong side of the poverty line?

Owing to the absence of a clear population policy (reproductive health/family planning [RP/RH] program) in addition to just modest economic growth since the 1970s, our country sadly has fallen well behind its original ASEAN neighbors (Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) in terms of both demographic and economic indicators.

The total fertility rate (average number of children per women for 2008) and unmet need for family planning (2007) are, respectively, 3.3 and 22.3% for the Philippines compared with Thailand’s 1.8 and 3.1%, Indonesia’s 2.2 and 9.1%, and Malaysia’s 2.6. The corresponding national income (GNI) per capita and poverty incidence are, respectively, Philippines — US$1,790 and 26.5%; Thailand — $3,760 and 8.1%; Indonesia — $2,050 and 13.3%; and Malaysia — $7,350 and 3.8%.

Meanwhile, gross domestic investment rate (GDI/GDP) for the Philippines has been stuck at around 15% compared with that of its neighbors ranging from 21% (Malaysia) to 33% (Indonesia).

Sadder still is the prospect that unless the RH/FP (or responsible parenthood) bill is passed in Congress and swiftly implemented, our country will likely be overtaken even by its newer and poorer ASEAN neighbors (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in a few years’ time. This is due to their faster-falling fertility rates facilitated by government-funded FP programs, as well as higher investment rates (ranging from 17% in Cambodia to 39% in Vietnam) that bode well for faster economic growth and poverty reduction.

Serious research says that bad governance, weak economic growth, high wealth and income inequality are the main factors that explain poverty. But rapid population growth — i.e., high fertility, especially among the poor due to their lack of access to effective RH/FP services — does exacerbate poverty and inequality, making it harder for government and society to deal with the problem. (Income inequality in the Philippines is also among the highest in ASEAN.)

Thus, P-Noy’s oft-repeated mantra: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” seems an oversimplification. True, corruption is a serious malaise in our country, but it cannot be the sole focus of development strategy. Many of our Asian neighbors have also had serious corruption problems but they have managed to rapidly progress, having addressed their population problem, among other concerns.

Poverty in the Philippines had been increasing, not decreasing, from 24.4% in 2003 to 26.5% in 2009 despite average GDP growth of over 4.0%. The 2.1% points rise in incidence (equivalent to 3.6 million more poor people) was largely accounted for by the high fertility among the poorest quintile who are growing at roughly double the national average rate. Persistent high fertility among the poor owing to lack of access to effective RH/FP services exacerbates poverty and hunger.

National Statistics Office data show that the larger the family size, the higher the poverty incidence, and this pattern has not changed over the past 24 years. If anything, poverty incidence among families with fewer children has fallen while that among households with many children has risen. Further, the data show that the poorer the household, the higher the “unwanted” number of children resulting from unplanned or mistimed pregnancies.

There are important interactions across governance, economic growth, inequality, and population growth. As shown earlier by Thailand and Indonesia and more recently by Bangladesh, faster economic growth or lower poverty initially triggered by an effective RH/FP program leads to further decreases in fertility as women take advantage of job opportunities and demand more services. A kind of Say’s Law, where “supply creates its own demand.”

Slowing population growth or reducing fertility rates assisted by an RH/FP program in addition to good governance, faster economic growth, and lower inequality will result in higher living standards and dignity for the poor, which — undoubtedly — will also be good for Philippine society as a whole.