Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 21 December 2016


Recently, former president Fidel Ramos, along with supporters of the Reproductive Health Law that was passed in 2014, wrote an open letter to President Rodrigo Duterte to seek its full implementation.

Supreme Court TROs. Despite the passage of the law, opponents to the measure succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to declare two TROs (temporary restraining orders) that have derailed the full implementation of the law and rendered it toothless.

The TROs prohibited, first, the Food and Drug Administration from renewing the licenses of contraceptive products in the country and, second, the Department of Health from including contraceptive implants in its RH programs.

The letter stressed that the country is “in a race against time for the full implementation of the RH law, emphasizing that 14 to 15 Filipino mothers die each day because of pregnancy and child birth. As long as the TROs are in effect, the government cannot support the poor with the distribution of modern methods of contraception.

President Duterte, in his State of the Nation address, said the government would undertake full implementation of the law. In fact, family planning as envisioned by the law is one of the 10 points of his economic program. Lack of attention might have happened due to the focus on the war on illegal drugs

Duterte’s big chance. President Duterte has the chance to change the country’s demographic map in line with the modernizing countries of East Asia by fully implementing the RH law.

The Philippines is uniquely still entrapped by a high population growth rate marked by a high incidence of poverty. Although the country’s rate of population growth has fallen to 2.1 percent per year, this is still quite high among the major countries in East Asia.

Other countries have achieved rates of population growth well below two percent per year while maintaining sustained high rates of economic transformation over the long term.

All these countries had undertaken strong measures to promote family planning as part of their early development efforts. As their growth experience deepened, voluntary changes took place that mapped a process of demographic transition.

Economic growth and rising incomes enable greater education of women and also their absorption into direct employment as part of the labor force. The demand for smaller families becomes a fact. The result is a reduction of the size of the family.

Among the poor, however, this process does not take place voluntarily. Lack of education and poor access to family planning methods make them vulnerable to unplanned families. Government has to help them.

In the Philippines, the demographic transition has been postponed even as many of regional neighbors have experienced their growth phenomenon profoundly.

A stark comparison is between the Philippines and Thailand. As late as 1980, both countries had almost identical populations. By 2000, Thailand’s income per capita has reached two and a half times that of ours, making Thais far richer and better nourished than Filipinos.

Consider that our annual population growth rate today of 2.1 percent is almost twice that of Thailand. Today, our population has passed the 100 million level, but that of Thailand is around 70 million people.

While we are comparing demographic outcomes and incomes, let us not forget what made Thailand achieve a highly sustained growth of incomes for decades compared to us.

Thailand had a more open economic policy, allowing more economic participation for foreigners (at the beginning when they had little skills and low savings) in their industrial and economic development than we have ever allowed as a nation. Today, they still continue to do so, but with far greater confidence.

Cold facts on population statistics. What explains the above facts when we focus purely on population factors?

Demographers and economists look at statistics on total fertility rates (TFRs). The TFR is defined as the average number of children that a woman bears over her lifetime. At any given time within a country, different groups of women will have different fertility rates, depending on education, income, and other circumstances.

Mortality rates have been significantly influenced by gains in medical technology and investments in public health care. In most countries, the gains in (i.e., the reduction of) death rates have been relatively equal – they have fallen dramatically among all countries.

The difference in population growth rates is the number of children born per year net of deaths per year. Total fertility rates determine the country’s annual birth rates.

This is why the debate on family planning has focused mainly on maternal health care. In almost all countries, the debates on maternal health care has led to the use of family planning methods. In almost all countries in East Asia, advances in family planning have been achieved in the use of modern methods of fertility control.

The numbers are astoundingly informative. I use numbers reported in reference below, in a study pushed by my former colleague, Arsenio Balisacan, formerly at NEDA (reference at end.)

The Philippine TFR in 1960 was 6.9; by 2006, this had fallen to 3.3, which is an impressive reduction. But such rate of fertility is still high compared to other nations where the drop has been much more dramatic.

For South Korea, TFR of 5.67 in 1960 fell to 1.13 by 2006.

Among important ASEAN countries, the drop in TFRs have been much more than those in the Philippines. Starting from 5.45 for Singapore in 1960, the TFR fell to 1.26. For Thailand, the TFR by 2006 was 1.86.

(It should be noted that a TFR of 2.1 is deemed as the replacement rate of fertility. Below that rate, the future decline of population happens.)

Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam had TFRs of 2.23, 2.65 and 2.08, respectively by 2006. They had TFRs closer to that of Thailand and the Philippines in 1960, however.

All these numbers tell us that it is only in the Philippines where the total fertility rates of women on the average has not fallen by as much. These numbers clearly explain why Philippine population growth rate is more than in any other countries.

Another way of looking at these numbers is the following. The poorest countries in South East Asia today approximate the TFRs for the Philippines. In poor countries, the poor people beget more children than the rich. As a result, the poor breed more people and they live with poverty in their midst.

Reference: Dennis S. Mapa, A.M. Balisacan, S. F. Piza, and J.R.T. Corpuz, “To one hundred million and beyond: Population management should be mainstreamed in the Philippine economic agenda,” UP School of Statistics Working Paper (January 2014).