Demographics is destiny


(Part 4)

The longest-range forecast I have read so far about the Philippine economic future was the one issued by HSBC about 12 years ago, in which the Philippines was predicted to become the 16th largest economy in the world GDP-wise by 2050. When I present this information in my economic briefings, some people in the audience would complain that such a projection was irrelevant to them because “they would not be around in 2050!” Jokingly, I would retort: “Speak for yourselves. My mother lived up to 102. I have the DNA of longevity. God willing, I may still be around in 2050!” Whether or not I will be personally there to see the status of the Philippine economy in 2050, as I have written in previous articles, I agree with a good number of independent think tanks, international agencies and financial institutions like HSBC (or Goldman Sachs) that by the decade of 2040 to 2050, the Philippines would have attained high-income status of anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 GDP per capita in today’s prices.

As we discussed in the previous article concerning South Korea, its being a high-income economy will not automatically qualify the Philippines to become a First World country if it fails the test of inclusivity (low poverty incidence and more equitable distribution of income and wealth) and sustainability (a clean physical environment). In fact, in line with the complete definition of the common good, which includes moral and spiritual goals, I would even add that a truly First World country should be relatively free of violence, crime and sexual immorality (which was one of the causes of the fall of the Roman empire). Such a stricter criterion would cast doubt on whether a country like the United States today would qualify as a First World country, considering the very sad moral states of cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia.

What can be expected of the population of the Philippines in the next 20 to 30 years? There are those who are quick to project what happened during the pandemic (a decline in births and marriages) into the longer-term future. For example, in a BusinessWorld article on June 5, 2023, Juan A. Perez III, former Undersecretary for Population and Development, bravely reported that the trend for total fertility rate has been going down, with 3.1 children per fertile woman in 2023. In 2017, the rate was 2.7 children and in 2022 at the height of the pandemic, it was down to 1.9 children per woman. It is too early to celebrate the supposed success of the Philippines’ population control program. Surprise, surprise, by 2023, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported a total fertility rate of 2.45, still above replacement. Long-term projections show that the rate will continue to be close to replacement for at least the next 30 to 40 years. This means that Philippine population will continue to be relatively young even as it reaches 150 million by 2040 to 2050, when the country will have attained high-income status.

It is about time that we reject the contraceptive mentality that was forced on our society by decades of propaganda from international agencies obsessed with population control. There should be less talk about family planning and reproductive health and more about human resource development, improving the quality of basic education and the constant upskilling and reskilling of our existing workforce. As BusinessWorld columnist Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. recently wrote, there is a need to relax the implementation of the Reproductive Health (RH) law of 2012. State funding for population control-leaning programs is wrong. With what is happening to the world at large, Philippine population should be considered our most valuable asset. Indeed, we would not be one of the fastest-growing economies in the Indo-Pacific region were it not for tens of billions of dollars earned by our Overseas Filipino Workers and by the human resource-intensive BPO-IT sector. Domestic consumption would not be the greatest engine of growth of the Philippine economy, in the midst of recurring global recessions, were it not for our large domestic market consisting mostly of young people. To think of a growing population as a liability is based on a dangerous and obsolete development theory concocted by the likes of Robert McNamara and company in the 1960s. It was the worst form of “ideological colonization” motivated by the fear of some US leaders of losing US supremacy over the entire globe. It is common knowledge today that countries that aggressively implemented birth control programs in the last century like Singapore, Thailand and China are now suffering from a serious demographic and aging crisis and are frantically trying to increase their fertility rates without success.

Spending public money to promote birth control under the guise of reproductive health is so terribly an outdated policy. Before it is too late, the stance that should be taken by the government is to consider a higher fertility rate as good for the long-term economic future of the country as there are already natural forces operating that militate against having children such as rapid urbanization, later marriages and the high costs of having children. Fertility rates are falling without the need of birth control programs. Whatever scarce funds are meant for reproductive health programs should be spent on improving the quality of public education, especially at the basic education and technical school levels or on increasing agricultural productivity or in providing more positive health services for the disadvantaged. As depopulation is already an irreversible process in practically all the developed countries in the West and in Northeast Asia, it would be a competitive advantage for the Philippines to keep our fertility rate at least at replacement level so that we continue to be a major supplier of highly skilled workers for the rest of the world, without necessarily suffering from brain drain. A growing and young population, supported by high quality education and health services, will guarantee that we will have enough human resources for both our local needs and those of the depopulating countries that have become very dependent on our OFWs such as Japan, North America and EU countries. As I have written in another series on OFWs in this paper, even if we attain high-income status and bring down the poverty incidence close to zero in the next 20 to 30 years, there will always be Filipinos who will use their freedom to choose where to live and decide to work abroad. By then, going to work abroad — permanently or temporarily — will no longer be motivated by extreme poverty but by free choice.

We are fortunate that we have not reached the point of no return regarding the declining fertility rate. As Dean Spears, a research affiliate at the Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin wrote (BusinessWorld, Sept. 22, 2023), “Births won’t automatically rebound just because it would be convenient for advancing living standards or sharing the burden of care work or financing social insurance programs. We know that fertility rates can stay below replacement because they have. They’ve been below that level in Brazil and Chile for about 20 years; in Thailand for about 30 years; and in Canada, Germany and Japan for about 50.” It is about time we drop birth control programs under the guise of reproductive health. We should constantly rejoice that we still have a young and growing population.

(To be continued)

Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is professor emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a visiting professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

Neil Banzuelo

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