We came to the Philippines in July from the battered U.S. economy where unemployment has been at 10 percent for a year, and over 8 million workers have lost their jobs since the crisis hit in 2008. Millions of young adults leaving college are not finding jobs. As the ranks of the jobless rise, millions of people have lost their medical insuranceand their homes. Desperation is spreading and fueling Right-wing activism in the form of Sarah Palin’s anti-government tea party demonstrations.
We came to the Philippines with an intense curiosity over how this crisis was affecting the Philippine economy. In dozens of interviews with Filipinos from all walks of life, we encountered some concerns about the economy, but a widespread sense of complacency that the Philippines, under the new leadership of President Aquino, would make it through the global crisis. After all, most people told us, Asia is generally doing better than the rest of the world and if we tackle corruption, we should be okay.
Don’t get us wrong: we applaud the new administration’s war on corruption and its exposés of the abuses of the Arroyo administration. But, let us share what makes us nervous about the current path of the Philippine economy in the midst of a shaky global economic environment.
After centuries of gearing the Philippine economy toward the greed of its colonial masters, and three decades of speeding up Philippine integration into the global economy, the Philippine economy remains vulnerable to the vagaries of global events.
There are four sources of foreign exchange in the Philippines of over $5 billion a year, all of which are marked by vulnerability.
The top foreign exchange earner is electronic exports, which reaped as much as $28 billion in earnings in 2008 and accounts for over half of overall Philippine export earnings. Yet, when the global slump set in during 2009, Philippine exports plunged by over $10 billion, with electronics taking a particularly hard hit.
The second biggest source of foreign exchange, at over $18 billion, is remittances from the roughly 11 million overseas Filipino workers. Remittances also took a hit in 2008, albeit less than the fall in export earnings. Filipino workers are all over the world and, luckily, many in the crisis-ridden U.S. are in more recession-proof sectors like doctors and nurses. But racism is growing in the U.S. and Europe as angry workers there blame immigrants for “taking our jobs.” The Philippines would do well to prepare for new immigration restrictions from several of the richer countries.
The third largest, and the fastest growing, source of foreign exchange are the hundreds of thousands of younger Filipinos working the graveyard shift in call centers for foreign firms. Their earnings have reached about $7-8 billion a year and the Philippines now has some 15 percent of the global “business process outsourcing” sector. Yet, talk to young adults who twist their English accents to placate Western callers and you will hear stories of the growing anger from the U.S. and elsewhere over “foreigners” taking jobs in this sector. “America-first” movements are on the rise, pressuring firms to switch jobs back to the United States.
A fourth sector of the Philippine economy that brings in over $5 billion a year is tourism. For Japanese, Korean and European workers, tourism in a global downturn is a “luxury,” and many are choosing not to travel as wages stagnate or jobs are lost. This too is a dangerous and fickle sector on which to place too many future hopes.
In addition to these sectors, Philippine agriculture, which once fed the entire population, no longer does. The Philippines imports up to 10 percent of its rice consumption each year, a vulnerability that leaves Filipinos prone to the sort of devastating price swings that gripped the nation in 2008. That year, the Philippines imported over $6 billion more in agricultural products than it exported.
And, there is the more well-known dependence on foreign oil; it ate up over $12 billion of the Philippine import bill in 2008. This is a vivid reminder of the need to speed up the transition to energy efficiency as well as solar, wind and other renewable energies.
We do understand that the Philippines is not the U.S. and that both countries’ vulnerabilities are very different. And, we understand that the crisis is now deeper in the U.S. than in the Philippines. But, our read of the global and Philippine economies has led us to caution against complacency in the Philippines and against believing that corruption is the root of the problem.
Our hope in raising these issues is to point Filipinos toward a vibrant debate that is spreading around the world on how to transform economies so that they become less vulnerable to the global economy and more “rooted” in local production for local consumption.
Other countries in Asia have taken steps in this direction. The most vibrant economies in the world today, China, India and Brazil, have more “balanced” economies in the sense that they have built up domestic markets for much of what they produce. Thailand, well aware of its global vulnerabilities since the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998, encouraged what it calls a “sufficiency economy,” a strategy that prioritizes self-reliance and diversified agriculture at the grassroots.
A global crisis is the best moment to open wide a debate about future paths. We strongly advise that more “rooted” paths get a fair hearing as this debate advances.