Friday, 5 December 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 10

Singapore (Singapore) - Manila (Philippines)

[Overseas job postings in the window of a labor broker in Cebu, Philippines]

Do you remember the first time you came face-to-face with Third World or Fourth World poverty? For people who grew up in the First World, such a moment is often one of the most enduring of travel memories and most life-changing of travel experiences.

Whether or not you are travelling to such a place, you can — and should, if you want to understand what people’s lives are like in much of the world — read, watch movies, and listen to friends tell you stories about what they’ve seen and experienced in different parts of the world.

None of that, however is likely to fully prepare you or enable you to really imagine what it’s like for an entire family to live in a 10’ × 10’ (3m x 3m) shack they’ve built themselves out of scrounged materials discarded by richer folks, with no toilet and water carried from a tap 100 yards (100m) away, if they’re luckier than some slum dwellers, or a muddy sump a mile (1.5 km) away if they are less lucky. Or to live on the street — literally.

Common reactions to seeing things like this for the first time include:

  • “I know what poverty is like in my country, but poverty here is qualitatively different.”
  • “I understood this intellectually, but that couldn’t prepare me for the reality.”
  • “Now that I’ve seen what life is really like for people here, I’ll never forget it, even after I get home.”

A reluctance to confront poverty shouldn’t keep you from travelling to the Third or Fourth World. Poverty is not confined to the global South. Wherever you go, keep in mind that poor people are not animals in a zoo, even if poverty forces them to live their lives in public view.

In some countries where rich people are able to segregate their lives from those of poor people — including of course the USA — both wealthy locals and wealthy tourists can be oblivious to the living conditions of the poor. Teresa P.R. Caldiera’s “City of Walls”, which I mention in the resource guide in the most recent edition of “The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World”, provides many insights into the causes and consequences of this sort of segregation. If you travel by car or taxi or on a tour bus, rather than by public transit, and walk around outside only in the enclaves of the rich, it’s possible to visit such places while never being confronted with the poverty that’s out of sight and out of mind to the local gentry.

In other countries — not necessarily ones where poverty is deeper or more pervasive — poverty is less well hidden. In these places, it’s much more normal for even wealthy visitors to see, hear, feel, and smell what life is like all the time for poorer folks.

Preparing yourself for and coping with the “culture shock” this can produce, and finding ways to maximize the benefit you can get from it as an educational experience, are larger topics than I can address here.

Philip Briggs’ “Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide”, which I also mention in the resource guide in “The Practical Nomad”, includes a remarkably sensitive chapter on “Bridging the Cultural Gap” that’s really about bridging the gap of wealth between rich Northern travellers and poor Southern locals. It’s worth reading if you are going anywhere in the Third or especially the Fourth World, not just Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. It’s the best treatment I’ve seen of issues such as guilt and begging, tipping, overcharging of foreigners by locals, and meanness by budget travelers, as well as the emotional and existential impact of profound differences in wealth.

Poverty in the Philippines catches many visitors by surprise, as it did the contestants on The Amazing Race this season. Many visitors don’t realize how impoverished the country is, and aren’t prepared for the depth and pervasiveness of poverty the way they might be if they were travelling to South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

The Philippines isn’t a Fourth World country, but it is a Third World country. Per capita income in the Philippines is closer to that of Indonesia or India than to that of Thailand or Mexico. And the distribution of income in the Philippines is even more uneven than it is in Indonesia.

Why the Philippines isn’t “developing” at the same pace as some of its neighbors, and why poverty in the Philippines remains so extreme and so prevalent, are complex questions addressed in the works of Philippine scholars like Walden Bello, and on which every Filipina or Filipino you meet will have their own opinions.

But as in the cases of Malta and Singapore in the preceding legs of this season of The Amazing Race, part of the explanation for the economic state of the Philippines lies in patterns of immigration, emigration, and migrant labor. To understand the Philippines, you have to understand, or at least be aware of, the Filipinas and Filipinos you don’t see in their own country: the millions working in other countries around the world.

The Philippines is one of the largest remittance economies in the world. Filipinas and Filipinos working abroad send home more money than do citizens of any other country except China and India. Remittances to the Philippines exceed even those to Mexico, even though Mexico has a significantly larger population. And while remittances from Mexicans working abroad, mainly in the USA, are vital to the national economy, remittances represent about five times larger a share of total national income in the Philippines than in Mexico.

Many observers see remittance economies as an example of the “tragedy of the commons”. Migrant workers are making rational individual economic decision by choosing to take higher-paying jobs abroad, but collectively these decisions serve to further impoverish their homelands.

Remittances tend to be spent on imported consumer goods, not on development of local productive capacity. Migrant workers are held up as role models and national heroes, leading (luring?) educated and qualified young people away from careers within the country. The departure of the best and brightest for jobs abroad, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “brain drain”, bleeds the country of its “human capital” and perpetuates national dependency on imported expertise.

These dynamics are at work in many countries, but in no other country as large as the Philippines are they are so powerful an influence. And in no other large country is understanding the pervasive impact of the “invisible hand” of the international migrant labor market so essential to understanding the state of affairs that you find within the country when you visit.

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 5 December 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Ok, we see the invisible hand of the international labor market at work.

The question is: Why?

Why do skilled and unskilled Filipinos leave their homeland to contribute to other economies, to the detriment of their home country?

Why does the country fail to develop, despite its skilled population?

You must go past surface appearances to understand.

Your comparison to Mexico put you on the path to understanding. What do Mexico and the Philippines have in common?

Their colonial heritage. They were both colonies of Spain for hundreds of years. They are both heavily Roman Catholic. Their cultures carry the baggage of the Spanish bureaucracy, and the Catholic mindset.

The result, that is evident till today nearly everywhere that Spain colonized, is pervasive corruption, crushing bureaucracy, and lack of development.

Why do the Philippines and Malaysia differ so greatly in their economic and social development? Virtually the only difference between the two countries is their colonial heritage.

The British left a much different culture for Malaysia. It's one that Malaysia used to its great advantage.

Look forward to your next installment.

Posted by: Kent Clizbe, 19 December 2014, 08:14 ( 8:14 AM)

Rapid population growth, partly as a consequence of pervasive Catholic doctrine, continues to undermine per capita income growth. The Philippines now struggles to provide for 100 million residents. How much better would they be if the population stabilized at 26 million which was population in 1960? The concept of a demographic dividend has value only if you can provide education and generate suitable employment for the increased number of young people. Overpopulation also degrades the environment.

Posted by: Jerry Jackman, 19 December 2014, 13:19 ( 1:19 PM)

Yes, and the population of the Philippines was 9 million in the time of Rizal. I do not see much future for economic progress here; remember the archipelago was very divided and never developed a dominant civilization. The country is governed by feudal dynasties who work hand in hand with the Catholic Church to protect the status quo. As an example, the current president seems totally uninterested in prosecuting those who murdered his father.

Posted by: Anonymous, 29 December 2014, 21:34 ( 9:34 PM)
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