The Philippines has lagged behind the ‘tigers’ of South-east Asia—always on the brink of economic take-off
The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, though many are tiny and less than half are named. The two largest are Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. In between lie the group of islands known collectively as the Visayas. Most of the islands are mountainous, with the ranges running from north to south, and they include 20 active volcanoes. The Philippines is environmentally rich and diverse but since the 1970s much of the forest land has been cleared and tropical forests now cover only around one-fifth of the territory.
Filipinos are ethnically relatively homogenous, though there are a number of small indigenous groups. The main distinction is between Christians, who make up the majority of the population, and Muslims, most of whom are to be found on Mindanao. The country had two major periods of colonization, first by Spain and later by the USA, and it bears strong traces of both. Though the main language is Filipino, many people also speak English, which is the principal language for higher education. There are also smaller ethnic groups on different islands.
Many Filipinos are well educated, and the literacy rate is high, but nutrition and health standards are less impressive. Around one-quarter of children are malnourished and health services are very unequally distributed: half the doctors work in the National Capital Region.
Around one-quarter of people are living below the poverty line—of whom most are in the rural areas. Emigration is one solution to poverty, and there are thought to be around 11 million Filipinos abroad, with two million in the USA alone. One-third of Filipino children live in households where at least one parent has gone overseas. Their remittances, which in 2008 amounted to $18 billion, not only sustain families, they also prop up the economy.
The largest source of employment at home remains agriculture, which employs around one-third of the population. But the Philippines is a very unequal society, especially in landholding. In 1988, 2% of landowners had 36% of the land. The main food crop is rice, most of which is grown in Luzon. The second largest crop is coconuts, with half the production in Mindanao. Sugar used to be a major cash crop, particularly on the island of Negros, but following a collapse in the world price output has declined steeply. Fishing is another source of livelihood, though over-fishing by commercial fleets has been hitting the catches of inshore subsistence fishing communities.
Assets controlled by rich families
The Philippines was slower than many other South-East Asian countries to modernize its industries. Like land, industry is often in the hands of powerful families. But its educated, and often English-speaking, population is proving increasingly attractive to foreign investors. Many companies have now established factories in dozens of export processing zones, particularly for assembly of electronic products, which now account for around two-thirds of exports. The Philippines also has some mineral potential: though it has little oil, it does have deposits of copper, nickel, gold, and silver.