Alex Angara, is a young research volunteer for Action for Economic Reforms.  Her special interests in development economics include population and migration. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, June 25, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Carlos Celdran for condensing all those years of Sibika at Kultura lessons into a palatable two-hour interpretation of Philippine colonial history. A note of caution to the pedantic, however: While the bite-sized treats of history may have satisfied non-historians like myself and my companions on the tour, historical “inaccuracies” may be spotted below. The presence of such so-called inaccuracies at the very least provides me with an introduction and does not detract from the gist of this piece (besides, isn’t history about interpretation, anyway?).

The world is flat, they said. No, I am not referring to Thomas L. Friedman, nor am I referring to the members of the modern-day Flat Earth Society. Apparently, the Philippines was seen to be at the very end of the world by the Spanish monarch. Venture any further than Las Islas Filipinas and one would allegedly fall off the face of the earth. Our country was considered a far-flung province of Mexico, not even a colony in her own right. And when King Felipe II wanted to rid his ranks of certain people, they were supposedly assigned to the remote Philippine Islands. Such was the importance given to the Philippines by the Spanish Monarch.

Though probably valued somewhat as an acquisition in herself, the Philippines apparently was not valued enough by the king to attract his undivided attention and resources. As such, the Catholic priests brought over from Spain were left largely to their own devices when it came to moving and shaking the archipelago. While the dominance of the Church hierarchy may have had some benefits (such as the preservation of our dialects, contributions to education, and so on) it seems justifiable to say that not all moving and shaking was necessarily a good thing—perhaps Jose Rizal’s Padre Damaso comes to mind?

The exact word Carlos used to describe the state of the Philippines during this time was “theocracy”: Las Islas Filipinas was largely governed by the Catholic Church during the Spanish occupation. In hindsight, it is rather ironic how some things do not seem to have changed very much. Despite it being 109 years post-liberation from Spanish rule—and despite being occupied by the Americans for several decades (during which the notion of secularism was introduced to us—it appears that in some respects we still have not been able to properly separate the Church from matters of the State.

The consequences of our Spanish colonizers’ conversion efforts centuries ago are still very much visible today, with over 80% of our estimated 87 million population being Roman Catholic. With the Philippines having among the highest fertility rates in Asia, it seems likely that the Church’s followers in this country are set to increase even further. Allow me to play the devil’s advocate and ask: is this necessarily a good thing? I am not referring to the part about specifically increasing the Catholic population. My qualms pertain to the more general; that is, our high fertility rate and our ballooning Filipino population. The United Nations’ World Population Prospects (WPP) report predicts our population will be over 100 million in a mere eight years (101,090,000 by 2015 to be precise), approximately 116 million by 2025, and just over 140 million by 2050!

Those in government have avoided taking any strong action to control the birth rate, presumably because politicians fear the Church’s ire. It is common knowledge that the Catholic Church is vehemently against the use of artificial contraception, and the local Church hierarchy has openly threatened to campaign against anyone who tries to introduce policies involving such. Makes one wonder if the Church actually knows how ineffective—and to an extent unrealistic—the natural family planning methods are.

But why point fingers at the “population problem,” many might wonder. Who says there is a problem anyway? Surely the myriad difficulties our country faces have roots elsewhere, such as poor institutions, government mismanagement, and corruption. While I have no doubt that there are various reasons (such as those just mentioned) behind our unimpressive growth rates, high poverty incidence and all our other woes, it does seem to me that our relatively high rate of population growth exacerbates the problems we already have. After all, rapid population growth can be associated with unfavorable effects on savings and investments.

Furthermore, there are valid economic justifications for having a governmental population policy: the arguments of market failure. Families’ lack of information regarding reproductive health (including knowledge on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS) and family planning services, in addition to being oblivious to all the negative environmental and fiscal externalities involved in having more children. Consequently, government intervention is justifiable to correct such market failures.

For those who remain unconvinced, it may be argued that there is a moral obligation to address the population dilemma. Instituting a strong program could help the third of our countrymen and women—over 25 million Filipinos—living in poverty. Studies have shown that the discrepancy between the desired and the actual number of children is largest among the poor, which highlights their inability to access adequate family planning services in order to achieve their target family size. As the poor are less able to control their fertility, households are trapped in the cycle of poverty as additional dependents strain the families’ already meager resources.

Finally, is the government not supposed to be for the people? A recent Pulse Asia survey on family planning reported that an “overwhelming majority” of Filipinos (92 percent of those surveyed) said it was important to plan one’s family, and nearly 9 of 10 Filipinos (89 percent) said the government should fund modern family planning methods (e.g. pills, intra-uterine devices (IUDs), condoms, tubal ligation and vasectomies). Nevertheless, as usual, politicians steered far and clear from the population issue in their campaigns for the recently concluded elections.

Perhaps it is time government looked seriously at population policy—including, but not necessarily limited to, the provision of family planning (both natural and modern) and reproductive health services as well as comprehensive sex education—as an integral part of the development agenda. Not only would it empower women and benefit households in helping them achieve their desired number of children, such a plan would also be pro-poor. In addition, the government would also be able to devote more resources into public investment, rather than spreading them out more thinly with a rapidly growing population.

Our economy would also enjoy a demographic dividend—instead of our current onus—sooner rather than later. Why wait for another 43 years (which is when the WPP report estimates about two-thirds of our 140 million will be of working age)? And in today’s world where environmental concerns make the daily news, it should also be noted that assertive population efforts would reduce the environmental costs of fertility rates that are higher than desirable.

Around the world we can find instances of predominantly Catholic countries with governments that have taken measures involving artificial contraception. One such example is Brazil, whose president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, just recently described a plan to subsidize artificial hormonal contraceptives, saying it will give poor Brazilians “the same right that the wealthy have to plan the number of children they want.” Makes you wonder why things should be any different over here.

This month we celebrated 109 years of independence. Maybe our policymakers should learn to assert some of that independence for a change. Besides, isn’t there a saying (ironically enough, in the language of the Church) that goes: “Vox populi vox Dei”?