Why Are Filipinos Dissatisfied?

In an August SWS poll (before “Pablo” and Manny’s KO) 28% of Filipinos said their circumstances had worsened in the last 12 months versus 21% who indicated it had improved; for a negative 8 points. Why are Filipinos dissatisfied with their quality of life even as the economy is growing at 7.1%, the stock market and real estate are at record highs and the Philippines is the darling of the international investment community? Why is there a disconnect between how Filipinos feel and what the numbers tell us?

The principal reason is the growing income disparity in the country. The poor are getting poorer and the rich richer. The money is being made by owners of capital and land and the educated with the ordinary man being left behind. Thus our unemployment (7%) and under-employment (19.3%) is the highest in the ASEAN even as we are growing faster than our neighbors.

Our growth is principally from construction and services (call centers) with few new jobs in labor-intensive manufacturing and agriculture. Development is in the urban areas and not in the rural sector which makes up 80% of the poor. Corporate profits have outpaced gains in wages i.e. the share of workers in the economic pie is diminishing. Much of these profits come from improved business conditions but some of it is perceived by the public to be the result of monopolies and cartels, witness the reported overcharging by Meralco and mobile telcos for basic services.

Then there is the growing low-level corruption. Businessmen say bribes and smuggling are rampant, flying below the radar of national media and Central Government.

In the meantime population growth is diluting the already meager share of the poor in economic prosperity.

Filipinos are feeling marginalized even as the statistics say otherwise. How can the Government get national progress to feel more inclusive?

One thing to understand, there is poverty and there is poverty consciousness. The former is a physical state of being, the latter a mental condition. One is an absolute measure, the other a relative one. You can be rich yet feel poor –and vice-versa-  depending on (a) how your neighbors are faring and (b) how you believe you should be doing. Poverty consciousness is about expectations.

 There is arguably today a failure of expectations in the average Filipino. The promise of “Daan Matuwid”, the heralded economic numbers, and the displays of wealth among the new rich has led our countrymen to feel  their lives should be  better than it is. That, apparently, has not happened.

A study was recently conducted on wealth expectations across different peoples. Respondents from various countries were asked what annual income would satisfy them? The conclusions are surprising: To feel content, people in poorer, developing nations need a higher level of income than those in developed economies. Citizens of Dubai were the neediest ($276,000 in income) with Asians and Latin Americans next; while Europeans were the least. Among the latter, Germans ($ 87,000) had the lowest threshold of economic happiness despite having the highest per capita income; while Italians -who are financially precarious- had the highest ($175,000).

This suggests there are factors other than income that make for social satisfaction like  reliable public services, a livable environment and speedy justice. Relative prosperity, communal values, and social infrastructure are as important as absolute wealth. This might explain why, despite their growing incomes, Chinese are said to be less happy today than they were under the stricter but more egalitarian regime of the past.  Europeans – Germans in particular- have an even distribution of income, a strong social support structure, and a working judicial system; which explains their need for less. The opposite is the case in developing countries: People here are expected to fend for themselves with little help from Government so money becomes the principal measure of comfort.

The lesson for the Philippines is therefore this: Public satisfaction is about social values like equality, fairness, honesty and public service as it is about economic well-being. Even as the Government must broaden the economic base and reduce income disparity, there is an equal urgency to promote the softer issues in development–justice, environment, community- that in the absence of immediate material prosperity make for a humane society.

The good news is these are within the control of Government and do not require big budgets. Our leaders can improve the judicial system, strengthen the bureaucracy, and erase corruption; without Private-Public Partnerships or foreign money. In fact the opposite is the case: Investments  will follow qualitative reform.

Perhaps the Bhuttanese have it right: Their measure of development is Gross National Happiness, not Gross National Product. We could learn something from this.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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6 Responses to Why Are Filipinos Dissatisfied?

  1. I rather think that satisfaction goes along with accepting accountability for one’s condition and having 10 kids with no discernable income is not particularly wise. Alas, along with poverty comes a certain amount of ignorance and a certain amount of being sealed into one’s condition by continuing one’s condition. The Catholic Church does a lot to assure a continuation of the condition, oppressive to women and the poor and the already-born — in favor of lots of new babies.

    Also, it will take time for wealth to roll out. More aggressive regions, like Palawan, are making sure they get their cut of the wealth, broadly. The tourism enterprise there is amazing. Other regions just peddle tricycles.

  2. atsuko says:

    why so gloomy? your title alone is already being negative, many would probably keep away from commenting, so depressing. you could have said ‘things that make filipinos happy’ not why are filipinos dissatisfied? we know what make us dissatisfied, we dont need you to tell us. you sound paternalistic, judgemental too, like you’re pointing an accusing finger, doing autopsy – at us, on us – while we’re still alive and breathing and dont want to be autopsied. we know we could have done better, we know how to get there, we know about inequalities, we are just bogged down at the moment and need help. are you helping, or are you adding more to the burden?

    • Miguel Zulueta says:

      Ashok you are not being objective, no one is accusing us … He is making a personal observation which I might add, I agree with.

  3. luiwui says:

    @atsuko – your comment just vilified the necessity of Mr. Alejandrino’s blog. Everything you wrote just boomeranged back at ya.

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