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Philippines

Philippines

THE route from Manila's international airport to the city centre is lined with expensive condominiums and teeming shanty towns. Your car may just as easily pull up beside a well-waxed, brand new four-wheel-drive vehicle as an undernourished street vendor selling chewing gum and lottery tickets. On Roxas Boulevard, hugging Manila Bay, you are likely to pass barefoot street children and begging mothers as you pass the glamorous yacht club and the arts centre complex built by former first lady Imelda Marcos.

The Philippines is home to a handful of Asia's richest people, and a great many of its poorest. Images of scavengers picking their way through smoking rubbish dumps are perhaps as familiar to foreigners as that of Imelda Marcos wearing a glittering gown and another pair of shoes. Three governments since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 have failed to lift the seriously poor, who account for around half of the population, above the poverty line.

Chris Stowers/Panos

Although the Philippines did not suffer as badly as some of its neighbours during the East Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, neither did it recover as quickly. The ups and downs of the economy are closely linked to conditions in the US and Japan, who take the bulk of Philippine exports.

But the country has long had one dependable major source of income: the remittances of overseas workers. Some seven million Filipinos, predominantly women, work in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Japan and Europe as domestic workers, healthcare professionals, seafarers and entertainers. They provide a valuable cushion that all Philippine leaders so far have been reluctant to relinquish.

With full employment at home still hard to find, a temporary contract abroad is what many Filipinos strive for. Others see migration to the US as the holy grail. Links with America and its already large Filipino community are strong, founded on a history of fairly benign colonization from 1898 when Spain ceded the Philippines to the US. From then on, despite almost four centuries of Spanish rule, English became the primary language of instruction and American-style institutions were put in place.

Despite Philippine independence in 1946, America's military presence in the country didn't end until much later. In 1991 the Philippine Senate finally voted to ask the US to close its remaining bases in the country. The vast US naval base at Subic Bay was shut down the following year, marking the moment the Philippines finally stood fully on its own two feet. But the legacy of American rule is evident in ubiquitous burger and donut joints, in language and in popular culture. The most obvious and enduring legacy of the Spanish period, meanwhile, is the adherence of the great majority of Filipinos to Catholicism.

Religion has had a considerable influence in politics. Catholic leaders helped stir up the ‘People Power Revolt' of 1986 which toppled Ferdinand Marcos. They also played their part in the mass demonstrations that helped oust President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Many Filipinos are proud of their ability to rouse ‘people power' to remove an unpopular leader, while others have begun to see it as less than democratic.

As an English-speaking country with 7,147 islands and stunning white sand beaches perfect for diving and sailing, tourism holds great potential for the Philippines. But visitor numbers are kept down by highly publicized yet infrequent evils such as typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and kidnappings. The insurgency in the southern islands, fuelled by the demands of militant Muslim groups for independence, also puts off visitors. Successive governments have failed to solve this problem just as conspicuously as they have failed the poor.

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Human Development Index
Last profiled June 1993

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)