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.
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.
|Leader||President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.|
|Economy||GNI per capita, US $1,020 (Indonesia $710, Australia $19,740)|
|Monetary unit||Philippine peso|
|Main exports||Electronics, garments and coconut products. Close to self-sufficiency in the dietary staple, rice. Very few people starve due to abundant fish and land crops. But most of the country’s energy requirements are imported and the economy relies heavily on remittances from overseas workers.|
|People||78.6 million, growing at 2.1% per year. People per square kilometre: 264 (UK 238).|
|Health||Infant mortality 29 per 1,000 live births (Indonesia 33, Australia 6). Water and electricity supplies are good in cities and towns, less so in rural areas. HIV/AIDS: Less than 0.1% of adults infected and fewer than 10,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. Despite the Catholic Church ban on using condoms, the spread of HIV is under control due to a good government information programme.|
|Environment||Most of the country’s rainforest has been lost to deforestation. Soil erosion is a grave problem, particularly in the rainy season. Serious air and water pollution cause illness in Manila and other big cities.|
|Culture||The ethnic make-up is mainly Malay with small Chinese and tribal minorities. Philippine culture is a unique mix of Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American language, food and architecture. It is broadly summed up by an old cliché: ‘400 years in a convent followed by 50 in Hollywood’.|
|Religion||95% Roman Catholic, Muslim 4%, others 1%.|
|Language||Tagalog (also known as Pilipino). English is also official, and compulsory in the education system. But other indigenous languages are widely spoken, including Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Bicolano and Waray-Waray.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Countrywide, there is a massive gap between rich and poor. The wealthiest 10% of the population earns more than 20 times as much as the poorest 10%. Post-Marcos promises to redistribute land have been of limited success. 1993|
|Literacy||95%. Primary school attendance 93%, but high school attendance significantly lower.|
|Life expectancy||70 years (Indonesia 67, Australia 79).|
|Freedom||Media freedom is guaranteed in the constitution and there are many newspapers catering to all sectors of the population.|
|Position of women||Although there have been two female presidents since the fall of Marcos, women are not prevalent in higher business echelons and millions of women are held back by cultural expectations that force them into low-paid domestic work, often overseas.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality: Legal. Age of consent equal. In 2004 the Philippine Congress approved bill criminalizing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender reassignment ('sex change') is also legal.|
|New Internationalist assessment||In many ways, the Philippines has come a long way since the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship. Simply maintaining democracy and stable presidencies must be considered a triumph in the face of recurrent coup attempts. The poor and less educated classes do feel involved in politics and do vote in large numbers. Their loyalty to candidates who have not always performed well now needs to be repaid in economic improvements.|