Despite its high Gross Domestic Product in recent years, the Philippines has remained a backward nation. Poverty numbers didn’t change although wealth disparity has worsened especially between the rural and the urban. It’s clear that the GDP is an inaccurate and inadequate measure of the real state of the economy. Its use value has no meaning whatsoever for the great majority who are wallowing in a life of dire uncertainty and penury.
But if the GDP is to be discarded, what reliable indicator of development should replace it?
Perhaps Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness can provide a refreshing alternative. If we interpret the concept literally, Filipinos would consistently count as among the happiest people on Earth. Happy but still poor despite being extremely talented singers and dancers. Even if it has broader appeal over the GDP, the GNH cannot completely measure the country’s political economy.
What about international business surveys on competitiveness? Cities and countries are praised if they are business-friendly. It means there is less or zero corruption, cost of doing business is cheap, infrastructure is well-developed, and the government is efficient and responsive.
It’s tempting to embrace these global standards that highlight the relevance of good governance and sustainable development. But ultimately, the endgoal of this paradigm is still to ensure the profitability of big business. Reforms are undertaken to generate super profits for monopoly corporations without disrupting the core of the system.
Besides, a business-friendly economy doesn’t necessarily bring more progress to the people. In the case of the Philippines, the mad rush to attract investors has led to the creation of modern sweatshops, massive plunder and degradation of the environment, and more intense militarization and violence in all areas of production.
There are varying indicators of progress but most of them are either deceptive or shallow such as the inane assertion that heavy traffic is a positive sign of increased economic activity. Or that a municipality can qualify to be a city if it has a supermall. Also, the middle classes are said to be getting richer because of condominium constructions and proliferation of call centers in the metropolis.
After the housing and tech bubbles, stock market crashes, and the rapid decline of powerhouse economies in the world, why is there a continuing fanatical and almost blind worship of neoliberal economics? Why cling to these development dogmas that brought unspeakable suffering to the people of the world?
Hopefully, the horrible impact of typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas will make us realize that the current socio-economic system is extremely bankrupt. Yolanda actually exposed many ugly things about the current state of affairs such as the pitiful and sham development in the countryside, uneven resource distribution, non-existent climate-proofing, and the notoriously incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy.
Yolanda made us remember once more that we are islanders living in disaster-prone islands. The Philippines may be blessed with majestic beaches and sparkling waters but it’s also an archipelago dotted with volcanoes and active earthquake fault lines. Because of climate change, strong typhoons have also become more frequent.
The initial angry but reasonable demand of everybody is for the government to enhance the country’s disaster preparedness. Fine, but this is not enough.
Geography should not be the sole consideration in beefing up the country’s climate readiness. Equally important is the correct understanding of the country’s political economy. Our islands are not just ravaged by rains and volcanic eruptions. More insidious is the impact of colonial and neo-colonial rule. Decades of oligarchic control of the local economy has destroyed not just the environment but it has also made the people more impoverished and less empowered.
Depoliticized climate change adaptation threatens to further marginalize the poor. For example, the laudable program to clean the coastline could easily degenerate into blaming the poor for causing water pollution if we fail to see them as victims of previous development aggression projects.
Therefore, the more crucial issue in the case of Samar and Leyte is not who will lead the rehabilitation efforts but what kind of rehabilitation will the government undertake in these typhoon-devastated provinces.
Worse than partisan politics is the possible hijacking of the community reconstruction effort in favor of laissez faire capitalism. Beware of corporate vultures and politician looters who were given the power to draft and enforce a development program that would promote the greedy interest of Big Business at the expense of the poor. Next to trafficking, we must be vigilant against land speculation and landgrabbing. It would be tragic if cash-strapped typhoon survivors would lose their lands to property developers through dubious deals or if the government would prevent them from returning to their homes which have been suddenly rezoned as disaster-prone.
In other words, disaster preparation should not be reduced into a mapping and re-mapping procedure. Study the terrain but it is crucial to persevere in improving and even restructuring the local political economy.
Concretely, we should junk the economic models imposed by big financial institutions. Is it viable to replicate the economic strategies of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan when our historical and geographical circumstances are vastly different? Didn’t we strictly adhere to the rehabilitation blueprint provided by the Americans after the Second World War?
The story of Manila in the past century should alert us to the dangers of uncritically accepting the economic prescriptions given by rich countries. Like Tacloban today, Manila was completely ruined during World War II. After the war, Americans provided numerous financial assistance including loans to reconstruct Manila. Unfortunately, these were conditional subsidies which prevented the country from pursuing an independent path of economic development. We all knew what happened after that to Manila and the rest of the Philippines in the past half century.
Today, there exists an opportunity to review our social and economic policies as we rebuild our typhoon-damaged provinces. Are we going to build a new Tacloban that looks up to Manila as the model for urbanization? Manila may be the country’s premier urban hub but it is at the same time the best showcase of maldevelopment and chaotic urban planning.
After Yolanda, is it wise to pursue the same development programs that created polluted cities, overcommercialized island resorts, urban poor colonies, unproductive farmlands, and abandoned mining sites?
In terms of GDP, a city may be richer because it has Greenbelt malls. On the other hand, a coastal town that built greenbelt mangrove farms might have less revenues but no doubt it is a cleaner and safer habitat.
For an archipelagic country that is highly vulnerable to the harsh impact of climate change, and a country in the Pacific Ring of Fire made weaker by centuries of elite and dynastic rule, the dogged determination to achieve higher GDP year after year despite the absence of change in the quality of life is already irrational. It’s time to think of a better approach on how to save and improve the lives of Filipino islanders.
Instead of higher GDP, why not strive for a higher Gross National Survival or GNS? Nickel mining and reclamation will bring more tax dollars but will they strengthen our habitats? Will they allow us to survive the next big disaster? Higher GDP but lower GNS will hasten the arrival of the apocalypse in this part of the world.
The GNS could quantify the resiliency of local communities. It seeks to measure the capability of a given place to withstand extreme situations by incorporating weather and climate patterns, economic production, human development or wellness categories, political institutions, and environment and social dynamics.
It rejects the proposition that the development imperative trumps all aspects of community and nation-building. The thrust of development must be synergized with other communal goals. Policies are aimed at improving the GNS of communities instead of focusing exclusively on tax revenues. We are interested to learn more from the experience of our indigenous people who adapted to changing climates and economic conditions without destroying their unique ecosystems.
Ondoy, Pablo, and Yolanda were deadly typhoons that wrought damage in our country in the past five years. The worst is not yet over until we have reversed the warming of the planet. The only way we can minimize casualties in our beautiful islands of distress is to rethink the way we organize our communities. It may appear to be an issue involving the environment and economy but essentially it is a political question.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: email@example.com