For the last six months, I have been working for a chain of low-cost private primary schools serving low-income and slum communities. The business model is innovative – by standardizing as much of the practice of building and operating a school as possible, Bridge has essentially created a “school in a box.” This is my first experience working in education, so the learning curve, as always, has been steep. But the world is complex and the systems that govern it are highly interconnected. And, as with philosophy and math, the root cause of so many problems can be traced back to education.
In the Philippines, I worked with a microfinance institution that served the poorest of the poor – mostly women – in the Visayas region. The women often used the loans as working capital for small businesses, selling projects in a little store connected to their homes, raising pigs, small-scale agriculture, trading, etc. Most had large families with many children, and found it difficult to provide for them. Very few had graduated from secondary school, even fewer from post-secondary. But with each additional year of schooling, average family size declines by a not-insignificant amount. This could be in part due to greater awareness of family planning, a better understanding of the economic implications of having a large family. Education provides more skilled employment opportunities, reducing the reliance on manual labor and farming – both jobs that benefit from an extra set of hands. The Philippines is a heavily Catholic country, so maybe more education makes people less deferential to the higher power’s influence in their life. Whatever the reason, more education means smaller families, higher income, and greater opportunities for the fewer children being raised.
In Kenya, where I live now, corruption is a cancer at every level of government, a parasite debilitating the country, stifling social and economic progress. In the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Ghana, corruption has the same deleterious effect. The scourge is so systemic that a cynical population resigns itself to voting for the politician who is best at playing the game, rather than the one who will change it. (In the Philippines, however, the most recent president, Noynoy Aquino, has made admirable strides in the fight against corruption.) And ignorance enables corruption.
What I mean by this is people not understanding the scale of the problem, and who is specifically perpetrating it. When literacy rates are low in certain areas, how can the populace be truly informed in their decision-making? Politicians can make false promises with little accountability, and offer small tokens in exchange for votes. People end up selling their support for a fraction of what is taken from them in the form of graft. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Education, to my mind, is the bulwark against corruption. The corruption-education problem might be a chicken-egg situation, but one thing is true: an informed populace makes informed decisions. A middle class with more to lose from kleptocracy will demand better governance. When people understand the importance of investment in growth, yet watch their politicians literally steal money from the public coffers, they will refuse to stand for it. And this process relies on everyone with a stake in the future of their country to have at least a basic education.
Family planning and anti-corruption are just a few reasons why education is so critical to economic growth. Give children the tools to take control of their own fate, and the chips will fall into place. Get them while they are young, and teach them the skills to be, if not successful financially, at least informed enough to make decisions in their best interest. This, to me, is why education is so critical.
This is part four of a four-part post on the joys of solo travel.
In this last installment, I will share my thoughts on the need to meet as many people as you can and be confident as you roam the world.
–7. Be open
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Today, people say that I am a “good connector”. That is because, whenever my friends travel to a new place, I put them in touch with the people I know there and make sure they show them a good time. But this is decidedly a skill I have picked up in the last two years.
When you travel alone, you have to be willing to strike up a conversation with anyone. People you meet on the road tend to be some of the more interesting, offering a perspective you don’t get every day. This is especially true in countries that are off the beaten backpacker path, which attract some of the more out-there individuals. And, for an American, Asia, in particular is a great place to meet interesting folks, since most of them tend to be from the othersides of the proverbial ponds.
Out of a mix of laziness and self-involvement, I’m going to break the cardinal rule of respectable travel-writing and quote myself speaking about the subject of people on the road in a post titled “Dispatch from a shrinking planet“:
When you travel, you meet people on the road. The relationships are short, but what they lack in breadth they make up for depth. You become closer to them in the three days you spend together than you do to the people renting the apartment below you for a year. You stay in touch and email from time to time. When something happens in their country, you reach out to see if everything is all right. When you move to another country, you blast an email to your friends and tell them to put you in touch with everyone they know in that city. I moved to Nairobi on a hope and a prayer, and, because of the people I’ve met along the way, managed to land an apartment and a handful of job interviews before I touched down. Seeing the world is nice, but meeting people and making friends is truly the best part.
People, to me, are the best part of traveling (which is somewhat paradoxical to say in a post about traveling alone). But tou never know who you are going to meet. And, in the information age, Facebook makes it much easier to stay in touch once you go your separate ways. Traveling by yourself makes you crave human connection, which causes you to open up.
8. Be Confident
“A ship in harbor is safe. But that is not what ships are built for.” – John Shedd
La Castellana, Negros Island, Philippines
The first few times you do it, traveling alone can be tough. When you are living in a familiar place, with a support network around you to fall back on for advice or companionship, you are challenged in different ways, but having to rely on your wits tends not to be one of them. When you get off that bus in a place you have never been, where few people speak the language and there is no one around to tell you that your guesthouse is just over that hill, or that immigration won’t let you in the country unless you get your visa in advance, you have to be diligent, adaptable, and creative.
You need always keep your eyes open, but also accept things as they come and not be so risk-averse that you avoid contact with everyone who doesn’t look like you. At the same time, you need to be wary not to get ripped off or robbed, and be persistent in figuring out where you need to go and how you need to get there. Sometimes, you need to be polite and patient; other times, a pushy asshole. But what you can’t do is rely on anyone else but yourself to make the right decision.
And when things go wrong, you learn from your mistakes and take that wisdom with you as you move forward. When things you go right, you get the satisfaction of knowing that, even with the odds stacked against you and no one to show you the way, it was you, and nobody else, that made it happen. When you travel alone, you come to realize that, in this world, you make your own luck.
Sometimes you might not have a conversation beyond a few cursory beyond, “Could you tell me where…” or, “a beer, please.” for a few days, so you have a lot of time to think about life and how to live it. That kind of introspection can be lost in the daily grind. The solitude of a language barrier in foreign country is sometimes enough to elicit some great thinking.
When I was in Ghana, I went through a rough patch for a few weeks and was calling my brother practically every day for advice. He told me to chill out and not call him for a week, since all the noise was clouding my thinking. “You’re out in the wilderness – it’ll be good for you,” he said. “Jesus was out in the wilderness for 30 years, except he didn’t have a cell phone.”
The point is well-taken. When you travel alone, you are in good historical company. Jesus, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, the kid from Flight of the Navigator. Sometimes it gets a little lonely, but you’ll be stronger as a result. As the great travel writer Paul Theroux once said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”
The cliffs of Malapascua Island.
Without a doubt, traveling alone makes you more confident. The same can be said for any time you venture outside your comfort zone, but putting yourself out there in a place foreign in all senses of the world is enough to give you the confidence that you can handle any situation. That feeling translates to other aspects of your life as well, and allows you to move through life with greater confidence and a belief that you can handle what comes with poise.
In Salt from My Attic, John Shedd wrote, “a ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.” So, if you are thinking about throwing your life in a backpack and can’t find anyone to join you, don’t be deterred. Just go for it, and enjoy the freedom of being out there on your own.
Below is a short photographic retrospective of all the places I’ve been these last few years.
Treble Cone, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Bamboo Island, off the coast Sihanoukville, Cambodia
The opera house, Sydney, Australia
Pai, two hours north of Chiang Mai, Thailand
Lome, the capital city of Togo, West Africa
Ephesus, southeastern coast of Turkey
Sulu Sea off the coast of Coron, the Philippines
Trekking to Inle Lake, Burma
Mendoza, Argentina - otherwise known as wine country
With Master Issa, the farmer I lived with in Tamale, Northern Ghana
The following is part three of a four-part post on the joys of solo travel.
In the last two posts, I talked about the need to be prepared for what to expect, and also to be adaptable when deciding what you are going to do while you are out there. Here, I will give a few tips on making the most of your time and creating an experience that is memorable.
6. Be adventurous
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” -Freya Stark
One of the best things about travelling alone is that decisions are made by a committee of one. You can look out for number one, and do whatever you want. If you feel like doing something, just do it. And a good policy is to use the word “no” sparingly. I had a strict rule when I traveled alone never to turn down an invitation from new friends to go out.
One weekend I flew to Manila for a wedding, and met some friends of friends who lived in the city. One thing led to another, and I found myself at a place called Ringside, where a new friend was called into the ring to referee a midget oil wrestling match. Twelve hours later – after chartering a jeepney, eating balut (a duck fetus) on the street, and bartering with a security guard for an extra pair of pants in order to get into a club with a strict dress code – we went to get breakfast. Sometimes life comes at you fast. The best thing to do is just roll with it.
A couple months after that crazy night in Manila, I went to Malapascua Island in northern Cebu in the Philippines to go see some manta rays and thresher sharks that come to bathe in a shoal off the island. A small crew – a couple of Aussies and Luna, a friend from Japan holding the balut to the left of me in the picture above – all met up independently on the island over the course of a few days, coming from all over the Philippines.
To see the sharks, we needed to get up at 4 AM in order to make it out to the shoal by sunrise. It turned out to be worth the early wake-up time, as I came face-to-face with a four-meter wide manta ray.
Sunrise in the Pacific Ocean – about to see some sharks.
In the afternoon, Luna and I went to explore the island. Our dive master told us about a cockfight that was happening in the afternoon and told us to come check it out. I made sure I had enough money in my wallet to place a few bets, and we started wandering around the island looking a group of shouting Filipinos holding roosters. It took about 20 minutes.
This brings me to my next point – gambling is a fun thing to do while you travel. I won $200 playing blackjack in Mendoza, Argentina, by following the lead of the guy next to me, who counted cards. In Thailand, my brother and I bet against the Thais at a muay-thai boxing fight in Chiang Mai. My brother is a bit older than I am and lived in Bangkok for a few months when he was 23, and made a documentary about American ex-pats living in Thailand. On this occasion, after winning $20 by betting on an Argentine fighter against a Thai, he shared some wisdom: “At these fights, always bet on the white guy.” Almost certainly, he will be twice the size of his (or her – we saw a lady-boxing match too) opponent.
But in Malapascua, it was different, since it was roosters, rather than people, who were fighting. I had never bet on fighting cocks before, and I didn’t really speak the local language either. So I found a guy who spoke broken English to place my bets for me, and put 500 pesos on “blue.” For those who have not seen a cockfight, it isn’t pretty and it’s over quick. I won, or so I thought. I intended to bet on the Filipino handler in the blue shirt – whose bird ended up winning – but the guy placing my bets thought I meant the fighting cock with blue ribbon tied to its spur. Just one of those cultural things that gets lost in translation.
Sadly, I lost that bet. But, with a lesson learned, I won the next four consecutive fights. Turns out, I’m a natural.
On another occasion, I went to the Aboakyer Festival in Winneba, a town two hours southwest of Accra in Ghana where my friend had just rented an apartment. Calling it an apartment is really charitable, since it was a room in a converted beach resort with a tiny bathroom and kitchen that he paid about $40 a month to rent. There were 5 of us sleeping in the room. Me and another person were on the floor, three were were packed into the bed, and my buddy and his girlfriend – the rightful tenants of the apartment – went to sleep on the beach. On the second night, the electricity went out, and I tripped and fell down the front steps while trying to brush my teeth, and scraped up my leg.
The next morning, I said goodbye to my friends and left to find a tro-tro that would take me to Cape Coast. I wasn’t really sure where I was going or what I was going to do. I had the name of a guesthouse on the beach that was supposed to be pretty cool. When I arrived after two hours, I disembarked in the center of town and sat down at a roadside food stand to eat some rice and collect my thoughts. I had made the mistake of not cleaning my cut the night before, and it had started to become infected. Fortunately, I was well-versed in self-care when it comes to travel wounds from my escapades in Asia. So, after getting my bearings, I went to find a pharmacy to buy some hydrogen peroxide and some gauze to clean my cut.
I remember sitting on a plastic chair outside the pharmacy, pouring hydrogen peroxide on my legs, and looking up to see a couple of Ghanaian women laughing at me. I guess I probably did seem a bit out of place – a white guy in a tank top and board shorts cleaning himself up on the street in Cape Coast. So I made some self-deprecating remark about my clumsiness, and they laughed even more.
Memories like those are particularly vivid. They are the moments when you ask yourself, like Rimbaud in Ethiopia, “What the hell am I doing here?” When you find yourself asking that question a lot, you know are you doing the right thing.
Where I disembarked in Elmina, the next town over from Cape Coast
Another of those experiences happened when I was in Burma. It was my first day there and my friend and I dropped our bags at the guesthouse and went to explore Rangoon. We first needed to book a bus trip up north, and I got taken for a few dollars (I think) by some swindlers in the main market when we went to go change money – not a great start. But then we went over to the equivalent of Central Park in Rangoon, where couples were lounging on the benches and families were relaxing by the water. After a half-hour of zig-zagging along boardwalks through the park, we came upon a small group of people. Some kids were drumming, and others were dressed in all yellow, and covered with some sort of yellow paint. Clearly, something was about to happen.
After a half-hour, I felt like moving on, but my friend insisted we stay for a few more minutes. Suddenly, hundreds of people came marching into the park, followed by drummers and people carrying a statue of a Hindu god. What followed blew my mind. The people in yellow began going into violent trances, and had to be restrained by others. I saw an old woman knocked to the ground by a young woman flailing her arms wildly. A kid my age pierced his tongue with a miniature trident, while people were chanting loudly. Eventually, the procession led out of the park and into a nearby field, where a bed of hot coals had been laid out. A test of the faithful, apparently.
One of the best parts of traveling alone is novelty of new experiences and unpredictable nature of things. One minute you are sitting quietly in a park; the next, you are watching a Hindu fire-walking ceremony.
The following is part two of a three-part post on the joys of solo travel.
The other day I talked about the need to be prepared. Today, I will talk about going with the flow.
3. Be adaptable
“A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu
I think you need to strike a balance between planning and winging it. Do enough research to cover your bases and make sure you don’t end up in a situation you can’t handle. Make an itinerary for yourself, but don’t feel the need to stick to it with a religious zeal. When you are going to a new place, it helps to book a room in a guesthouse, but only do it for one night, just in case the place turns out to be dodgy. Try to avoid being homeless, and but don’t commit to one place so and make it so that you can’t bail if you feel like it.
There are a few schools of thought on traveling. Some people like depth – spending a lot of time in one place, relaxing and enjoying the peace of mind that comes from being able to drop your backpack, knowing that you don’t have to pick it up again for another week. Others want to see it all, and feel like every minute spent here is a minute not spent there. My father falls in the latter, while my brother is more the former. I fall somewhere in the middle, and take it on a case-by-case basis.
Sometimes friends materialize out of nowhere.
In Ghana, for example, I took a tro-tro from my buddy’s place in Winneba down to Cape Coast and Elmina, expecting to spend a day before moving West to a place called the Green Turtle Lodge. When I arrived at the Stumble Inn, a cheap resort run by a Dutch couple in Elmina, I put my bag down and took a nap by the beach. Moving west would mean packing up my bag again and taking another four-hour tro-tro down. Tired of traveling, I decided to kick back and relax. A week later, I settled my bill and moved on.
I made a friend at the guesthouse, and my buddy and his girlfriend came down from Winneba to a few nights there after a village stay with a farmer fell through. The water was nice, the bar was stocked, the food was good, and, by pure chance, I happened to have a few friends around. Why spoil a good thing?
But sometimes the stars don’t align the way you had hoped. After an amazing four days of scuba diving in Coron, an island in Palawan that was the inspiration for the novel The Beach, I flew to Manila. I was planning on taking a bus up north to La Union, a town northern Luzon, to do some surfing. I bid farewell to a friend I’d met on the boat, and walked to the exit to hail a taxi at around 7 PM. The main terminal in Ninoy Aquino International Airport has huge glass walls with a view of the city.
The view from the bar at the SeaDive Resort in Coron. Also featured in Andrew Sullivan's "View from your Window" contest.
I took a moment to reflect on my plans. Looking out at the city skyline, I thought about the traffic, the pollution, and the seedy red light district where my favorite guesthouse happened to be located. After a few contemplative minutes, I turned around, walked up to the Cebu Pacific ticket counter and bought a flight to Cebu that night for $30. I got on the next flight and arrived in Cebu City at 11, called a friend to get a recommendation for a place to stay, took a taxi there and booked a room.
The next morning, I got up early and took a bus to Moalboal, a town two hours south that someone recommended in Coron. Twenty meters below the surface of the ocean, surrounded by millions of sardines off the coast of Pescadero Island, the decision to re-write the plan was validated.
Pescador Island in Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines
Sometimes, things work out the way you expect. Sometimes, they don’t. The best thing to do is to not worry too much about seeing everything, but also not become completely complacent and stop moving after the first day. If you can find good people and a guesthouse with a bar and preferably a view of the ocean, then my advice is to just take it easy.
Sweet sea turtle in Moalboal
4. Pick up a New Hobby
“Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting.” – Robert Thomas Allen
Playing cards on the beach in Ghana
Whenever I hit the road, I always bring a deck of cards and my Yahtzee dice. There are few things more enjoyable than sitting around playing cards for hours, preferably at the beach in a bar overlooking the beach.
Yahtzee is a great one too, since you can play one game for hours and it really never gets old. According to legend, the game was invented in 1954 by an anonymous Canadian couple. They called it Yahtzee because they played it when they were cruising around the world on their yacht, which may be the reason that the game appeals to me so much. With the slogan “The fungame that makings thinking fun!”, Yahtzee keeps the neurons firing after a week of lazy hammock-lounging.
When I went to visit some friends living in Buenos Aires a few years ago, they told me about an amazing game they’d picked up and had been playing non-stop for the last six months. When I returned to the U.S., I bought the Yahtzee Deluxe edition, with a leather-bound rolling cup. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve taught at at least one person to play, and keep the cycle going.
It is cool to pick up a hobby also. I had a friend living in rural South Korea who learned to juggle to pass the time. It’s an amazing idea. So, every since then, when I’m on the road alone and waiting for a bus or just trying to pass the time, I can still be learning a sweet skill.
Juggling in Burma
Juggling in the Philippines
5. Bring Speakers
You never know when you might want to play some tunes
See the speakers next to the sink.
In the next post, I will talk about the importance of being adventurous and opening up to people on the road.
The following is part one of a three-part post about the joys of solo travel.
“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Two years ago this month, I left my home in Boston and moved to the Philippines. During that time, I traveled solo through Asia and parts of Africa. Traveling with companions is easier. Being alone on the road can be a bit more daunting, but it is worth it.
In Kep, Cambodia - first time on a motorbike.
I’ve explored sunken Japanese shipwrecks in the Philippines, biked through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and celebrated the Buddhist New Year festival, Thingyan, in Burma. After crashing a motorbike in Koh Phanang off the coast of Thailand, I spent five days in Bangkok, nursing my wounds in an Israeli guesthouse. I spent a month backpacking through Ghana, planning my next move a day in advance. I went on a safari in Kenya with a family of nine Koreans, none of whom spoke any English.
A lot of people don’t like to travel alone. Some people feel that companionship makes the experience easier and more navigable. Having someone to commiserate with when your bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or to pay the bill at the hostel when you are bedridden with food poisoning. Others believe experiences are amplified when shared with others. And some people just don’t like being alone.
I happen to agree with all of these things. But sometimes, no one is around and you have to go it alone. The best thing to do is embrace the sense of adventure, uncertainty, and relish in the joys of self-reliance.
So here is some advice to the lone traveler, with only a backpack, a Lonely Planet guidebook, and the inside of their head to keep them company.
Counting kyats in Burma
1. Be prepared
Before you leave, it helps to have an idea in your head of what to expect when you arrive. For example, Burma has no ATM machines and they only accept brand-new, mint condition bills. Two British kids I met outside the IMAX theater in Bangkok (I went to see Avatar) told me to go the main headquarters of the largest bank in Thailand and exchange Thai baht for mint condition US currency. In the airport in Vietnam I had to lend an Austrian girl $50 to pay for her visa because she thought she could use Euros.
In the old days before the information age, it was more difficult to know what to expect, which added to the adventure. Today, you can find out anything on the Internet. Knowing what you need before you need it is important, since you are unlikely to get a whole lot of sympathy from some stir-crazy customs officials.
2. Be proactive
Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet are useful to get your bearings in a country and survey the landscape. They have sample itineraries that can be more useful than others. In Burma, a photocopied version of the guidebook that my friend bought in Cambodia proved useful in planning an 8-day jaunt around the country. In places like Thailand, however, relying on the guidebook for advice can lead you to the most heavily-trafficked locations, which detracts from the authenticity of the experience.
The best sources of information are who have lived in the country, since they typically know the best places. If you can, try to link up with friends and friends of friends living there. Being a Kiva Fellow is nice, since there is a vast network for alumni and people on the ground in developing countries around the world. In Cambodia, knowing the right exchange rate helps not to get ripped off. In Burma especially, the ex-pats living in the country have been there for years. A friend of a friend took around Thingyan, which turned out to be the best party I’ve been to in my life.
Consulting the Lonely Planet at a roadside teahouse in Rangoon
In my next post, I will talk about the importance of being adaptable.
The crowded maternity ward of the government-run Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, Philippines, on June 1, 2011. The ward, the busiest in the country, sees an average of 60 births every day. (Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo)
According to the United Nations’ Population Fund, the world population reached seven billion people today. The bulk of the growth is concentrated in a few countries – China, India, Brazil, etc. – yet one country, in particular, constitutes a disproportionate share, given its size. The Philippines – an archipelago nation of 7,100 islands with a combined land mass slightly larger than Arizona – has a population of 94 million, making it the 12th most populous nation in the world.
The Philippines is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world in terms of population. The roots of its explosive growth date back to Spanish colonialism. Ferdinand Magellan laid the foundation of Spanish influence with his arrival in the Philippines in 1521, introducing what would ultimately become the most influential force in shaping the social policies of the country: Roman Catholicism. Today, 80% of the country is Roman Catholic. After Brazil and Mexico, the Philippines is the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.
Its representation among the people of the Philippines gives the Catholic Church a powerful influence over the direction of the country, with mixed results. In some cases, it has been a force for good. For example, the Archbishop of Manila helped precipitate the People Power Revolution – the largest non-violent revolution in world history – leading to the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Unfortunately, its impact on family planning, reproductive health, and population growth in general, has been less productive.
The Roman Catholic Church is ardently anti-contraception, and its dogma has held back just about every piece of progressive family planning legislation introduced. In 1973, the Church released a position paper on the “population question” in the Philippines. Its stance is consistent with doctrine, condemning “artificial contraception” and promotion “natural family planning” as the only licit and moral form of contraception:
The Catholic Church teaches the necessity of responsible parenthood and correct family planning (one child at a time depending on one’s circumstances), while at the same time teaching that large families are a sign of God’s blessings. It teaches that modern natural family planning, a method of fertility awareness, is in accord with God’s design, as couples give themselves to each other as they are.
The sixth and final bullet holds the key to understanding the rapid population growth in the country:
In the Philippines, our underdevelopment, we believe, stems not so much from overpopulation as from injustice. While we are not absolutely opposed to the slowing down of our growth rate, we are against an antinatalist mentality, and we wish to emphasize the necessity for greater initiative and spirit of enterprise, a more just distribution of wealth and power, and a wiser use of our resources as solutions to our underdevelopment.
This philosophy – injustice trumps population growth in economic development – is as popular today as it was in 1973. It is an anti-Malthusian stance, saying that resource allocation, rather than availability, is the problem. And today, in debates over a controversial reproductive health bill, the Philippines continues to grapple with the question of how to deal with its growing population.
The Reproductive Health Bill would provide access to all effective forms of contraception and methods of family planning, including distribution of condoms and contraceptives to women unable to afford them. Schools would be required to teach health and sexual education and the government would integrate family planning and responsible parenthood to all anti-poverty programs. The Wall Street Journal gives some background on the bill and the opposition toward the new president, Noynoy Aquino, from the Catholic Church:
Since taking office at the end of June, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the son of pro-democracy icons Benigno Aquino Jr. and Corazon Aquino, has put his weight behind the idea that the government has a responsibility needs to inform people of family-planning choices.
Under the proposed legislation, government health authorities would be obliged have to provide information about family-planning methods, both artificial and natural. Government clinics would supply condoms and contraceptive pills and also give advice about other contraceptive methods. Abortion would remain illegal.
Church officials in September threatened Mr. Aquino, a practicing Catholic, with possible excommunication if he supports the family-planning and reproductive-health legislation. Conservative activists also reacted strongly. Eric Manalang, president of the Pro-Life Philippines lobby group, says legislation is unnecessary, noting that the country’s population growth has slowed from the 3.5% annual growth rate in the 1960s.
Proponents claim that, on a macro scale, rapid population growth and high fertility rates exacerbate poverty and hinder economic development by keeping poor families poor. Large families often lack resources to invest in education and healthcare for their children. Aside from the obvious health benefits in preventing the transmission of STDs and reducing unwanted pregnancies (44% of unwanted pregnancies in the lowest quartile are unexpected), 71% of the country supports the bill (though another study in 2009 showed that, when explained the components of the plan, 91% of Filipinos rejected the bill).
Opponents feel that the scientific evidence and economic rationale behind the theory, citing a study from 2003 by the Rand Corporation that claims “there is little cross-country evidence that population growth impedes or promotes economic growth.” They claim that condoms increase the incidence of HIV/AIDS and oral contraceptives are carcinogenic. The Wikipedia page has a good summary of the main arguments against a family planning bill.
None of these arguments seem very convincing to me. But that is besides the point. At its core, the debate is already settled in the minds of bill’s critics. That is because the Reproductive Health Bill is morally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and antithetical to devout Catholics in the country. But the moral basis for opposing the bill is rarely mentioned by critics. Instead, dubious science and cherry-picked quotes provide the “factual” basis for opposition. Just as gay marriage inevitably leads to the “destruction of the traditional family,” modern family planning and free contraceptives have deleterious social impacts. In both cases, an evidence-based opposition – built on flimsy assumptions and extrapolated conclusions – supports the moral conviction.
And the argument today is no different than it was in 1973. In the National Review a few months ago, Christopher White explained why he opposed the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines:
The current bill in the Philippines aims to provide a roadmap for “responsible parenthood.” The solutions presented to achieve this are a state recommended family size of two children per couple, mandatory government family-planning certification in order to receive a marriage license, and mandatory sexual education in all schools. This bill, in effect, focuses on what will go on in schools before the schools or the roads that lead to them are even built. Rather than looking internally to see what it can do to promote the family and improve their current working and living conditions, the Filipino government would seemingly rather penalize the family unit itself for the nation’s economic ills.
The argument is the same as that of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Rather than focusing on limiting family size, the government should promote education and employment for its people. Sure, population growth could be a problem, but it pales in comparison to the social injustices affecting the underclass.
The government of the Philippines is certainly corrupt, and it could and should be doing more for the 30% of the population living below the poverty line. But denying the obvious link between poverty and family size (57% of families with seven children are in poverty, compared with 24% among those with two children) and crafting a flawed economic argument to support a moral position (without actually explicitly mentioning the religious rationale) is counterproductive.
White concludes with an anecdote from Singapore:
On February 3, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year by urging his citizens to have more children: “We also need Singaporeans to produce enough babies to replace ourselves, and that has proved extremely challenging.” In addition, the PM noted that additional children bring “more joy” to families. The Philippines would do well to heed Mr. Loong’s advice. Not only will they find more joy, but also, like their neighbors in Hong Kong and Singapore, they’re likely to find prosperity.
He doubles down, encouraging people in a country with one of the highest population growth rates in the world to have not less but more children. But Singapore and the Philippines are two very different countries – socially, economically, physically, demographically, and culturally. And, if Christopher White has been to either, which I doubt, he would surely understand this.
Family size correlates with poverty incidence in the Philippines. I don’t know whether having a large family makes it more likely for a family to live in poverty, or education and middle-class status make people less likely to have a large family. But either way, average family size shrinks as relative economic development increases.
What Christopher White and, to a much greater extent, the Catholic Church support has held back the Philippines for generations for decades. With some luck and a bit of political will from the new president, the Philippines will exchange the moral prescriptions of the church for a more practical approach. In doing so, the Philippines will quickly realize its potential.