25 Sentimo

 

A week after arriving in The Philippines, I came across an English language Filipino newspaper called the ‘Manilla Bulletin’.

Anya and I were staying in a typical tourist lodge on the coast of the island of Cebu. I was perusing the books left behind by other travellers when I noticed a few editions of the  ‘Manilla Bulletin’ lying folded on the bottom shelf of a dark, wooden book case (the four shelves above it crammed with dog-eared, sun bleached novels, none of them in English or Dutch).

I grabbed the newspapers and took them back to my room and began reading.

There was one article which really drew my interest.

It was from the hand of a journalist named Tonyo Cruz and it was entitled:

‘DON’T FORGET OUR SOCIO-ECONOMIC RIGHTS’

The following lines got me in:

‘Governments from the time of Fidel Ramos to Noynoy Aquino have loudly boasted about economic figures. And the boasting continues under Rodrigo Duterte, with sycophants proclaiming the Philippines economy supposedly besting even China’s! This is what the Duterte administration wants us to forget: recent economic growth has not resulted in the attainment of the rights to work, to just wages, to land, to adequate standard of living, and to health, housing and education – in many instances, the situation has become worse…..just like past presidents, Duterte’s boasts amount to empty, jobless growth.’

The following statistics were quoted by Cruz:

11.5 Filipinos were unemployed; 10 million were working overseas; 5,800 left the country every day to work overseas; of those employed, 60% lived on 125 Pesos a day or less.

100 Pesos was the equivalent of $2.60 Australian or, 2 Euros.

Then I read the following:

The combined wealth of 15 wealthiest individuals is equivalent to the income of 77 million Filipinos.

Duterte had introduced tax cuts for the rich and slashed corporate taxes (gee, didn’t that sound familiar!) which Cruz observed, would be paid for by the poor and the middle classes. In addition, Cruz pointed out, Duterte has sold off the telecommunications industry to the Chinese without any proper investigation into the sale or the implications for national security.

 

On arriving in The Philippines, I was surprised right from day one by the poverty – the number of people living in shacks and worse. A taxi ride – followed by a bus trip – through the poorer areas of Cebu city – was a graphic introduction to the country. 

A day after reading the article by Cruz, we were on a local bus heading south. We wanted to get on a ferry to the neighbouring island of Negros. The bus took us through  a rural setting. On our left were steep mountain sides clothed in jungle. On our right was a rocky coast. Villages and small towns hugged to the road. The bus stopped often to pick up anyone who wanted to get on. We got a good view of local life and once again, I was surprised at the poverty; how basic the shops and stores, how limited their wares; the number of students crammed into small schools; the lack of any kind of infrastructure; the small houses constructed of bamboo and wood and sometimes no more than a single room.

At one point, as our bus rattled along, Anya took the coins from her wallet and began studying them.

We were still trying to familiarise ourselves with the currency.

There were six banknotes: 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 Pesos.

Easy enough.

The coins however were more difficult even though there were only three of them: 1, 5 and 10 Pesos. The problem was, at first glance, they all looked the same. Hence it was a good idea to familiarise ourselves with them. Anya passed over the three coins and I put my glasses on and studied them.

Then she found a couple of small coins deep in her wallet, pulled them out and said: ‘Hey, have a look at this!’

She passed one of them over. There was no mistaking this one. It was much smaller than the others.

25 Sentimo. This coin wasn’t mentioned in our guide book.

25 Sentimo: a quarter of a Peso.

Shit! A quarter of a Peso!

One Peso = 2.6 Australian cents or 2 Euro cents.

25 Sentimo = .6 of an Australian cent or .4 Euro cents.

I turned this thing over in my mind.

5 cents Australian = 8 of those small 25 Sentimo coins.

The 5 cent coin in Australia was useless, like the 10 and 20 cent coins. Their only reason for their existence was because in the advertisements, no one ever rounded off the price. It was always 24.80 or 90 or 95 and never 25. Psychology and it worked, apparently.

That there was a 25 Sentimo coin in existence said all there was to be said about poverty in a developing nation. The statistics quoted by Tonya Cruz were important and shocking, but holding that coin in my hand, that tiny, tiny fraction of value, as our bus rattled passed huts and dilapidated little stalls and shops, was somehow more graphic; an emotional dimension to the words and figures on a page.

 

Poverty, inequality.

So much could be said about it. There were many sides to it.

One of them was population growth.

The population of the Philippines was over a 100 million (the official census put it at 104 million but people I spoke to told me that the census was notoriously inaccurate and that they suspected the population was closer to 120 million).

The average age was 24.2

There was a ‘youth bulge’ in The Philippines. One only needed to walk around the slums in the cities or the villages and towns in the rural areas to realise that. The swarms of children, the ubiquitous sight of pregnant women with a bevy of kids in tow.

If the Filipino economy were to grow at 5% a year, corruption was drastically curtailed, a progressive taxation system implemented – very unlikely, naturally – even then, given the present rate of population growth, nothing would substantially change. You would be in effect, treading water.

Further: The Philippines was a long way from having a high birth rate in comparison with say the nations of Africa or the Middle East.

 

If an important driver behind poverty and inequality was over population, then in turn, behind this was another set of factors, e.g. such as religion and tradition, low education and critically, – the gender gap. In societies with rapidly growing populations, there was invariably an entrenched pattern of sexism. This was certainly true of The Philippines and a good deal of the blame here resided with the Catholic church.

Rapid population growth had widespread implications. Take climate change, for example.

Climate change was caused by carbon emissions and we needed to develop alternative sources of energy quickly. Yet any discussion about climate change which ignored other issues such as social economic inequality and population growth was destined to be an exercise in futility. Only coal fired power stations – or nuclear reactors – could provide the enormous amounts of energy required by a rapidly expanding population. In India for example, the government was constructing coal fired power stations at a frenetic rate; it had promised the poor that they too, would have cheap energy. India’s population of over a billion people was growing at over 20 million people a year. In Nigeria, an oil producing nation, four massive nuclear reactors had just been purchased from the Russians – once again, to provide power for the rapidly expanding poor.

 

It was possible to see many things in that diminutive coin, that coin which only the poor valued: 25 Sentimo.

Behind its bronze shine there was a range of interrelated issues which we needed to discuss and what’s more, at the global level.

But it wasn’t happening.

Activists campaigned for single issues e.g. green energy, bio-diversity, foreign aid and climate change; or their focus was purely on western societies, this whilst the big changes needed to occur in the underdeveloped world – e.g. feminism.

One thing is certain: poverty in the developing world and all its attendant issues demand an integrated, global approach. Of which we are it seems, as members of the species Homo Sapiens, deeply incapable. Yet it’s a dangerous illusion for the world’s affluent to think that the problems of the developing world can be isolated or ignored.

We are all on the same boat.

 

I hung on to the 25 Sentimo coin.

Still got it.

I won’t part with it.

It’s a souvenir.

Strange kind of souvenir.

It symbolises all the failings of our world and the dots we need to join up if we are concerned about the future of our planet.

It will only cease to have any value to me when it – and all its cousins all over the developing world – go out of circulation.

Only then will I know that we are on the right course.