Christina was in her early 30’s, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved knit shirt, and a smile on her face. She had a touching personal story of sadness, hope, and grit. She worked in Chicago as a skilled, blue collar worker in a printing company. She was proud of what she had achieved and was excited about returning to her home in Manila. She was would be seeing her three school-age children for the first time in five years.
The young woman did not think her story remarkable, and the tragedy of the Philippines is that it is not. She is part of the Philippines largest export – its people. The remittances she and millions of other Filipinos send home to support their extended families totaled nearly $13 billion in 2006, a sum equal to about 11 percent of GDP. Remittances turned a $7.5 billion trade deficit into a $2.3 billion balance of payments surplus.
Filipinos are surprisingly proud of their overseas workforce and its contribution to the economy despite the negative reflection on an economy that cannot begin to employ all of its workers at a standard above abject poverty. Somewhere between 40-60 percent of Filipino workers earn $2-4 per day.
Unfortunately, most of the remittances end up in Metro Manila, an urban conglomeration of 16 cities and 12 million people, with the highest population density in Southeast Asia and greater than Cairo. It is these remittances that allow middle and upper income Filipinos to shop at several of the world’s largest upscale indoor shopping centers.
The Filipino spirit of individualism, pride, resourcefulness and self-reliance are no more apparent than in the chromed and colorful “jeepneys,” (see picture) the backbone of a unique private transportation system. The origins of these amazing vehicles are in the surplus American Army jeeps of World War II, upon which the impoverished but resourceful Filipinos added covered extensions.
Today the jeepney is a much larger affair, with a hand-built body and an eclectic mix of used and reconditioned parts from Japanese and other vehicles. Each one is unique. Bald tires are common. Styles range from bus-like bodies to jeepneys whose rear looks like the back of a railroad passenger car.
The Philippines is struggling to modernize and improve the competitiveness and efficiency of its economy. In terms of the gross financial and economic indicators, the country has made some progress. Its assembled electronics, the single largest export category, appear to be maintaining their relatively small niche in the global market, and GDP growth has been near or above 5 percent in the past three years. But without major political and economic change, most Filipinos will depend on their own energy and resourcefulness for their livelihoods, as symbolized by the jeepney. Without a wholesale reform of its institutions and economic policies, Christina and tens of millions like her will pay a great personal price to provide for the needs of their families.