The paradox of our poverty | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

The paradox of our poverty

Why is this nation poor?

The answers are mostly framed by two paradigms in looking at the world’s economies: the modernization theory, the ideological backdrop to “development,” and the dependency theory, mainly from the context of Latin America.

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Modernization as a concept was first formulated in North America in the 1950s by sociologists like Talcott Parsons, who believed that the forces unleashed in highly developed economies—industrialization and urbanization—would eventually engulf the whole world.

Within this narrative, nations are poor because they have certain “deficits”—lack of capital, technology, skilled human or natural resources, like in sub-Saharan Africa. But countries like the Philippines have none of these “deficits,” yet are mysteriously poor.

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We have immense natural resources: The land is fertile, biodiverse and highly mineralized.

We have a highly educated citizenry: Our professional classes serve as consultants to the development needs of Asia, while those at the lower end have a high level of multicultural and social skills that supply the demand for quality human touch in service industries worldwide.

We are not without capital: Our old mestizo elite and newly emerged Chinese-Filipino taipans invest in China, Australia and other places, and there is a lot of old or plundered money stashed in Swiss banks or sleeping in Panama or some financial capital somewhere.

We are ingeniously innovative and savvy in accessing new technologies. This is seen in our competitive competencies in information technology, and Filipinos top surveys in the global use of texting and social media. While our use of technology is largely more for social rather than functional reasons, we are culturally tuned up for the agility and creativity demanded by a world that is now in constant flux.

We may not be aware of it yet, but we are at a cusp in the world’s economic history where our peculiarities as a people—the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, say—make the country singularly poised to take advantage of the collocation between our culture and the uncertainties of what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquidity” in the global economic order.

Against this theory of “deficits,” sociological studies would account our poverty to structural inequalities. In its older form, this line of analysis took the form of Marxist-influenced dependency theories. Simply put, this theory postulated that the poor countries of the “periphery” were being bilked by rich capitalist countries of the “center.”

These predatory economies depressed world market prices of raw materials while inflating the prices of manufactured goods, selling them at excessive profit to poor countries through transnational corporations.

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This structural explanation lost ground with the collapse of socialist states. But it cannot be dismissed offhand in these days of overreliance on global market forces as a way of “lifting all boats.” While highly generalized, the core-periphery language continues to be cogent as to why there is unequal growth within and among countries. We hear it in this country when people in the South rail against “imperial Manila.”

But the dependency theory does not account sufficiently for the laggard performance of the Philippines in the last half-century. It does not help us very much in identifying the country-specific factors that may explain the Philippines’ lag in growth vis-à-vis our neighbors in East and Southeast Asia.

These newly industrialized countries managed to overcome the shared handicap of colonialism and an authoritarian history, while the Philippines continues to languish under the negative residues of these influences.

Clearly, a black hole exists somewhere between the highly generalized paradigms explaining underdevelopment and the often narrowly technical and discrete studies within these narratives. We cast about for some coherent answer, some clarity, as to why a country does well and another fails under quite similar conditions.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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