A matter of urgency
Are Filipinos the dumbest people in Southeast Asia? If one is to believe data found in the internet, the Philippines ranks at the bottom of the 10 Asean countries in average intelligence quotient (IQ) of the people, at 86. The ranking is attributed to an 80-country study supposedly carried in 2002-2006 by British psychologist Richard Lynn and Finnish political scientist Tatu Vanhanen.
The authors reportedly linked national income differences to differences in the average national IQ, even as many other factors can come into play. Their results are described as controversial and hotly debated. As I have yet to see a copy of the original study, I can’t discount the possibility that it is all in the realm of “fake news” (and I sure hope it is).
Fake news or not, our supposed low IQ ranking relative to our neighbors is not entirely implausible. In a recent forum, someone asked if the quality of voter’s choices in our country might not reflect a general inadequacy in intellect. In discussions in recent months with local stakeholders on persistent poverty, I’ve constantly heard people lament how their townmates stubbornly resist new technologies or new livelihoods, even if clearly demonstrated to promise much higher incomes.
“Mahina ang ulo” (weak of intellect) and “tamad” (lazy) are painful adjectives I’ve heard too often, to describe the poor and why they remain so. Still, my fellow researchers and I believe that it is imposed circumstances, not inherent faults of the people,that lead to such disparaging depictions of our less fortunate compatriots.
As I write this, I have just listened to a presentation showing that our country’s aggregate outward payments for intellectual property (IP) from abroad have been large and growing, while payments received by Filipinos from abroad for their own IP—in the form of inventions, technologies, research products and artistic products—are nearly zero. We are major intellectual property importers, but hardly export any of our own intellectual property. A general reflection, one might think, that intelligence leading to intellectual properties is at a deficit in this country.
I can’t help but connect all this to a matter to which I’ve been calling attention for some time now: the rather high incidence of biological stunting among young Filipino children—i.e., children whose height is substantially below the average for their age (technically, two standard deviations below the median). The official statistics put 33.5 percent of our children five years old and below to be stunted. That is a national average. It is much worse in certain areas, like Muslim Mindanao where the incidence is one out of every two young children.
Physiologists tell us that 90 percent of brain development in a human being happens before age five, with only the remaining 10 percent gained after that. I’ve also seen photos of actual brain scans of stunted and healthy young children, showing far less brain “white matter” in a stunted child’s brain than that of a well-nourished child.
What this all means is that a child stunted at age five is damaged for life, and will never reach his/her full brain and physical development potential in adulthood. As I have been warning my audiences, the “demographic sweet spot” (where working-age people will be the most dominant segment of the population), which is expected to be an advantage for the Philippines in the decades ahead, is actually more of a demographic time bomb if we consider that one in three workers in the future will be the stunted young children of today. That is why it is extremely urgent that we put maximum attention to bringing those stunting numbers down, as fast as we could.
It can be done. Peru showcases how a country should do it: It succeeded in cutting its 28-percent child stunting incidence in 2008 down to only 13 percent by 2016, cutting stunting in half in just eight years. It took dedicated attention by four successive presidents, and active multisectoral partnerships focusing on the first 1,000 days of children and their mothers, starting from conception.
For us Filipinos, this is a matter of great urgency. Our very future as a nation hangs on it.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.