Empowering Filipinos: why it hasn’t worked


Inclusive growth – that has become sort of a buzz word for the government of current Philippine president Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino. In fact, the definition BS Aquino has for it includes, “to empower citizens to become bona fide actors who productively contribute to nation building”.

It sounds nice really, but the results up to now speak for themselves. BS Aquino’s government can bandy all that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and their credit ratings upgrades as successes to kingdom come, but if unemployment and the rising prices of goods – things which matter more to the average Filipino – remain as they are, then all that “success” and that talk of growth are for naught.

Following that bald Aquino apologist display by Yoly Ong’s “So that the public may know…and decide”, over at Rappler, they also published a write-up by UP student Jose Maria Marella, “Pro-middle class is also pro-poor”. He asks the following question: How can the Philippine economy expect to achieve and maintain inclusive and sustainable growth if we are not building our middle class?

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He asserts that the current growth model in the Philippines has not focused on building the middle class, the one that is supposedly a driving force for modern economies.

Why the middle class?

US President Barack Obama, in a speech delivered at Osawatomie High School in Kansas, emphasized that an empowered middle class would bolster entrepreneurship, promote innovation, and invest in education, among others.

But more than anything, he asserts it is the middle class that would help promote better governance by supporting policies that are widespread and foresighted since their economic fate is closely intertwined with the quality of public service.

The poor also stand to benefit from an empowered middle class.

Nancy Birdsall, founding president of the Center for Global Development (CGD), echoes President Obama’s assertion: the poor benefit when an economically strong middle class insists on accountable government and supports, through their willingness to pay taxes, universal and adequate public services.
Indeed, how can the Philippine economy expect to achieve and maintain inclusive and sustainable growth if we are not building our middle class?

The middle class serves as job creators since they fuel consumption, which in turn creates jobs.

Furthermore, he asserts as well that not only does the middle class need to be defined much better, they can also be empowered by doing tax reform, energy reform, and focusing on infrastructure. These are areas of concern, of course, that BS Aquino’s government seems to want nothing to do with.

Empowerment of the middle class and of the poor – it looks really nice on paper, and in theory. However, in the Filipino context, applying such an idea rests on two very big assumptions:

1) That Filipinos want to be empowered, and;

2) That Filipinos will use such empowerment wisely.


The first question we need to ask: Do Filipinos want to be empowered? Or rather, does their society encourage empowerment?

Let’s start with a working definition of what empowerment is.

Although we recognized that empowerment had elements in common with such concepts as self-esteem and self-efficacy, we also felt that these concepts did not fully capture what we saw as distinctive about empowerment. After much discussion, we defined empowerment as having a number of qualities, as follows:

1. Having decision-making power.
2. Having access to information and resources.
3. Having a range of options from which to make choices (not just yes/no, either/or.)
4. Assertiveness.
5. A feeling that the individual can make a difference (being hopeful).
6. Learning to think critically; learning the conditioning; seeing things differently; e.g.,
a. Learning to redefine who we are (speaking in our own voice).
b. Learning to redefine what we can do.
c. Learning to redefine our relationships to institutionalized power.
7. Learning about and expressing anger.
8. Not feeling alone; feeling part of a group.
9. Understanding that people have rights.
10. Effecting change in one’s life and one’s community.
11. Learning skills (e.g., communication) that the individual defines as important.
12. Changing others’ perceptions of one’s competency and capacity to act.
13. Coming out of the closet.
14. Growth and change that is never ending and self-initiated.
15. Increasing one’s positive self-image and overcoming stigma.

All that definition, however, flies in the face of two inescapable realities about Filipino society: that it is an inherently unjust one, and that Filipinos see their way of life as a zero-sum game – i.e., that for every “winner” in the “game”, there has to be a loser.

Empowerment works only if the members of your community are geared to work towards a specific goal of the betterment of everyone. However, Filipinos are culturally hobbled by a compulsion to assert class dominance over each other. There is no way in hell that Filipinos will ever think of the greater good before their own; they have this baseless sense of being more important than everyone else.

If I were one of the rich here in the Philippines, I would see an empowered middle class as a threat to my consumer base. I would also see a thinking poor as a threat because I won’t be able to dupe them as easily into thinking the way I want them to. An empowered poor is a threat to others in Filipino society who like to take advantage of the poor for their own personal gain. An empowered poor is also a threat to the poor who are simply content to wait for dole-outs from their respective politicians.

With empowerment comes the ability to influence one’s own life and be accountable for his/her own actions. And yet, Filipinos are not known for accountability; neither are they known for wanting to do the hard work of actually uplifting their own lives. They would rather wait for a hero who will do everything for them.

One can talk about empowering Filipinos all he/she wants, but ultimately they must make that decision by themselves, to want to use that power to uplift themselves. Unfortunately, certain sections of Filipino society simply don’t want to be empowered. They find it too hard to think for themselves; they would rather wait for the dole-out or for grace from above to fall on their doorsteps.

The question of whether Filipinos will use such empowerment wisely is yet another matter altogether. If you think about it, though, Filipinos have already had ample opportunities to be empowered to change their lives for the better. They have been empowered in two very obvious ways: the Filipino vote, and the infusion of capital into their society.

And yet, the track record of results from using these remains dismal.

All the more so ever since 1986, Filipinos have been using The Vote to put celebrities and some of the most unqualified people into government positions. They have every right to demand access to all the information which will help them make an informed decision. Yet when the time comes, all it takes for the masses to be swayed is a catchy jingle, or a song and dance number, or that free livelihood (pangkabuhayan) showcase which was likely financed through taxpayers’ money.

How have Filipinos used the infusion of capital into their society? GRP webmaster benign0 points out that not only have Filipinos squandered it, they keep on asking for more:

Much if not all of the Philippines’ asset base was developed by foreigners and foreign money.

Our country’s identity as a political unit, state religion, and much of the cultural capital applied to selling it as a tourist destination was a product of Spanish investment in its former colony. The cultural centre of Manila is not Makati, Cubao, Ortigas Centre, or the CCP Complex. No. It is the old Spanish walled city of Intramuros, and this is evident in how Intramuros scenery dominates content bandied by tourist brochures that pimp out Manila to the rest of the world. Even the name of the country — the “Republic” of the Philippines — is derived from that of a Spanish king (one who happened to had presided over one of history’s most horrific orgies of religious persecution). More than one hundred years since the “independence” we pretend we “won” in 1898, and Spain still props up the country’s cultural value proposition to the world.

America for its part presided over Philippine history’s biggest and most intensive foreign investment sprees, one that lasted over most of the first half of the 20th Century. Over that period, the “free” world’s favourite system of government was established, as was a world-class public education system, deep water ports, the country’s “summer capital,” a vast naval and military air base, a long-distance train line, and a new national language that was well on its way to becoming the lingua franca of science and technology. Manila had a plan that stretched all the way out to the mosquito-infested swamps that were still to become “Metro Manila.” The city also had a really nice electric car system for public transport. It was, at the time, the jewel of the Pacific.

What America left the Philippines in 1946 is, collectively, the mother of all foreign investments.

Four hundred years of Spanish cultural capital infusion and fifty years of American infrastructure development — we received a whopping five hundred years in all of broad and deep foreign investment, if we count the foreign aid, preferential trade, and military protection extended to us over the most recent period of “independence” we imagine ourselves to have enjoyed.

Where are the results?

And yet this is not the only type of investment that Filipinos have received, and wasted. The question of what Filipinos do with their money becomes all the more poignant when one asks: where did all the remittances of the overseas contract workers (OCW’s) go?

Did it go to building a capital base? Did it go to a long-term beneficial investment? Not likely; it seems that, for the most part, it got gobbled up by the excessive consumerism which Filipinos unwittingly copied from the Americans.

What do the Filipino vote and the capital infusion into Filipino society illustrate? Quite simply, if you give Filipinos a chance to make a choice, they will most likely make the wrong one.

Ultimately, Filipinos need to see that an empowered populace is not a threat, but something that will help all parties involved become better. The bigger community will be better off if everyone has more access to resources and if they have more control over their own fates.

However, Filipino society is held together, very flimsily, by the rich, or the “elite”, having control over the majority of the Filipino population. Filipino society is clearly divided into the haves and the have-nots, and Filipinos, as it stands, would rather have it that way.

The class division – rich, middle class, and poor – here in the Philippines seems to run in a way similar to that which American comedian George Carlin has described in one of his sketches:

That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about—the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the fucking money! Fairly simple thing. Happens to work. You know? Anything different—that’s what they’re gonna talk about—race, religion, ethnic and national background, jobs, income, education, social status, sexuality, anything they can do to keep us fighting with each other, so that they can keep going to the bank! You know how I define the economic and social classes in this country? The upper class keeps all of the money, pays none of the taxes. The middle class pays all of the taxes, does all of the work. The poor are there just to scare the shit out of the middle class. Keep ’em showing up at those jobs.

There’s no escaping it – the Filipino condition simply prevents empowerment of its citizens, and ultimately is self-destructive. Filipinos are just too content with the status quo.

9 Replies to “Empowering Filipinos: why it hasn’t worked”

  1. I’ve had first-hand experience of trying to ’empower’ poor (but educated) Filipinos who had grand ideas for putting their talents to use or growing their businesses and were supposedly only being held back by their financial situation and poisonous nationality abroad, only to watch them fail due to lack of ability and never try again due to a tendency towards entropy and giving up.

    Now I’m focusing my efforts on my neice and nephew, teaching them valuable English and searching for cartoons and stories to hopefully instill some positive values. The cycle has to break some time. Sadly, their other relatives seem more focused on raising them to be vain and superficial.

  2. The leaders of this country prefer the rest of this country dumb as people like Josh so they can be malleable like sheep. The kicker is the sheep LOVE IT. Proud to be Pinoy !!!!!

  3. It’s also very sad about our crab mentality. If you put crabs in a bucket, you won’t have any fear of them going up and escaping because if 1 tries to go up the rest will claw at it to bring it down.

  4. Empowerment does not work for Filipinos. Their mindsets are in politics always. And, making easy money thru graft and corruption.

    There is a deep Spanish influence in us, as a result of our Spanish colonization. The Spanish colonizers, who ruled us were mostly the bad ones from Spain…even their Friars were the bad ones. Just read the novels of Jose Rizal.

    Change the mindset of Filipinos.And you can change their situations…

  5. Filipinos do not want to be empowered. What they really want is a strong hand that guides them in the right direction and kicks their ass when they go wrong. In short, a Dictator is the perfect leader for this country. A dictator who does the right thing for the people and does all the thinking for them. One person who decides instead of the apes in congress and in the senate so that there can be progress instead of endless discussions that lead nowhere.

    Oh, damn. That sounds a lot like Marcos, does it not?

    Well then??!!

  6. Exactly how does ‘inclusive growth’ come about when oligarchs make millions of Peso’s raiding the treasury and cornering the markets with monopolistic enterprises and workers are paid P400/day to do the shit-jobs no one in the West wants to do?

    The Republic of the Philippines is a failed state for many reasons.
    A lying media painting rosey pictures is one reason that the country is soooo stagnated….the rest of the world watches and laughs.

  7. Nothing whatever to add to that, FallenAngel. My thoughts exactly.

    >> Oh, damn. That sounds a lot like Marcos, does it not?
    I know a couple of people who STILL think Marcoseses was the best thing that happened to the Philippines. Is there any hope for people with that level of critical thinking ability? You certainly don’t want to empower people like that; they’ll probably just hurt themselves.

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