50% of Filipinos stunted at childhood in the 1980s could be why the Philippines is so intellectually-bankrupt today!

For many of the world’s richest — or even emerging — economies, the biggest threat to continued prosperity is a rapidly aging and, in the worst cases, declining populations. The effect of wealth and better education on fertility has long been known. As people get better-educated, enjoy a greater variety of lifestyle options, and gain access to good health services, people’s natural impetus to reproduce is tempered. More employment and career options for women also means less are dedicating the most fertile years of their lives to making and raising children.

And then there is the Philippines. While the country is doing pretty well from a global perspective on most indicators, it is a laggard relative to its regional peers. This inability to compete is made more pronounced by the fact that it was once the most promising country not just in Southeast Asia but in all of East Asia in the first several years after it was granted independence by the United States. Fast forward to today, and Filipinos are confronted by a dismal picture as Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito points out in his piece “The best for our youngest?”…

Indeed, the signs have stared us in the face for the longest time: lowest average income and highest inflation and unemployment rates among our Asean peers, lowest export earnings and export-to-GDP ratio, lowest manufacturing investment inflows, weakest agricultural sector, lowest average IQ in all of Asean, worst education indicators not only regionally but globally, pathetic quality of governance and propensity to elect bad leaders—all of which I’ve written about before.

Habito’s prognosis is made even more stark when regarded from the perspective of the point he was actually trying to make in that piece — that, unlike most prosperous countries, the Philippines enjoys an abundance of young people. He points out that “over 20 million of our 109 million total population in 2020 are between 0 and 8 years old”. Close to 20% of the population in such an age group is an astoundingly enormous number. Add to that the proportion within the optimal working age group and it becomes easy to appreciate that the Philippines is at an exceptional sweet spot in terms of labour productivity potential.

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Unfortunately, Filipinos boast an exceptional track record of turning assets into liabilities, and this is exactly what they are doing to a vast national resource that would otherwise be the envy of other more prosperous countries. Habito cites the incidence of stunting in Filipino children — that “[the] World Bank sees us as having the fifth highest stunting prevalence in the East Asia and Pacific region, and among the top 10 countries worldwide with the most number of stunted children.” Physical stunting (which is the subject of the WB report) in children likely has a strong impact on brain development. This is the bomb Habito drops on his readers…

One can better appreciate how critical this all is knowing that a child’s first five years is the most critical period in shaping his/her life-long outcomes. There’s a simple reason for this: 90 percent of human brain development occurs by age 5. Development institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme thus see strategic interventions in those early years as the most efficient and effective means to address persistent social and economic inequities. A child stunted at age 5 only has the remaining 10 percent of brain development left, hence is damaged for life with lifelong effects on her/his physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional abilities.

Tinapay na nga naging bato pa.

Suddenly it all makes sense. Wonder no more why Filipinos seem to suffer a clearly-evident collective intellectual bankruptcy today. Habito point how, in the 1980s, “one in every two children five and below” was stunted and, “[by] 2003, it was 33.8 percent, but did not improve for the next 13 years.” The Philippines is a nation of physically and intellectually-stunted people. Perhaps this is why Filipinos suck at sports and at thinking. Even the rich were not exempt from this epidemic of stunting that crushed an entire generation. Habito further writes, “nearly one in five children from even the richest one-fifth of our families is stunted.” This likely explains why even the chi chi Yellowtards who count the “best and brightest” amongst their lot had proved utterly incapable of winning “important” national elections three times in a row!

A habitual neglect of investment in developing natural assets is clearly at the root of why the Philippines persists as a basket case in a region of high achievers. It is a country where fruits rot even before ripening! To be fair, credit this to that double-edged sword, the Law of Supply and Demand. There’s just too many Filipinos. Most of what is available in abundance is taken for granted. We see this closest to home in Manila’s teeming streets of small children foraging for money and food ’til the wee hours.

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