It is estimated that 44% of the population of the Philippines live on less than $2 a day, and that 80% of the poor live in rural areas of the country. Every year, thousands of these rural poor move to the cities in search of employment, improved living conditions and a better life for themselves and their families. Bing Bing, a subsistence farmer I met in Zambales province recited to me a common belief, “Life may be hard in the city, yet if that is so it is far harder out here in the provinces.” Yet, the population of urban poor in the cities is growing rapidly, and with it the myriad problems associated with acute urban poverty,
to the extent that NGOs like street children charity Virlanie have begun to run programmes intended to relocate families back in the rural areas they came from. Of course, urban and rural poverty are interrelated issues, both with their own unique challenges, and both in need of serious intervention. But is life really easier in the cities, or is this just a common misconception? What are the differences between town and countryside?
In rural areas, farming for sale or subsistence is the main and often the only livelihood option for families. While the farming industry in the Philippines is still a large sector of the economy, it has retracted recently with many rural families adversely affected. Unsustainable farming practices have also impacted the productivity of farming, typhoon damage can ruin whole crops, and there are few other options for people to turn to for support. Education is also more difficult to access and illiteracy is much higher than in the cities.
In urban areas it would be easy to be fooled into thinking that employment is easier to come by. The shining skyscrapers and upmarket malls of business district Makati seem to suggest a thriving economy, however good jobs are concentrated in the hands of very few, and the “familial” nature of local culture means that access to these jobs is very much based on an “old boys network” of family connections. Many Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies have begun to move their operations to the Philippines to take advantage of the large number of English-speaking unemployed, and the Philippines is now second only to India in terms of the size of this market, however jobs here are limited to those with a strong educational background and are unlikely to be accessible to those who have moved to the cities from rural areas.
Most of the urban poor are engaged in the large informal economy, meaning they still can’t access government benefits or social security, with those who can’t make ends meet here reduced to scavenging through rubbish heaps for things to eat or sell. But even this “market” has become competitive because of the continually growing urban population, and scavengers now have to fight with others who wish to exploit the same “patch”.
In rural areas, many buildings are still constructed from traditional materials – bamboo, coconut palm leaves etc. – using traditional methods. These are more vulnerable to degradation and typhoon damage, but easier and cheaper to repair than those made from concrete bricks and corrugated iron sheets. Space is a commodity far more readily available in the countryside, and the air is free of the pollution rife in large cities like Metro Manila.
In the cities, those who cannot afford their own homes (approximately 50% of the population of Manila) live in slums scattered all over the city, called locally “squats”. Squatter areas are notorious for their crowded, cramped conditions, with poorly constructed shelters made from corrugated iron sheets and plastic tarpaulins piled up on top of each other. Crime, fires and vandelism are all well known ills in the city squats, but forcible evictions organised by the government (usually for cosmetic rather than social or developmental reasons) often do more harm than good as they are rarely accompanied by adequate relocation programmes. Many families end up living and sleeping on the streets because they have nowhere else to go.
Health and Sanitation
In the rural areas, any kind of healthcare is difficult to access because of the remoteness of many communities and the distances needed to travel to reach medical facilities. Particularly in the rainy season, roads become impassable and whole communities can become stranded.
In the cities, there are hospitals and doctors close at hand, however the cost of accessing these services put them out of the league of the vast majority of the urban poor, who must instead rely upon charitable aid where it is available.
This is deeply problematic as the urban poor suffer massively from health and sanitation problems linked to the intense overcrowding and pollution in squatter areas. Disease is common and spreads quickly through communities – a lot of the disabled I work with are childhood polio sufferers who could not access healthcare because of the costs involved.
The Philippines, like most of the Asia-Pacific countries, suffers greatly from natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These affect all areas of the country, and recovery can take many months, if not longer. In rural areas there is little or no support infrastructure to deal with the damage caused by typhoons and floods and many families cannot afford to rebuild homes that have been destroyed, or to supplement lost income and food from crops that have been ruined. Electricity brownouts resulting from large storms can last for days and the many unpaved roads will often be unusable for the whole of the rainy season, making aid access difficult.
In the cities, the infrastructure is also inadequate to support the needs of those affected by natural disasters, and the dangers, particularly of flooding, are augmented by the cramped, overcrowded squats and the lack of any adequate means for rubbish disposal.
Streets quickly become impassable even in a light rainstorm because of blocked drainage systems. Electricity brownouts are also common. These can have a greater impact because of the increased reliance on electricity in urban areas, but are generally not as lengthy and many of the larger malls have back-up generators, although heading to the mall for some temporary relief is an option really restricted to those on the richer end of the poverty spectrum.
Town Mouse, Country Mouse?
Life in the cities is markedly different to life in rural areas, but while the standard of living might not ultimately be higher, the idea of accessing waged employment and the trappings of modern life more readily available in the cities are a big draw for many rural Filipinos from a cultural point of view. As more and more people migrate to the cities, the problems of overcrowding, sanitation and unemployment will continue to worsen, but the idea of returning to the countryside again is unlikely to appeal in part because of these cultural associations and the different lifestyles associated with different areas. The challenge for development projects in the Philippines then, like in so many other developing countries, is not to focus solely on standards of subsistence and economic capital, although these are obviously vital, but to give consideration simultaneously on how to provide the poor with the social and cultural capital they need and desire in order to feel a part of their rapidly changing society, whether or not they choose to live in the town or in the country.