The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Manila Hui brought together 12 diverse and talented Leadership Network members, as well as Kiwis from the ASEAN Young Business Leadership Initiative. Combined, this group had a wide expertise and a diverse range of interests concerning the Philippines.
The five-day programme included cultural visits; a New Zealand Embassy briefing by Ambassador David Strachan on the Philippines and its bilateral relations with New Zealand; academic presentations on political, economic and security issues from Dr Aries Arugay (University of Philippines) and Dean Ronald Mendoza (Ateneo School of Government); meetings with Filipino entrepreneurs and business leaders; and a visit to The Philippine Star newsroom.
The final day included a range of self-organised meetings. Leadership Network members variously chose to visit the Asian Development Bank, an orphanage, a child poverty reduction foundation, and a disaster relief organisation. Collectively, these experiences provided significant insights into contemporary Philippines society.
A fast-developing nation
Our meetings framed the Philippines as a nation with great opportunities as well as challenges. In terms of the former, this is evident in its impressive 6.8 percent GDP growth, and an economy that has experienced consecutive growth above five percent for the past five years. This growth is set to continue, with the Philippines on track to be an upper-middle income country by 2022 and to boast one of the largest young workforces in the world until 2050.
The nation has a rapidly-expanding telecommunications sector, with Manila being a global hub for service providers and an emerging international analytical centre. It has a growing manufacturing sector, including shipbuilding, and innovative science sectors. This market is driven by the need to better prepare the Philippines against typhoons and natural disasters, as well as by the nation’s geography, which encompasses some 7,500 islands. Additionally, signs of progressive change are emerging in a society otherwise still adherent to traditional, more conservative views. Collectively, such developments have transformed the Philippines into an emerging “economic tiger” today.
Despite this success, there remain many challenges, both socio-economically and politically. Like some other nations, the Philippines has seen a rise in political “populism” and the harnessing of social media as a tool to mobilise populist sentiment and spread “fake news”.
Leadership Network members heard about attempts to silence media outlets and journalists. Although the Philippines is a republic, power is essentially dominated by an elite set of political dynasties, consisting of some 50 families. Also of concern are high levels of poverty, underemployment and disproportionate wealth distribution.
The nation’s economic growth is estimated to have benefited only a tiny and elite proportion of the population. Moreover, the majority of wealth is centred in the National Capital Region (NCR), with very limited amounts redistributed or invested into the nation's wider regions. This situation fundamentally reflects “growth without development”.
This is especially the case in the southern region of Mindanao, where the average GDP per-capita is only about six percent of that in the capital. Mindanao also has the highest levels of poverty, particularly in the province of Lanao del Sur. This is despite the island being the “bread basket” of the nation, producing 40 percent of the country’s food needs.
Political instability and conflict have plagued the region and are a key factor underpinning the socio-economic conditions. This conflict has been driven by communist rebels and Muslim separatists in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), groups that have recently been engaged in peace talks with the federal government. However, any deal remains elusive.
Collectively, this situation has resulted in the World Bank, and more recently the ADB, committing significant investment to help develop the region. In April, ADB has announced it would contribute US$100 million (NZ$146 million) worth of funding to the Mindanao Development Corridors strategy.
Islam in the Philippines
As well as reconnecting with the Leadership Network and building connections with Philippines-focused members, the Manila Hui informed my scholarly interest in social factors in the Philippines. This is important in relation to my PhD in political science, which critically examines contemporary diversity in political Islam with the view to holistically understanding the contested nature of how and why it manifests and impacts on security and international affairs.
This includes the so-called Islamic State extremist group, which gained a foothold in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in early 2016. In 2017, IS took control of Marawi City, leading to a five-month-long conflict with the Philippines military, which retook the city in October. However, this extremist faction endures, despite being significantly eroded militarily. It has carried out new attacks in 2018 and is estimated to have more than 250 fighters based primarily in Lanao del Sur, where they have benefited from poor socio-economic conditions.
The Manila Hui, therefore, provided me important insight into key societal mechanisms shaping the Philippines. This, in turn, helped illuminate the key societal issues underpinning why IS has manifested in the ARMM and the likely trajectory for extremist groups, if socio-economic conditions endure or worsen.
Such insights gained through the Manila Hui are beneficial to any future post-doctoral research I undertake on the topic.
Simon Gray is an international relations and security studies PhD candidate at the University of Waikato.