Poor miss out on Philippines' economic ascent while rich get richer

Although the nation is now a 'rising economic tiger', but its richest 40 families own 76pc of its wealth while 25m people lived on US$1 a day

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 3:34am


Optimism is soaring that the Philippines is finally becoming an Asian tiger economy, but critics caution a tiny elite that has long dominated the nation is amassing most of the new wealth while the poor miss out.

President Benigno Aquino has overseen some of the highest growth rates in the region since he took office in 2010, while the stock market has hovered in record territory, credit ratings have improved and debt ratios have dropped.

"The Philippines is no longer the sick man of East Asia, but the rising tiger," World Bank country director Motoo Konishi recently told a forum attended by many of Aquino's economic planning chiefs.

However, economists say that despite genuine efforts from Aquino's team to create inclusive growth, little progress has been made in changing a structure that for decades has allowed one of Asia's worst rich-poor divides to develop.

"I think it's obvious to everyone that something is structurally wrong. The oligarchy has too much control of the country's resources," said Cielito Habito, a respected former economic planning minister.

He presented data to the same economic forum at which Konishi spoke, showing that in 2011 the 40 richest families on the Forbes wealth list for the Philippines accounted for 76 per cent of its economic growth.

This was the highest in Asia, compared with Thailand where the top 40 accounted for 33.7 per cent of wealth growth, 5.6 per cent for Malaysia and just 2.8 per cent for Japan, said Habito.

According to the Forbes 2012 annual rich list, the two richest people in the Philippines, ethnic Chinese magnates Henry Sy and Lucio Tan, were worth a combined US$13.6 billion, equivalent to about 6 per cent of the nation's annual GDP.

I think it's obvious to everyone that something is structurally wrong. The oligarchy has too much control of the country's resources

In contrast, about 25 million people, or a quarter of the population, lived on US$1 a day or less in 2009, which was little changed from a decade earlier, according to the most recent official data.

Some of the elite families have dominated since the Spanish colonial era that ended in the late 1800s. Prominent Spanish names, such as Ayala and Aboitiz, continue to control large chunks of the economy and members of the families are consistent high placers on Forbes' annual top 40 wealth list.

Their business interests range from utilities to property development to banking, telecommunications and the business process outsourcing industry.

Many of the ethnic Chinese tycoons, such as Sy and Tan, got their start soon after the country gained independence from America after the second world war.

The tendency for the same names to dominate major industries can be partly attributed to government rules that continue to allow near monopolies and protections for key players.

For decades after independence in 1946, important sectors such as air transport and telecommunications were under monopoly control, according to a Philippine Institute for Development Studies paper.

Despite wide-ranging reforms since 1981, big chunks of the market remained effective oligopolies or cartels, it said.

The Aquino government's mantra since succeeding graft-tainted Gloria Arroyo's administration has been good governance and inclusive growth, and their efforts have been applauded by the world community.

But political scientist Louie Montemar said little had been done at the top end to impact on the elite's dominance. "There's some sense to the argument that we've never had a real democracy because only a few have controlled economic power," he said. "The country dances to the tune of the tiny elite."