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By the Numbers

As my departure date approached, I was all too aware that the Philippine history, literature, facts, and figures I was studying would be about as useful in my day-to-day Peace Corps work as a PhD at a Super Bowl party. But I persisted. Mostly out of a desire to know, but also out of a desire not to look like an idiot: a friend had recently claimed that the Philippines was below the equator; I was fairly sure it was above but not sure enough to dispute.

Scanning the demographics of the nation that would be my home for the next 2 years brought a surprising realization: I had only a tenuous grasp on the demographics of the home I was leaving. My research scope doubled.

  Philippines U.S.
Population 92.4 million 309 million
Land Mass 115,381 sq miles 3,794,101 sq miles
Poverty 33.7% (74th out of 145) 13-17% (125th)
Religion 90% Christian
(80% Catholic)
5-7% Muslim
58-82% Christian
11-37% unaffiliated
1% Muslim
Languages 78 languages, 500 dialects
23% Tagalog
96% speak English "well"
10% speak Spanish
Fertility rate 3.23 2.11
Per Capita GDP $3,521 $46,381
Deforestation 2.48% per year 0.12% reforestation
Independence June 12, 1898 (Spain)
July 4, 1946 (USA)
July 4, 1776

But what did those numbers mean?


Take a third of the U.S. population and stick it in a region the size of Nevada then explode that into 7,000 islands, and you've got something resembling the Philippines.

Less than a quarter of Filipinos speak the primary language. Given this, American intolerance for non English speakers (hello, Tim James!) and bilingual education and multi-language government forms sounds a little self-indulgent.

In 2005, 5.6 million people immigrated to the US. The Philippines is experiencing a negative net migration of 900,000 per year, but due to the high fertility rate, its population is still projected to reach 140 million by 2040.

While poverty in the Philippines is only twice the US rate (or the US rate is only half that of a developing nation), poverty in these two countries mean very different things: the US poverty threshold for an individual is $10,830 per year; the Philippine threshold is $524. Based on a $2 per day poverty line, South Asia has the highest poverty rate of any region in the world: 73.9%.

In 234 years and 44 presidents worth of democracy, the US has seen one civil war. Since its formal independence from the US in 1946, the Philippines has seen one dictator, two deposed presidents, and many military coups.

During World War II, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hit 18 ships and killed 68 civilians. The Japanese occupation of Manila destroyed 80% of the city and cost 100,000 civilian lives.

In America, the names Roosevelt, Kennedy, Daley, and Bush evoke political dynasty. In the Philippines, 78% of the 220-member Congress have parents who were also in Congress. And 97% are millionaires. The current president, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, is the son of a political martyr father and a former president mother.

The annual average hi-lo temperatures for New York and Manila (not hard to tell which is which):

I was becoming a little confused about something. My mind returned to another number I'd discovered the previous week: on Netflix, there are 100,000 films in the database, the vast majority of them in English. 208 are Filipino films, of which the vast majority are love stories about young gay men.

What did it all mean?

I had no idea. I knew it would be very easy to read all the disparities and create a neat narrative of rich v. poor, of fortune v. misfortune--and particularly easy for someone wanting to believe he was really, finally going to make a difference in the world. Needing to believe it. But it wasn't that simple. It's not like America doesn't have problems. It's not like the Philippines is a helpless, hopeless destitute place. Someone wanting to make a difference doesn't need to travel halfway across the world to do so. And someone wanting to make a difference won't be able to change the world in 2 years. But the goal of the Peace Corps isn't that simple, either.

Something was on my mind. Something to do with replacing the word "betterment" with "empowerment." But at the same time I felt I knew less than when I'd started researching.

The only thing I knew for certain was that Manila was 14 degrees north of the equator and that I'd be ready to deploy this factoid come next Super Bowl.


Non hyperlinked demographic data was synthesized from Kathleen Nadeau's History of the Philippines and, yes, Wikipedia.