Intro Topic

In the summer of 1976 I wandered around northern Luzon in the Philippines, during a period of martial law imposed by elected-president-turned-dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I headed up into the mountains to Bontoc. An anecdote tied to that visit will help set up several themes of the class. My time in Bontoc included a hike up the mountains to Maligcong and its terraced rice fields. You can now find an online travel guide, but at the time I visited there was no road, no electricity, no phone, and certainly no guide (FYI neither personal computers nor the internet had been invented). And only one person in the village spoke any English, a boy who was the first ever to attend high school. He could recall but one foreign visitor, a Japanese anthropologist who had spent a month or two there (my memory of that detail is hazy, but I’ve just gotten a 1978 Japanese-language publication through Interlibrary Loan).

So what is life like in such a village? It was within walking distance of a local college, in a small city that had electricity, at least some of the time, regular bus service and two lodging establishments. But the village itself was supported by subsistence agriculture, which provided little cash income and no means for most to access healthcare or education. How does that shape the strategies families adopt? What can be done locally to improve their lives? And how do policies at the national level enhance, or limit, what can be done?

About Mike

Prof of Economics, Wms School of Commerce, Washington and Lee University, Lexington VA
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17 Responses to Intro Topic

  1. bryantc18 says:

    This type of environment seems like one where the main concern is basic survival. This makes family decisions based on a few fundamental needs, such as food, water, shelter, and clothing. As a result, there is likely little room for self-enhancement in terms of education or other hobbies, which leads to limited opportunity for ever improving quality of life. To improve such a situation, it seems like providing families access to basic services (healthcare, sewage, electricity etc.) and to opportunities for human capital development (education, training) could enable families to flourish. On a local level, this could mean developing the infrastructure of a town and bringing these services to a town.

    A country’s overall economic health can directly effect the prospects of small villages. A country that is growing, becoming more productive, and with effective fiscal management can take steps to enhance the lives of people in poor villages, all things which are affected by policy at the national level. For example, expansionary fiscal policies at the national level could lead to funding for infrastructure projects in these towns, or more open trade policy could lead foreign firms to invest in these towns. At the same time, national policies could benefit some groups while ignoring the needs of rural villages or poor areas, which could divert policy attention from these areas.

    • inglism18 says:

      An improvement in farming income could allow other members of these small villages to specialize in healthcare and education. They could truly become model societies that provide the basic benefits even person should be able to afford (whether its in the financial sense or even the opportunity sense). However, this is in inhibited by the lack of national policies, such as meaningful farming subsidies. Something to watch as we look further at the development of China during the period.

  2. ferrise20 says:

    Your mention of the imposition of martial law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos really stuck out to me, calling to mind discussions of inclusive vs. exclusive economic and political institutions in macroeconomics. Certainly the corruption of the country’s political system is relevant to its development and standard of living. The situation faced by families in Bontoc at the time sounds bleak. With so few resources and such limited income or contact with the world outside of the village, what options did the average person at the time have to improve the lives of the people there? Certainly there is no absolutely perfect or immediate solution, but I’m curious whether the restructuring of local or national policy would have more immediate or more long-term results.

  3. lencionik19 says:

    A village relying on subsistence agriculture certainly shapes how people live and limits their opportunities outside of farming. Because subsistence farming forces families to devote all of their time and energy to growing crops, they have limited access to education. All members of the family must work on the farm, making it all but impossible for children to attend school, and later look into other careers outside of the farm. These families make very little money which prevents them from enjoying infrastructure we take for granted such as roads, electricity, and phones. One solution on the local level could be a program or agreement with the neighboring college town. The subsistence farmers could supply the town with food in exchange for educational services and/or electricity. This would improve the standard of living in both places. On a national level, it is difficult to make progress when the leader is a dictator with only his well being in mind. Dictatorships do not historically make countries prosper and this situation is no different.

    • inglism18 says:

      This is an interesting point. If the subsistence farmers had access to capital and infrastructure, the entire story would be different. The next step in the process of development is then the opportunity for savings and banking, creating capital through financial institutions; while this is certainly a good place to start – forming sister cities, as you suggest -, development on the national level must occur if widespread improvement is desired. Urban development, while promoting an exodus of rural families, allows for that national development, and in turn allows the subsistence farmers that remain to progress.

  4. fleckj20 says:

    It seems to me that this illustrates the idea that existence of services isn’t enough. Rather, people need to be able to access them. The college, bus system, and wealth of the small city was not having as much of an impact on the standard of living of their neighbors. Ultimately, monetary wealth is what makes the difference in these people’s lives. The poor agricultural society is also stuck because they have no way to improve their situation without some sort of investment. The issue seems to be the fact that it takes money to make money.

  5. the prof says:

    Ah, so to get roads there needs to be more investment, a “big push” – or not?

  6. willinghamt19 says:

    The poverty in this area and many other areas across the globe is striking. Receiving a first-person account of the area is especially helpful. There is so much that an area such as this would need (e.g. roads, electricity, health infrastructure, educational infrastructure), but, as we have discusses, the develop of these things is very problematic. To me, it seems to be important to conceptualize the people living in this poverty, not as incompetent, but, in fact, as highly competent individuals living in a disadvantaged situation. I am also interested to further understand how the living conditions of impoverished, extremely impoverished, and destitute individuals socializes them, especially regarding the importance of family structures in many poor communities.

  7. nutiw18 says:

    The poverty in this area seems to be stuck in a feedback loop that continuously keeps people in the area poor. Residents exhaust all time on farming to provide enough so that their family can survive, but sacrifice things such as healthcare an education. One idea that came to mind would be to offer free shuttle services to the local city, to assimilate the villagers into a more modern lifestyle, access education and increase their overall human capital.
    However, removing themselves from their farm could be detrimental to survival. The intense labor necessary to farm inhibits the villagers from accessing programs that would increase their human capital, and live a more modern life. The issue is extremely complex, and moving away from subsistence farming could help, but the initial effects could be devastating to the group.

    • the prof says:

      In what sector of the economy do we find significant child labor?

      As to a shuttle, first you have to have a road! There is one now – maybe sometime I’ll get back to Maligcong to see how things have changed.

  8. platerb18 says:

    Reliance on subsistence agriculture for survival has led families to spend vast majorities of their time in the field with their crops because it is a necessity. Any distraction from their routine would likely have negative consequences because without their work, there is no food supply. The well-developed terraces in the image highlight the fact that this society is almost completely reliant on these fields, so that has been where most investment has flown. It appears that the people here don’t have much of a choice to develop things such as their education or healthcare without outside help. One thing the government could do is invest heavily in roads and infrastructure, which would allow these farmers to access new parts of the country with their product to make a living off of their land. With more access to capital, families are able to afford letting their children go to schools, which is in turn better for the entire country because more their will be higher levels of education.
    This region of the Philippines is susceptible to large storm events, meaning infrastructure is susceptible to damage. This may limit the governments willingness to invest in an expensive project. This situation has multiple approaches, a lot of them having major institutional issues that are hard to fix.

    • the prof says:

      Certainly in the mountains the roads can and sometimes do wash out in typhoons. You can try to route infrastructure to make that less likely / easier to repair.

      But if you were President Duterte (the current office holder), where would you spend money? Roads and sewers in densely populated Manila and Cebu, or a lightly settled, remote mountain village?

      One thing we will look at later, time permitting – or if you raise the question! – is that the agricultural cycle is not all day, every day. Think about winter in the US. From a cost standpoint it would be cheaper to operate schools during summer (at least in my era there was no air conditioning). But families needed their kids to help with planting and weeding, so that’s when school vacations fell, and still fall today. Now what do parents do while kids are in school in winter, or a tropical analog, with the crops in the ground, weeding done and harvest 2 months away?

  9. mac zheng says:

    I went to a beautiful little mountain village called Jiabang a few summers ago, and I noticed alot of the same village settings similar to what Professor Smitka said. They had running water and electricity, but I vividly remember how all the toilets and all seemed 3rd world. Also, the village was dependent on their harvest, and I believe they received a little support from the provincial government. I am not sure whether they participated in any trade or anything with nearby villages if there were any. But no doubt their two main revenue sources came from tourism (light tourism) and farming. I may have seen a small school. But I deduced in the end that these people were happy.

  10. wheelers19 says:

    The most relevant aspect of this story is the total lack of disposable income and, honestly, even a lack of enough funds for basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. This all but rules out education which is vital to progress up the socioeconomic ladder. The entire family will work in agriculture to make their best effort to even make ends come close to meeting. The lack of local infrastructure would require education and then relocation to an area with more promising job prospects. These individuals could then return some of the resulting income to their families which could be used to ease their labor burdens with better inputs.

  11. khanm18 says:

    It seems as though agriculture is a basic fundamental need for survival in this community. Regardless of how little cash income the agriculture provided, it is still an essential part to a communities ability to flourish given the ability to take advantage. Judging by that one boy being one of the first going to college high school, it seems as though this town lacks education. If there was a larger investment in education within this community, then I believe this might help to develop a much healthier, productive labor force that would be able to take better advantage of the unique geographical location in which this town stands on. In addition to education, investment in healthcare, having favorable regulation on agriculture, and direct participation with international trade may help spur growth for this town. On a national and local level, I believe that the best thing that the government can do is to provide sufficient infrastructure and in order to ease the burden of transportation, which is a huge requirement for an economy to thrive.

    • the prof says:

      Let’s think about budgetary issues: how can a poor country afford to pay for education in scattered, low population villages that are very remote (can’t easily walk to the next village / city)? IF the Philippines undertakes a “big push” to set up schooling, who pays?

    • the prof says:

      Let’s think about budgetary issues: how can a poor country afford to pay for education in scattered, low population villages that are very remote (can’t easily walk to the next village / city)? IF the Philippines undertakes a “big push” to set up schooling, who pays?

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