A HOSTILE HOME: Metro Manila’s Poor and the Balik-Probinsya Program

There are at least three occasions in which Metro Manila cannot casually hide the poor in plain sight: local elections, national elections, and a global pandemic. While all are catastrophic in their own right, the virus and the lockdown have proven exceptionally disastrous for at least 4.5 million informal settlers in the nation’s capital, whose livelihoods have been paralyzed by the now eight-week-long lockdown and who now face a humanitarian crisis.

And yet, such is not the motivation of the government for institutionalizing in the middle of a pandemic the Balik-Probinsya Program (BP2), a policy that “reverses” the migration of the rural poor to Metro Manila. According to Executive Order (EO) No. 114, “whereas, the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines are congested areas located in the NCR,” the BP2 is among the “measures that address and respond to the COVID-19 emergency.”

For all the ambiguities and platitudes of this law, what it suggests is a policy of voluntary exodus even as the outbreak situation in Metro Manila and other provinces remains uncontrolled and uncertain. For all its lip service to some notion of regional economic balance, the BP2 intends for the literal gatekeeping of the nation’s capital, which is all but built on the backs of its urban poor population it now treats as unwanted visitors.

Plight or flight

One likely grew up watching the films of Dolphy or FPJ, which commonly featured probinsyanos — as migrants to Manila are pejoratively called — either as naïve sidekicks or noble heroes, or teleseryes which unfairly stereotyped Bisaya maids for their accent. But the rise of migrants in popular media actually finds basis in history: Following the post-War reconstruction of the nation’s capital, especially in the 1960s, landless and jobless migrants flocked to Manila and surrounding provinces such as Rizal to supply the labor demand of a few private industries, only to end up in informal settlements.

This is the simple premise of BP2: Metro Manila’s problems are caused by urban congestion, which is caused by the explosion of its population, which is caused by the massive migration of Filipinos to the nation’s capital, which is ultimately caused by poverty and underdevelopment in the countryside. Such is a commonsensical argument that has long pervaded discussions on spatial development in the Philippines, even among academic and progressive circles.

It may have been true some time ago, but the most recent data tell a different story.

Firstly, Metro Manila’s 13-million strong population — if it is in any way a problem — is the result of a demographic phenomenon called population momentum: Even as fertility declines, the population will continue to increase due to its large base of young population who have already entered or are entering their reproductive ages. It is estimated that 84 percent of the country’s population growth will be because of wanted fertility and population momentum.

Manila has indeed been the migration hub of the Philippines-gaining 1.7 million net migrants whoever crossed regions in their lifetime, according to the 2018 National Migration Survey, the first of its kind in the Philippines. But migration currently contributes little, if at all, to its population. Based on the same survey, some 388,000 individuals migrated to Manila between 2013 and 2018, but 509,000 moved out of the capital.

In other words, more people left Metro Manila than it received in recent years (see sidebar 1).

The same survey also finds that only 3 percent of migration flows from 2013 to 2018 was rural-to-urban, while intra-urban and intra-rural moves comprised about 93 percent of all moves (see sidebar 2). Thus, there is only a very small minority of Filipinos who came from the rural countryside to urban areas, and expectedly even fewer who came to Metro Manila recently.

Some of them may be the sons and daughters of once hopeful newcomers, but most of Metro Manila’s urban poor residents today no longer consist of active migrants. A majority of them have been here since birth, and are here to stay because they are very much a vital part of the city.

The myriad problems they face are not born out of their sheer number, but of decades of failed urban planning — if it exists, to begin with — and of a development perspective that continues to keep them in the margins of the center, like some virus to be rid of.

Graphics by Lei Alianza, Philippine Collegian

The gates of hell

The population is surely a nice scapegoat for everything public policy fails to address. The expansion of slums in the 1960s, and which peaked during Martial Law years, prompted dictator Ferdinand Marcos to create in 1978 the Ministry of Human Settlements, which was headed by his consort, Manila Governor Imelda Marcos. Human settlements meant an extension of her bloody beautification campaign for Metro Manila, which also meant violent demolitions and the forced relocation of families to nearby suburban areas under the supposedly voluntary balik-probinsya (BP) scheme.

BP has since become a tired little policy rehashed by different administrations and local governments for their various agenda, primarily as an attempt to decongest Manila and other cities.

The Corazon Aquino government used the BP, alongside the “balik-baril” strategy, as part of its reconciliation program for rebel returnees, all the while the forced relocation of communities to nearby provinces continued. The Arroyo administration, on the other hand, offered the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s BP program to informal settler families (ISFs) who were victims of typhoon Ondoy in 2009. Meanwhile, the Benigno Aquino government proposed to relocate some 500,000 ISFs in NCR under the BP program of the Department of Agrarian Reform.

In 2006, the city government of Cebu offered a BP grant to the town of Dalaguete, Cebu “to help keep people off the streets” during the ASEAN summit. More recently, the Quezon City government extended its similar program to the 130 “kuliglig” drivers it cracked down on in February this year.

These efforts, no matter how possibly well-intentioned, have not been very successful, and the national and local governments are very likely well aware of this. An official of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor noted last year that the Balik-Probinsya program “has no takers.” Several local chief executives have also pointed out how the very few beneficiaries of the program tend to return to Manila after some time.

At any rate, economic needs facilitate the movement of people, with or without a BP program.

But balik-probinsya is still being proffered as a hollow consolation to victims of disasters, demolitions, forced evictions, and other measures against what the state views as “surplus pawns,” in the words of Andre Ortega in his 2016 book ‘Neoliberalizing Spaces in the Philippines.’ The precarious conditions of the urban poor are being used as an excuse to view them patronizingly as transient forces of the city-part of it but not quite, the very foundation of it but not really.

Today, hankering for the ways of the Marcoses, the Duterte administration espouses the same language of human settlement and balik-probinsya. The problem is population congestion — they want us to believe — and the emphasis is put on the “population,” obscuring a host of issues that are now magnified and compounded by the pandemic.

Graphics by Lei Alianza, Philippine Collegian

They who own the city

As COVID-19 cases soared in Metro Manila, Senator Bong Go proposed the BP2, his latest pet project, as a “long term” solution to the pandemic. His and other BP2’s proponents’ line of reasoning makes sense at a cursory glance: The spread of the virus is accelerated in highly congested spaces, such as in Metro Manila’s informal settlements, and so the city must be depopulated by promoting the migration of people out of Metro Manila.

And yet, how will local governments, which are fast running out of funds in response to the pandemic, support the exodus of people to their municipalities? How will housing be provided to ISFs in the face of a standing 6.8-million housing backlog? How can BP2 be a long-term solution to the pandemic when the government by and large fails to conduct rigorous contract-tracing and expansive testing in the short term?

The EO does not specify, other than recycling motherhood policy statements on agriculture, spatial development, and private-public partnership that have little to no practical value whatsoever to the program’s implementation on the ground.

The point, however, is to move people, to decongest the city like clearing a pair of lungs inflamed and consumed by the coronavirus.

Never mind that the body politic has long been plagued by social inequalities, which manifest no more clearly than in Metro Manila’s land-use plan, or the lack thereof. Progressive think tank IBON Foundation estimates from census data that half of the families in NCR live in houses smaller than three parking spaces, making it impossible to implement proper social distancing or self-isolation when showing symptoms. In stark contrast to this, only about 3.9 percent of NCR’s families live in homes 200 square meters or wider. The poorest 70 percent of Metro Manila’s population can occupy all the residential spaces of the richest 30 percent, and all of them will not be found homeless (see sidebar 3).

As noted by a World Bank study in 2017, private developers control much of NCR’s lands, leading to inefficient land use and the sprawling of informal settlements. A quick search in Google Maps would lead one to at least 10 golf clubs and courses in the metro, the smallest of which is as wide as 20 hectares, enough to host 4,000 families in non-vertical, 50-square meter housing units.

Instead of addressing these issues, however, the government, through the BP2, effectively “others” the urban poor in the discussion of city development and its plans for the “new normal.” They are needed, all too important until they are finally dispensable.

By institutionalizing the BP2, the government is introducing its first-ever internal migration policy. But the problem is not that we are overpopulated — a very subjective point of debate — but that we are badly governed. A policy of migration, voluntary or not, will neither solve nor ease the problem of traffic, poor sewerage, unemployment, illegal drugs and crime, or the next pandemic. Only effective and truly pro-poor governance will.

Graphics by Lei Alianza, Philippine Collegian

References:

Mapa, D. (2015). Demographic Sweet Spot and Dividend in the Philippines: The Window of Opportunity is Closing Fast. UN Population Fund.

Ortega, A.A. (2016). Neoliberalizing Spaces in the Philippines: Suburbanization, Transnational Migration, and Dispossession. Lexington Books.

Singh, G. & Gadgil, G. (2017). Navigating Informality: Perils and Prospects in Metro Manila’s Slums. The World Bank.

Storey, D. (1998). Housing the Urban Poor in Metro Manila. Philippine Studies, 46(3), 267–292.

(Originally published online on 18 May 2020 by the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines — Diliman)

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Hi. I am a researcher by profession and a frustrated writer at heart. I believe in the necessity of the revolution and the power of post-coffee naps.

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Sanny Domingo Afable

Hi. I am a researcher by profession and a frustrated writer at heart. I believe in the necessity of the revolution and the power of post-coffee naps.