Cities in East Asia and the Pacific can be vibrant, exciting, and filled with opportunities. Yet we are always struck by their dichotomies: there are the bright lights, modern skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls, and the hustle and bustle of people coming and going to offices and shops.
And there are also neighborhoods with no safe drinking water, sanitation, or waste collection; where houses flood every time it rains; and where families spend long hours trying to earn enough to feed themselves and keep their children in school.
With an estimated 250 million people living in slums across the East Asia and Pacific region, and much more urbanization to come, prioritizing the delivery of basic services and ensuring opportunities for the urban poor presents an urgent call for action.
Peace – something that many of us take for granted in our own lives – is elusive for millions of people around the world, including in southern Philippines. Long-standing conflict between the government and rebel groups, and a complicated patchwork of clan and family conflicts, has led to decades of economic stagnation and poverty in one of the Philippines’ most beautiful and productive regions – Mindanao. A peace process is hopefully nearing its conclusion and is expected to bring autonomy and with it, greater opportunities for peace and development to the people of the Bangsamoro.
The Philippines is a middle-income country – with GDP at $2,953 per capita and a robust economy, with almost 96% enrollment rate in basic education, and improving health indicators such as child mortality; overall the country is doing well. But these numbers mask sharp regional contrasts: in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) the GDP per capita is only $576 – equivalent to countries like Rwanda and Afghanistan – the poverty rate is 53.7%, and more than 50% of its employed population are in agriculture with 80% of them working as subsistence farmers, living precariously from crop to crop. One crop failure can mean ruin for a family.
In a hot and crowded school classroom in December 2015 I sat excitedly watching Margaret Wete accept her role as Village Peace Warden for Waimasi and neighbouring villages in Makira/Ulawa Province, Solomon Islands. She was the first woman to be elected into this role by her community and I took it as a positive sign that the majority of those present for the vote were young women and men, making an important decision for the community’s future and putting their faith in a fellow young person.
At the end of “the tensions”, a civil war in Solomon Islands which lasted from 1998 to 2003, peace was something not many people could picture. The government requested, and received, support from the region and 14 years of RAMSI – the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands – ensued.
Rapid urbanization in the Philippines has brought new jobs, educational opportunities, and better living conditions for some. However, it has also brought challenges, which you’ll see when you move around the streets of Metro Manila. It’s a large sprawling metropolitan area of over 12 million, with congestion that is estimated to cost US$70 million (₱3.5 billion) a day. When it rains, streets and homes are quickly flooded because many drains are clogged or non-existent. Because of lack of affordable housing, an estimated 11 percent of the city’s population live in slums. With 17 cities and municipalities in the metropolitan area, trying to tackle these challenges becomes stuck in deep complexities of urban governance and management. While other cities in the Philippines don’t face the scale of these challenges, they tackle similar issues.
The recent debate on whether it makes more sense to measure Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Ringgit or in Dollars is a healthy one. It reflects a sound interest by many segments of Malaysian society in statistics that measure economic development and how it changes people’s living standards. This is the fundamental question: what does GDP really mean in the daily life of Malaysians. There are sound arguments on both sides and, in a way, both are right, depending on what perspective is taken.