Consumption, work, and human development

Consumption, work and human development (January 7, 2008)

by Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

As the Christmas season comes to a close and the smoke of New Year revelry clears, we again come to face the continuing challenge of achieving real development for our people. While I’m always pleased by the generous spirit that the Season engenders, it is always disappointing that in a Christian country such as ours the spirit doesn’t stay all year round. More bothersome is how the love of neighbor which Christ advocated has been commercially reduced to a two-month round of wild buying and giving of material things while the fundamental problem of social inequality and poverty remains untouched.

The gospel of consumption, or the tendency to equate human welfare with increasing acquisition of consumption goods, is misguided and leads to many unfortunate effects. It leads us to think that the material gifts we dole out during Christmas or at other times during the year are sufficient as our share in helping the less fortunate. Poor Filipinos begin to think that a higher-end cell phone every year (or even every three months) is a sure sign of personal progress. Many tend to believe that the more malls we have in our country the more we are developing as a people. Beneficiaries of OFW remittances compete with each other in buying as many new gadgets and appliances (at so-called “0% interest”, of course) as possible.

But the illusion of consumption-based welfare is short-lived for anyone who bothers to look closely. While more people own more things, they also owe more on these things. Grade school children have been known to lapse into semi-depression over their better-than-last-year’s-model cell phones as compared to their classmates’. The increasing number of malls which make affordable goods conveniently accessible hide the underpaid and insecure status of many mall workers who, in effect, subsidize our craving for consumption. As the NSO Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) shows, average family real income actually declined from 2003 to 2006, despite generally increasing consumption. And our poverty rate hovers at around 30% compared to Thailand’s 9%.

Surely, there is more to human development than consumption. There must be more to what we need to achieve as a country than flooding every home with gadgets and appliances. In fact, our national goal is succinctly captured by the Philippine Constitution which says that “the State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.”

The consumption of material goods are inputs to a rising standard of living; but the fundamental law mentions another critical input to quality of life and that is employment or, more accurately, decent work. Rather than dole-outs or merely more and cheaper goods, what people can really develop from is more decent work.

The Philippine Labor Index (or PLI, which can be viewed at is a pioneering new measure of decent work proposed by the Department of Labor and Employment. The index measures the availability of decent work in the country by looking at six dimensions, namely, (1) opportunities for work, (2) freedom of choice of employment, (3) productive work, (4) equity in work, (5) security at work, and (6) representation at work.

And how much decent work does our country provide? Not enough. Based on an ideal level of 100, available data showed that the index varied from 71.94 in 2001 to 73.49 in 2005, peaking at 73.58 in 2004. The shortfall is substantial.

We have a lot to do before we can achieve the level of development our people deserve. The path is not merely through more consumption, but through more decent work.