Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Passport Series: Philippines: Part 1: Country Background

This month’s Passport Series is all about the Philippines! The Philippines is truly a cultural melting pot, a quality that is reflected in its many languages, vibrant celebrations and its food. Follow us throughout the month of December as we learn about The Philippines as a nation, its microfinance sector, and the work that Kiva does there!


The Republic of the Philippines is a nation in Southeast Asia. In prehistoric times, Negritos were some of the archipelago's earliest inhabitants. They were followed by successive waves of Austronesian peoples who brought with them influences from Chinese, Malay, Hindu, and Islamic societies.

An era of Spanish rule had its beginnings with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. In 1543, the archipelago was named Las Islas Filipinas in honor of Philip II of Spain. Miguel López de Legazpi arrived in the Philippines in 1565 and consolidated Spanish rule in the islands, which remained a colony of Spain for more than 300 years.

A series of conflicts began at the end of the 19th century as the Philippines struggled for independence. The Philippine Revolution led to the short-lived First Philippine Republic. This was followed by the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine–American War. In the aftermath, the United States emerged as the dominant power. Aside from the period of Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the United States retained sovereignty over the islands until the end of World War II when the Philippines gained independence. Since independence, the Philippines has struggled to maintain a stable democratic government. Two presidents of the Philippines were forced from office by "people power", one in 1986 and one in 2001. The country has been plagued by government corruption, Islamic rebel insurgencies and a protracted guerrilla campaign run by the communist New People's Army (NPA).

The flag of the Philippines - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

The design of the flag of the Philippines dates back to 1897. The blue band stands for peace and justice, the red band symbolizes courage, the white equal-sided triangle represents equality; the rays recall the first eight provinces that sought independence from Spain, while the stars represent the three major geographical divisions of the country: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. In wartime the flag is flown upside down with the red band at the top.


A map of the Philippines - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

The Philippines is located in the Western Pacific Ocean. It is the second largest archipelago in the world comprising 7,107 islands. The islands are divided into three main geographical divisions: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Its capital city is Manila, a thriving metropolis bursting with life and jeepneys! Jeepneys are the most popular form of public transportation in the country. They were originally made from US military jeeps left over from the war. They are known for their flamboyant decorations and have become an iconic symbol of Filipino culture.

Jeepneys - Photo Credit: JJ Casas

The country’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire and its tropical climate make the Philippines prone to earthquakes and typhoons but has also endowed the country with natural resources and made it one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world. Most of the larger islands are traversed by mountain ranges, with narrow coastal plains, wide valleys, volcanoes, dense forests, and mineral and hot springs.

A rice paddy in the Philippines - Photo Credit: John Rauschkolb III


A newly industrialized country, the Philippine economy has been transitioning from one based on agriculture to one based more on services and manufacturing. The Philippines’ GDP was $351.4 billion in 2010. Primary exports include semiconductors and electronic products, transport equipment, garments, copper products, petroleum products, coconut oil, and fruits. Although the country once boasted one of the region's best-performing economies, the Philippines is saddled with a large national debt and tens of millions of people live in poverty. The economy is heavily dependent on the billions of dollars sent home each year by the huge Filipino overseas workforce.

Filipino Fishermen - Photo Credit: John Rauschkolb III

Demographics and Culture

The Philippines is the world's 12th most populous country, having an estimated population of about 100 million people. The majority of the population lives on just 11 of the country’s islands. The Philippines has the highest birth rate in Asia, and forecasters say the population could double within three decades. An additional 11 million Filipinos live overseas. More than 90% of the people are Christian as a result of the nearly 400 years of Spanish and American rule. Although the great majority of Filipinos have Malay heritage, numerous other ethnicities and cultures are found throughout the islands reflecting the country’s history as the trading hub of SouthEast Asia. Many Filipinos have some Asian mainland, Spanish, American, Arab, or Indian ancestry. The official languages of the Philippines are Filipino (based on tagalog) and English. Around 70 other native languages are spoken.

The fiesta is an integral part of Filipino culture. Filipino fiestas are raucous celebrations, often including parades, dancing, singing, costumes, games and bountiful amounts of food. Each city and barrio has at least one local festival of its own, usually on the feast of its patron saint, so that there is always a fiesta going on somewhere in the country. But the biggest and most elaborate festival of all is Christmas, a season celebrated with much pomp and pageantry.

Games being played at a Filipino Christmas party - Photo Credit: Joanne Gan

A dance performance at a Filipino fiesta - Photo Credit: Joanne Gan


Filipino cuisine is one of the most eclectic in the world. It has evolved over several centuries from its Austronesian origins to a mixed cuisine with many Hispanic, Chinese, American, and other Asian influences adapted to indigenous ingredients and the local palate.

Popular dishes include: lechón (whole roasted pig), adobo (chicken and/or pork braised in garlic, vinegar, oil and soy sauce, or cooked until dry), mechado (larded beef in soy and tomato sauce), kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce), sinigang (meat or seafood in sour broth), pancit (fried noodles), ballfish (fried fishballs with sweet vinegar sauce) and lumpia (fresh or fried spring rolls).

Kiva's video curator, JJ Casas, buying ballfish in the Philippines - Photo Credit: JJ Casas

A typical Filipino feast with chicken adobo in the middle - Photo Credit: Dolores Desengano Esguerra

Pansit - Photo Credit: Dolores Desengano Esguerra

Stay tuned next week to hear about the Philippines' microfinance sector!