On why NSO and NSCB should stop using ‘households by type of housing materials’ as proxy indicator for poverty in the Philippines

In its population and housing census in modern years, the National Statistics Office has used ‘households by type of housing materials’ as proxy indicator for poverty incidence.

But the context has changed since the indicator was first established. Then, development was influenced by frontier economics based on the happy belief that natural resources are free and abundant (despite the economic principle of scarcity) and the impact made by humans on natural resources, even if known and studied in the natural sciences, has not yet made its way onto front pages of media. In other words, wealth creation is seen to result from extracting from natural resources with abandon. Extraction entailed much capital and so only those who have it benefitted in leaps and bounds. Houses, among other things, of these capitalists progressed from small to palatial size and organic to oil-based materials, to symbolize their wealth which is how the notion of housing materials as an indication of (economic, not necessarily emotional and psychological) wealth has come about. Today, in light of sustainable and equitable development, that paradigm is being challenged and in fact changes toward environmentally-friendly practices are being made.

Within the planning and housing sector, there is now growing preference and encouragement toward what are called ‘green’ houses that maximizes natural (clean) energy and elements (e.g. local climate, natural surroundings, limitations). This is so because, statistically-speaking, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 65% of electricity consumption, 36% of energy use, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, 30% of raw materials use, 30% of waste output, and 12% of potable water consumption. In short, these numbers need to be drastically cut back, globally, and in the dictum ‘think global, act local’, the first step to that desired change starts at the local, right here in the country (and in every country).

This makes the ‘housing material’ as proxy poverty indicator inappropriate and in fact erroneous. Take the nipa hut. Apart from it embodying Filipino history and richness (wealth) of the Filipino cultural heritage*, its materials are exactly the sort desired for green building in tropical climes, and its open space showcases our ancestors’ long-held knowledge of the alignment of space with the flow of natural air (ask any natural science student about such practical alignments and most probably he or she wouldn’t know the difference in quality of the eastern from the western wind). These features are in harmony with nature, instead of being against it (it is when building features work against nature when air-conditioning, among other so-called amenities, becomes a need). Which is why even the strongest typhoons didn’t entirely destroy the nipa huts in this country, because barring aged materials (I believe the huts are built to be replaced after a certain period and when they’re not that’s when they are susceptible) the materials – cogon and matted bamboo – naturally “bend” with the wind. In my younger years, I told myself I’d buy me a farm and live in a hut when I retire and I still have that desire though for the sake of my kids (since I don’t want to impose my desired lifestyle on them) I’m not sure if it’s going to happen. So I don’t understand why many Filipinos deride nipa huts. Or, the native houses in the Cordillera. Until now, I’m amazed that with the much cooler temperature then families survived the cold in those houses considering that today’s houses in similar climes are artificially insulated or heated! Indeed, our ancestors were the first architects of green building, as they understood the strength of materials and the interplay of natural elements and building materials.

In the case of families living in tin houses (this excludes those in squatters), tin as a building material is not exactly indicative of their poverty. Take people in the Cordillera (and in many other places around the country). Only Westernized natives build concrete houses. If they don’t build using native materials, tin is preferred because they want to live the simple life (which the wealthy in this world take great pains to do at some point). These people are landed and have cash stashed away earned from their vegetable farms and cottage industries, but they prefer to live simply (well, landscape has much to do with this because if you’re surrounded by majestic mountains, pristine air and spring water, near God, acquisition of consumer goods are farthest from your mind). At this point, I will speculate: might these households in tin houses counted twice in the census? Once in terms of income and twice in terms of housing material and both are reported separately? In the NSO and NSCB reporting, I don’t see an indicator of say ‘households earning above the poverty line but living in tin houses’. It’s all about reporting of single indicators and unless you conduct your own study it’s impossible for information users to work with correlated data because these are not disaggregated which is so sad given the amount and time spent on the undertaking.

Ironically, tin houses and those of indigenous materials are compatible with sustainable development. As I mentioned in a previous article on PA 21, the challenge of sustainable development is shift in mindsets. It could start with poverty statistics (or how the community conclude who are poor and rich).

*… the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognized as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity (UNESCO).

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