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Clarence Batan: Giving a voice to Filipino Youth

September 29, 2014

Despite strong economic growth, the Philippines has the highest unemployment rate in the ASEAN region — more than 7%. Particularly hard hit are youth, who account for more than half of the close to 3 million unemployed.

As sociologist Clarence Batan explains, the lack of jobs is just one factor that has led to the social phenomenon of istambay (a Tagalog transliteration of the English “on standby”) youth. The Philippine culture of care and close-knit family relationships allow out-of-school, out-of-work youth to survive and helps delay the usual transitions to adulthood and all it implies — marriage, family formation, leaving the family home, and independent living. Derided throughout Filipino society for being lazy, istambays are a troubling fixture in Filipino society and the economy.

Batan has spent years studying the istambay, completing his PhD at Dalhousie University in Halifax in 2010, facilitated by scholarship grants from the Government of Canada and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. An IDRC Doctoral Research Award in 2005 enabled him to carry out his fieldwork in his home country. He is now associate professor at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, where he coordinates research on youth issues.

Istambays in the Philippines, waiting for employment

“My research grew out of my early fascination with the nearby community of Talim Island, a marginalized fishing village in Luzon, and trying to understand the growing up experience of fellow youths living in Talim,” says Batan.

Over the years, he has made many visits to Talim, close to his hometown of Binangonan, to document the lives of its population. Talim Island is only 50 km from metropolitan Manila, but it is only accessible by boat. Predictably, its residents face many difficulties in finding employment and accessing higher education.

Batan’s research focused on Filipino youth growing up in during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Philippines experienced a series of political upheavals that had socio-economic impacts. He found that the istambay phenomenon was complex and resulted from, among other factors, the poverty of Filipino families and the country’s stagnating economy, the high cost of education, and the difficulty of converting education into a job.

And as Batan points out in his thesis, his research opened his eyes to his own biases and stereotypical views of istambay as idle troublemakers. In effect, he found that they simply had no choice given the country’s ineffective educational and employment structures.

From research to impact

Batan’s research has been widely recognized. In 2012, he received a fellowship grant from Brown University’s International Advanced Research Institutes to present his research. He returned to Brown as a visiting fellow for 2013 to pursue further research.

A presenter on the Research Committee on Sociology of Youth at the International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology 2014, he is now also Vice-President for Asia on the Association’s Research Committee 34 – Sociology of Youth.

Batan’s research now helps to guide social and education policy in the Philippines. He is regularly consulted by the Department of Education, the National Youth Commission, and chairs the Technical Committee for Sociology of the Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education, drafting policies, standards, and guidelines for education.

Photo (right): Angelo Asuncion
Clarence Batan, speaking at the Istambay Forum.

Louis Turcotte is an Ottawa-based writer.

Find out more about Clarence Batan's research:

This article is part of the series Where are they now? that highlights the work of former IDRC award recipients:

  • Catching up with former IDRC awardees

  • Bridging the gap between farmers and supermarkets in Nicaragua

  • Clean water initiative in Peru led by former IDRC awardee

  • Awatef Ketiti: Linking ICTs, gender, and societies across the Mediterranean Sea

  • From waste to fertilizer: IDRC awardee closing the nutrient gap in Ghana's soils