Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pie in the sky

Confronting poverty from an inverse perception of the problem, instead of looking at its underlying roots and causes, is like offering the downtrodden masses a pie in the sky. It sounds attractive but everyone knows it is unlikely to happen.
This is exactly how Conrado de Quiros, an unabashed supporter of President Noynoy Aquino and a columnist with the Philippine Daily Inquirer (which earns him the sobriquet as a member of the President’s yellow media), sees how to solve poverty: from the point of view of those who have compassion for helping the poor, but not from the actual perspective of the problems of the poor.
Photo courtesy of flicker, a_hansv

Writing on Christmas day, de Quiros suddenly had an epiphany that there are people in our midst who have the genuine compassion for the poor. From his news desk, he wrote about a “modest proposal” of bringing together all these people under what he calls a “propoor coalition” who would be entrusted in putting the war against poverty in the national consciousness. De Quiros named the likes of Tony Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, Cardinal Chito Tagle of the Catholic Church, and the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who all unquestionably have a sterling record of being devoted to uplifting the poor.
There are at least two fundamental weaknesses in this “modest proposal” proffered by no less than an avowed religious follower like de Quiros. First, the idea of a “propoor coalition” against poverty is nothing new. The masses of poor people, from the landless peasants in the countryside to the urban poor in the cities, have long been hitherto united by their social and economic circumstances in waging a war against poverty. Proposing now that the poor people can coalesce together to elevate the spectre of poverty to the national agenda is a bit too late because that has been said and done already.
Second, forging an effective coalition of the poor against poverty is never predicated on the presence of people who are genuinely passionate about this cause. The people de Quiros mentioned in his column have without doubt expressed their devotion to the poor either through action like Tony Meloto’s GK building communities or through spiritually uplifting messages by Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. But they should not form the foundation of a people’s struggle against poverty. This is like saying we have the leaders, all we need are followers.
The reality is that the poor and their condition determine their leaders. It is never the opposite, i.e., the leaders choose or define their own followers.
This is the same flaw inherent in the government’s war against poverty. President Aquino’s anti-poverty war is based on eradicating corruption which he believes is the primary cause of widespread poverty. “Kung walang kurap, walang mahirap” has been the face of the President’s campaign promise to help the poor. We know this is an empty shibboleth, a mere catchword to attract votes. Just like de Quiros’ “modest proposal” of a “propoor coalition.”
Why the recent Typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan has become the precursor to his concern for the poor only exposes the shallowness of the de Quiros’ “modest proposal” to bring together the poor and those he perceives as leaders who have genuine compassion for helping the poor under one umbrella. The problem of poverty has been with us since time immemorial because of the unequal distribution of wealth imposed by an economic system that has been monopolized by the elite and a few oligarchs, which includes the family of President Aquino. The policies of the government which create social and economic inequities will always be the principal cause of poverty among the people who do not have equal access to the opportunities that are controlled by the wealthy few.
Consider the impact of Typhoon Haiyan and all the other natural disasters that visited the country last year. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to these natural disasters.
When a government adheres to economic policies that put profit above the people’s welfare, it is always the poor who are hit hardest by the government’s inability to adapt to natural disasters. When you witness so much confusion and blame finger-pointing in the relief efforts during the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, this only shows the underdevelopment and backwardness that characterize the country’s state of affairs. It also confirms the feeble and late response of the country’s leadership to the woes of the poor who have suffered the most from the typhoon’s wrath.
Compared this, however, to the immediate and almost natural instinct of the nation’s top leaders in responding to an incident before Christmas when hammer-wielding robbers looted a jewellery store at a popular Manila shopping mall owned by one of the country’s powerful business oligarchs. Such is a vivid illustration of how fast and effective the government reacts when the oligarchy is threatened. It also shows how the government becomes tepid when the ordinary people’s economic and social rights are violated.
Conrado de Quiros, just like the government that he apologizes for its flaws and shortcomings, never really understands the plight of the poor. He and others in the yellow media would flaunt the government’s high credit rating from international agencies but fail to mention that this has not resulted in actual growth in the economy. The country’s gross domestic product has continued to fall and the decline in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the economy has deprived millions of Filipinos the opportunity for decent work, livelihood and means of subsistence.
The number of unemployed and underemployed has been growing, yet the government insists that it has stimulated job creation. Instead of generating jobs at home, the government has continued to rely on a labour export policy that puts thousands and thousands of skilled Filipino workers overseas at risk and exposed to exploitative working conditions.
When a government cannot guarantee its able-bodied and educated citizens the basic right to find employment and earn a wage sufficient to maintain a decent level of living, it is almost self-evident that hundreds of thousands of people are without unemployment benefits, their families lack protection and insurance, and opportunities to keep their young children in school are not met. Government has failed to see to it that people meet their basic nutrition requirements, and in some cases, people have no access to food. In other words, the government has failed to secure the people’s right to an adequate standard of living.

Poor Filipino family lives under a bridge in Manila. Photo courtesy of Paula
Bronstein/Getty Images.
These are the conditions of the poor that de Quiros should write about, and not about the glorious examples of men who have been successful in portraying themselves as saviours of the poor. While their examples might be worth emulating, it is the existential circumstance of poverty that counts and unifies the poor to become a large coalition of the neglected, the disadvantaged and the violated. But the coalition of the poor which de Quiros is proposing has been with us for a long time. Why it has not been winning the war on poverty only shows how much strong and powerful the economic and political forces of the oligarchy are in opposing any government initiative that would improve the situation of the poor.
Answering the need and cry of the poor does not have to wait for the government to begin the task of ending poverty. Here, Conrado de Quiros is correct, to cite the examples of Meloto, Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. But to flaunt the visions of these three de Quiros idols and put them in front of the people’s anti-poverty war will be a serious mistake. They can lend their support to the people’s struggle against poverty, which surely would be a welcomed gesture of solidarity.
The war against poverty must begin with a correct analysis of the conditions that have brought up poverty in the first place. This is what Conrado de Quiros doesn’t want to do because it would only expose the fundamental truth in this war against poverty – the truth that it is an uncaring government and the oligarchic elite that he shamelessly supports who are the real reasons why people continue to be poor.

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