by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.”—Albert Camus

I was waiting in a restaurant at Greenbelt on Wednesday night, all by myself. My dinner companions were still in the airport, their flight from Iloilo slightly delayed. And I had to expect rush hour traffic to add to the delay. Which was a good thing for me.

For so many years, I had been involved with passionate advocacy, raising the battle cry against poverty and hunger mostly. I guess the magnitude of both is such that I hardly had time to smell the flowers, so to speak. It is not as though I have not had opportunity to enjoy myself, but I had inadvertently glossed over the lighter side of life along the way.

Since I knew our dinner would be delayed, I instead kept walking around Greenbelt. I had no shopping to do, but the walking was good exercise for a senior citizen like me. And as a bonus, I was brought to confront another reality that was not a focal point of my advocacies for quite some time. Instead of window-shopping, I went people-watching.

I cannot say I went into shock after focusing on the Greenbelt crowd when I had centered myself on the lives of the poor and the historical antecedents leading up to their poverty. I had spent almost thirty years working in corporate Makati, and I spent more waking hours in the Makati business district than I did at home. There was no Greenbelt, no Glorietta and Rizal Theater was still a landmark. It was martial law time, then the heady days of Edsa with an occasional coup d’ etat here and there.

The change has been dramatic. Because of my work both as a corporate executive then and an advocacy person after, I had been traveling to highly developed countries around the world in the Americas, Europe and Asia. I experienced my first mall in the Bay area of Northern California, used before then only to the street shopping of Hong Kong. There was such a stark difference between high-end life abroad and in the Philippines, which was why the rich in Philippine society traveled extensively to fully appreciate the fruits of their wealth.

Today, though, there is that ambience of being in the great cities abroad – if you are in Makati, at The Fort (which used to be Makati, too), and a few other cities in the Philippines. But none like Makati. If Makati had special cultural sites and museums centered on local history, it will further jump several notches in the Who’s Who City of the world. Though I had spent almost three decades working in Makati and seen much of the growth, I remain really amazed.

More amazing, though, are the people I observed Wednesday night. The high-end development of Makati can only have been steered by the vision and leadership of its private and public sector, but only the people living, working and spending in Makati are sustaining and pushing even more growth. I know Greenbelt is not a bargain area, I know the restaurants charge more than the usual rates, but the high-end commercial district of Makati is not an exclusive place for the rich anymore. The minuscule number of the elite can be the brains of development, but only a greater number can serve as the body.

So, where is this body of Filipinos sustaining Makati coming from? They all used to come from Forbes Park, Dasmariñas, Urdaneta, BelAir and San Lorenzo villages. Not anymore. The people I saw that night had money to spend, but they were not mostly from the traditional elite, not even from the nouveau riche. And they were much younger than those spenders who once defined Makati shopping and fine dining.

It struck me how much money now is going to consumption from non-traditional sources. It made me keenly aware the huge, and young, numbers of call center employees is changing the landscape of consumerism. And I suspect that the sector called Class D has its upper portion patronizing Makati once in a while but substantial enough because of its numbers. They are family members of the dramatic OFW sector, the beneficiaries of foreign remittance now more than $20 billion.

Since the late 70’s, I have seen large numbers climb out of their historical poverty because they became OFWs. The OFWs and their families must be around 30 percent of our population by now. By their own sacrifices, they have redirected the pattern of inherited poverty for themselves and creating their own class that demographics has yet to clearly define. The OFWs have not been called “heroes” if they have not achieved great change for themselves and the nation by the power of sacrifice and talent.

A meaningful part of the more than $20 billion foreign remittance comes from Filipinos who cannot be technically termed as OFWs because they are already migrants to other countries. Their new country of residence or citizenship, however, has not made them forget those they left behind. From them, billions of dollars continue to be remitted to their families here.

The BPO sector, too, with almost one million Filipinos employed, is another huge contributor to consumerism and development. The money it earns from clients abroad fuels the shopping and eating of the young sector, and the rapid construction of buildings to house their business. The initial success of the BPO sector in Makati, and the growth it drives, is now being copied effectively by many other cities in the Philippines – driving their own progress.

I needed to see this before my eyes, if only to force me to accept that change does come from traditional economic means. As an anti-poverty advocate, I also needed to be encouraged by the vision of others in another dimension. I am not satisfied that trickle-down economics is the main way to go, but it has not been a total failure as well. All the more I am convinced that an equivalent formula be directed not only at the next best class ready for development, that poverty must have its own champions as counterparts to capitalists and industrialists. I continue to hope for that classical “bibingka” approach, from the top and from the bottom and must be part of it.

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