Extreme Poverty Can Be Mitigated

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I attended the other day a meeting between three groups that had allied themselves to push an innovative campaign. The common cause is to do battle against hunger, or more specifically, the hunger incidence situation being reported quarterly by SWS for over 30 years. Considering the size of the alliance and the kind of resources it can raise, less than a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem, it can be rightfully said that the effort and plans are running on sheer passion.

Of course, no group today can claim that others have no sympathy for the hungry and have not tried their part to mitigate the misery of the affected poor. It is easy to ascertain that many other individuals and organizations had been doing feeding programs, and even more are expected to do their own initiatives. What is shocking is that, for the greatly interested and committed contribute to the solution, there are very little facts and figures to work with. The most basic of information is simply not there.

Government agencies, especially the DSWD, may claim otherwise, of course. I am sure they have figures and statistics galore. I just wonder if they are the kind of information that can be used to mount a national campaign against hunger, because Philippine independence from 1946 has not come up with one national campaign. In fact, until the SWS hunger reports (now amended to be called hunger incidence reports), it is hard to find statistics about hunger. Without good data, it is next to impossible to design and fund a national program.


The advantage of a small and private group is that the need for data is proportionate small as well. Sadly, even that small data is not available, at least not available enough to be accessible.  And if there are such data, no matter how limited, that are available and accessible, no one seems to be aware about it. No wonder the national state of hunger that constantly threatens tens of millions of Filipinos is allowed to fester without the comprehensive mitigation it deserves. So the little effort that a group like us want to roll out will have to carry with it the need to develop relevant information like where, how many, how bad, and what to do.

It is 2015, and SWS started the regular hunger survey reports in 1983. Since there was never a national program to address hunger or hunger incidence, it shows one glaring and pitiful fact—nobody cared enough. And why should they, I mean government and the decision-makers of society, when the poor were never valued enough, and the extremely poor who are the most affected by hunger or its constant threat, were never valued at all.

Oh, there will be some rhetoric saying otherwise, especially from government or one or two of its agencies mandated to take some care of the poor. Unfortunately for them, they have nothing to show for it, no national program except for some post-disaster intervention like short-term food relief in inadequate evacuation centers. Banner programs are widely propagated to the public as these programs also try to get positive reaction from the public. A national effort against hunger should be important enough to be a banner priority, but it is not and that is why we heard nothing about it.

I cannot blame government alone because government dances to the tune of those who influence it, or even control it. Those individuals or groups in society that government caters to are the ones who have to take responsibility as much as the government they effectively influence. The value system of government in a democracy is supposed to be from the ground up, from ordinary citizens who comprise the majority, but that has never been so. Philippine governance has moved from foreign masters attending to their own interests more than that of Filipinos, and since 1946 has been in a slow and quite unsuccessful process of weaning itself away from colonial views and attitudes towards the vast majority.

The Philippine government and the Philippine elite are not evil, they are just not intelligent and sensitive enough to learn from what all other countries that had risen from poverty had done to do so. And mainstream Philippines, mostly coming from D & E comprising 90 percent, had too long been used to submission to the top one percent.

The growing power of OFWs and their families, however, now totaling at least 35 million, is steadily releasing from their historical submission to a newfound realization about their new capacity and emerging importance. My own view is that the OFW sector will not diminish despite favorable developments in our own economy. Trickle down is trickle down, which means it is too slow to quench the thirst of the poor for more opportunities for a better life. Meanwhile, all other countries moving upwards will mean more demand for imported Filipino labor.

Yet, the trickle down economic theory is the only theory that decision-makers from both the public and private sector understand. Together with an OFW phenomenon that will most probably continue, the march against hunger and extreme poverty estimated at about 30 percent will not find much more economic opportunity and advancement.

Except from direct and focused assistance from both government and the business sector. Extreme poverty and hunger CAN be mitigated, and mitigated quickly. We can do it the Mao Zedong/China way, the Lee Kwan Yew/Singapore way where political and religious freedom were clearly subordinated for economic freedom. That, however, will draw a howl from many except from the very poor who have nothing to lose.

Of course, there is another way, the Pope Francis way. We can simply decide to care enough and move together towards lifting the extremely poor to gaining a new and higher status before our eyes and hearts. Raising the value of the poor will translate to a special focus of attention and resources from government and the more fortunate.  Caring and sharing is a simple formula, simple enough to transform the Filipino destiny.


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