It’s Poverty, Get It?

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A World Bank official recently said, “What happens when you have democracy but a weak state? You got captured by politicians.”

This is such a wonderful soundbyte and appeals most of all to passionate anticorruption advocates on social media. Unfortunately, it is rather shallow and another of those motherhood statements that simply pander to the emotions of the moment but skirts the essential.

We have a democracy but a weak state? Who said we are a democracy? Yes, we are a weak state and that is why our democracy is but a facsimile of what real democracy is. And captured by politicians? Of course, and why not? A weak state is always captured by politicians, or by warlords, or by dictators, or by foreign masters, even by financial institutions. All these are the unending stream of the few elite that rules the vast majority, and all this has been our history since the 16th century, maybe even much longer.

One more very recent report from an international publication quoted another World Bank official, who in 2011, revealed that their data suggest only 40 families control up to 76 percent of the nation’s GDP—the highest rate of wealth concentration in Asia. In fact, it cited two known taipans as controlling 6 percent of our GDP.

The World Bank knows the intimate relationship between poverty and wealth concentration, but it would rather mouth corruption as the primary reason for poverty. This institution would rather not make the direct correlation between oligarchy and poverty. Of course, corruption follows, as those who hold the nation’s wealth also holds the nation’s power. But the focus shifts from so-called dirty politicians from the only ones who can afford to bribe them, or build them up from the ground.

Is it any wonder, then, than less than 100 clans control the economy of 100 million Filipino families? But even the World Bank would rather gloss over this because it is more popular, and self-serving, to cry out corruption so the less-thinking but more agitated in social media could quickly accept and echo. You do not see politicians buying taipans but you can smell taipans buying politicians. Unfortunately, too many anti-corruption advocates get some form of livelihood from businesses and projects funded by taipans. Like the World Bank, they would prefer to cry corruption.

There can be no democracy where there is massive poverty, simple. A weak state means a weak people, a weak social infrastructure. For as long as new elites like the World Bank and the officials who run them are the ones who give the prescriptions to struggling wannabee democracies like the Philippines, the state simply gets weaker and the rule of the elite naturally evolves to more sophisticated permutations.

The elite extends itself not anymore just by birth unlike the traditional datu system where one’s membership is dictated by one’s royal affinity. The elite is more adaptive than social and politicaltradition because it allows succession by merit—which means by the amount of money one has and the influence it wields. The few families owning and controlling the economy of the Philippines are not anymore the old datus, not anymore the Spanish conquistadores and their mestizos, not anymore the Americans and their business partners in mining and agricultural estates, not anymore the sugar barons – they are whoever have built economic empires from their business acumen, their luck or their connections, including with politicians they build from the ground up.

In other words, to build a business empire, an economic taipan has to engage in political calesthenics, even if corrupt. That is the only way that a few families can control more than 70 percent of the Philippine economy. The names and faces of the richest Filipinos that they are mostly not part of any traditional political dynasty but have established their empires to become the new dynasties.

The cry against corruption is exciting and colorful, like a zarzuela. It doesn’t matter that I heard it from the Magsaysay campain more than 60 years ago and yet has not abated. Every election drives the cry against corruption and every new set of elected officials create their own closet of corrupt skeletons. Joining the tide of the noisy gives many the sense that they are against corruption even when they are fed by the corrupt in business.

Meanwhile, the cry against poverty is a muted one, even in social media where it is but mere lip service. Poverty has eased in real terms in the Philippines because of OFWs, because of BPOs, and because of the natural beauty of our people and islands so appreciated by tourists. It has not been from visionary investment ot government policy, only a demand from abroad supplied by culturally-honed Filipino talent.

I will say this again. Corruption exists and endures because of a weak state, and a state is weak because the people are poor. Poverty, then, drives corruption like no other force. If we want to attack corruption, it should be by attacking poverty with even more focus, more determination, more resources and with more innovative means. A people with dignity, confident in their survival, self-reliant on their talents and strengths, will defy corruption with more power than a ton of laws or an army of law enforcers and lawmakers.

Poverty and corruption are twin cancers in our society, as in many others. Poverty, however, is the stronger cause of corruption than corruption is of poverty. Seldom, if ever, can one see a people weakened by historical poverty rise above corruption without violent revolution. But I have seen many peoples around the world naturally become more honest as they became materially progressive. Take a long, serious look at the most honest countries in the world and see the correlation with their material progress.

Vice versa, see the most corrupt countries and observe the correlation with their own abject poverty level.

Fighting corruption needs only noise and has more drama. Fighting poverty, though, needs lots of hard work and the necessary sympathy and empathy for the poor. Any takers?

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