The First Freedom

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


From the mouth of babes, or from a hero’s son, is revealed another facet of a great man from a personal conversation with his son. It was martial law, and their family was undergoing severe trials. Democracy was imprisoned by the dictator, and the son asked his father why there were not greater numbers of Filipinos fighting with them to regain freedom. The father answered, ” The very first freedom that has to be won is freedom from hunger. When you are always concerned about where the next meal will come from, everything else becomes irrelevant.”

This exchange of words, worthy as they are, take on an even keener meaning because these were between Ninoy and Noynoy Aquino. Ninoy is a national hero, and Noynoy is P-Noy, President of the Republic of the Philippines. Because of who the father and the son are, the hungry among Filipinos, despite numbering in the tens of millions, may have found champions who can rescue them.

I know many have cared for the hungry for such a long time even before I became concerned myself. Unfortunately, the hungry are much more many than the number of those who have been hoping them. With hunger incidence swinging between 15-23% in the past decade, it would seem that the effort of concerned citizens would, indeed, not be enough. If 15-23% are actually victims of hunger, you can imagine how many more just escaped its claws. As much as 30% may be seeking their first freedom – freedom from hunger.

Which now leads me to wonder how deeply the words of Ninoy impacted on Nonoy, now P-Noy. Using the same quarterly hunger incidence SWS survey that I have monitored for over ten years, it seems that the pattern of hunger defies all efforts to defeat it. Pouring tens of billions of pesos in the Conditional Cash Transfer program has not affected the constancy of hunger incidence among our poorest – and probably because it is not an anti-hunger intervention. Unless there was a mistake in describing it from the very beginning, the CCT was justified as a program to keep children in school, those children who, primarily for lack of food among other needs, may otherwise drop out. I also read somewhere that the CCT program looks after the children’s health needs. I do not know how effective the CCT has been in keeping poor children in school after more than two years in the P-Noy administration, or how the CCT has helped keep them healthier, but I know the first freedom remains unavailable to the same percentage of Filipinos.

If P-Noy is determined to pursue the perennial revolution of our very poor against hunger, then he will have to design a different intervention. For something so fundamental as hunger, intervention must be simple but massive and participated in by greater society, not just a department of government. The DSWD has been all the while in the last several decades but history shows that it is not the agency that would know hoe to address hunger outside of disaster circumstances.

Hunger is a curse where the victims have entirely no fault. Hunger is passed on by birth, a fate so harsh that it is hard to explain in the religious sense. Maybe that is why all major religions have teachings that urge their faithful to feed the hungry. And, definitely, all major religions in the Philippines are shamed in the practice of their teachings because hunger has no place in a country defined by natural abundance. Thus, from a curse inherited by birth by our poorest, it has become a national curse and shame on a whole people and nation for the apathy that feeds the tolerance of hunger.

A national curse may need a national exorcism, not little acts of charity. I do not place the blame of a curse and a shame on the shoulders of a president who inherited these. But he is the father of the Filipino people, and hunger among his children must be a priority just as much as corruption, if not more.

In the mind and heart of Ninoy Aquino, the freedom from hunger is the first freedom to be won. Other freedoms have to be pursued, yes, but not at the cost of skipping the battle against the first freedom to be won.  Thank goodness that the freedom against hunger is not an impossibility; in fact, it is winnable. If there can be 40 billion pesos for the CCT, much less than that is needed to dramatically reduce hunger among Filipinos.

And it is not the DSWD that will carry the torch, it is P-Noy himself, it is the CBCP themselves, it is the Muslim religious leaders themselves, it is the barangay officials themselves, and most of all, it is us ourselves.

Presidents come and go while hunger persists. It does because we tolerate it. This means that the enduring responsibility and accountability stays with those who are more permanent than presidents.

Hunger is not a social or economic problem, it is a moral anomaly. The hunger of millions is a horrible slap on a culture that built the rice terraces, where the mores of a people chose the nourishment of communities rather than the aggrandizement of personalities, or politics.  If there is one factor that denies us progress, that denies us respectability as a people, that denies us nationhood, it is the continuing hunger of so many Filipinos.

It must be destiny, too, that catapulted a man to the presidency of the land, a man who has always shown that he was a faithful son. The words of Ninoy must be a challenging legacy to P-Noy. And at the end of his term, if P-Noy can say that he led a nation to erase its shame, to expunge its curse, and to achieve the first freedom, freedom from hunger, that would already make him the best president the country ever had.

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