Urban poor settlements

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo World Bank

As I write this so I can make my deadline for submission, the US elections results are not yet in. Enough, though, is there to know that both Trump and Biden will be fighting for each vote in each battleground state that can go either way. To me as an ardent observer of their campaign and election process, one thing is clear no matter who wins. Most of the polls were again wrong. Biden did not translate his lead to votes closer to what the polls said. And Trump over performed.

I know there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of the teeth no matter where this goes. Trump says he won but he can still lose. Biden may be cautious but he can still win. There will be the celebrations and there will be tears of anger and frustration. In other words, the absence of a landslide either way promises an even more divided America. The United States remains in catharsis. Elections are over but partisanship deepens, now to an even more turbulent America.

What about us? The distraction of the American elections is almost over but our crisis here is still raging. There is a long list, and only one item can look forward to a vaccine for a quicker solution than the rest. Look, again, at our social ills, the enduring pandemic of Philippine society. Poverty. Landlessness. Homelessness. Hunger. Informal settlers. Extreme population density in highly urbanized areas led by Metro Manila. And a COVID-19 pandemic that is made impossible to control because of the aforementioned factors.

“At the same time, pessimism is not what we need but determination. That is why our aspirations must be revived strongly whatever the conditions around us. With hope driving us, we only go down faster and stay there longer.”

The pandemic has greatly weakened our economy with all economic experts saying the recovery will go beyond 2021 before we get back to where we were. That is surely quite pessimistic. At the same time, pessimism is not what we need but determination. That is why our aspirations must be revived strongly whatever the conditions around us. With hope driving us, we only go down faster and stay there longer.

Optimism, hope, and the determination to rise from a bad situation is not about money or projects or schools. It is purely about people. Our total focus must, therefore, be on people. Let us start there. We cannot go to the problems, challenges, and opportunities if we do not take a fresh look at ourselves and what we are learning from the pandemic. Before we begin to plan, we must decide to plan for who. We must again put people in the center and consider everything else as secondary or incidental. Life is about people, about us.

Reflecting on our more recent history (because that is what is still most fresh in our minds), we have always belonged to at least two main categories. That is rich and poor. The rich have nowhere to go except out of the country to be even richer. The path of regionalism and globalization is already there and gives more than enough opportunities for our rich. The world beckons, so to speak, to the rich.

“Discontent from the poor does not lift them up towards their aspirations. It will first drive them to confrontation, not production. Confrontation, and no matter who wins, simply delays desired changes. The poor are not the enemy of the state, they are the state if their numbers are overwhelming.”

The poor. The sector of the poor is more challenging because that may mean 90% or more of Filipinos. It is the poor who want to find a way out of their inherited hole. Because of their huge numbers, they cannot even dream of killing or stealing from the rich because there will never be enough wealth to distribute. Even the abundant natural resources of the homeland, if simply cut up and distributed to the non-rich, are not meant for distribution but for sustainable production.

Discontent from the poor does not lift them up towards their aspirations. It will first drive them to confrontation, not production. Confrontation, and no matter who wins, simply delays desired changes. The poor are not the enemy of the state, they are the state if their numbers are overwhelming. In the Philippines, the poor represent at least half of the state. That alone demands that the poor must find transition from dependency to guided opportunity. The more powerful in the state must assure that half its potential power is not only disabled but is like a millstone around its neck.

The huge numbers of the poor create settlements with extreme population density. Contained in that kind of a space, the poor cannot prosper. In fact, they deteriorate as their coping mechanisms turn to survival, not growth, mode. We have seen how America developed its own ghettos and how many decades it took to dismantle them. Ours will take longer although we need it much sooner than the US. Simple because our people have suffered enough, and the country must find momentum is building capacity and progress.

To dismantle poverty and utilize our population as strong and reliable producers of goods and services, we must dismantle the most visible face of urban poverty. While there are many poor in the provinces as well, people are not drawn to migrate to them. Slums are different. They are slums to us who don’t live there but they are a better choice to the poor who want to escape poverty in the rural areas. That is why these densely populated settlements must fund an early solution.

“We cannot allow any disaster to aggravate the needs of the poor further and suddenly. However, that is exactly what we guarantee will happen when we encourage, by sheer non-action, the establishment of more slums and settlements.”

COVID-19 may have driven hunger to triple in a few months but it would have been impossible to do that in Metro Manila if the metropolis did not host at least 3 million informal settlers in the first place. We cannot allow any disaster to aggravate the needs of the poor further and suddenly. However, that is exactly what we guarantee will happen when we encourage, by sheer non-action, the establishment of more slums and settlements.

I hope, too, that when we finally decide to address this ugly problem, it is not to simply transfer it somewhere else. A back-to-the-province project must seek first and foremost the unfettered development of those enticed to move. It can be a major flagship program, not a dispersal of an urban problem.

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