Violence Highlights Hunger

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Grief KidapawanThat is the only way this crunching moral, social and economic anomaly can be given special attention—by a drama. It was not even a massacre, not if it was true that thousands were protesting and blocking a highway and only five died, one by a heat stroke and another by a thrown rock, probably from a fellow protester. But it was enough to grab national attention, and hunger should be grateful for that.

It is political season, and that is why there has been a spotlight on the Kidapawan incident. It can sound like it is hunger, but it is not. Hunger has been a constant reality for tens of millions, year in and year out. It has not merited any sound and fury from those who now appear as though they are truly most concerned citizens. They had all these decades to shout out their sympathy for the hungry, or their anger at inutile governance—they did not.

Because the truth is that hardly anyone cares, or cares enough, about our poor getting hungry. Hardly anyone cares enough about the poor but the poor themselves. They have become old and boring furniture of our decrepit national house. Every three years now, they are being dusted and given token attention, when the windows of elections allow some sunlight in.

In a country completely caught up with the dynamics of business and politics, poverty and hunger are incidental. True, governments like ours join the global effort against poverty, including setting up of millennial goals to cut poverty by half within a given period of years. There is a lot of talk but no visible and discussable roadmap. No meaningful results, either.

Each department has its own priorities and poverty is one concern they are obligated, politically and diplomatically, to give lip service to. But no department, no agency, no collective body, has an antipoverty program that is bound to all others in one comprehensive and integrated vision and mission. Somewhere in the bureaucracy, there is an antipoverty commission. What its mandate is and what resources are dedicated to it is anybody’s guess. Because it reflects where in the totem pole of national concern poverty is, where hunger is.

So life occasionally steps in, and arranges a violent encounter or two. Sometimes, even a “Yolanda.” Without death in wholesale proportion, without global media attention, or without international aid and intervention, how much really is the poor worth to the rest of Philippine society? Inside that poverty is a smaller section called the hungry, 10 to 20 million Filipinos (the percentages rise and fall from 10 to 20 percent in the last 20 years). All the more this section of our poor merits even less concern and attention. Until a massacre, a deadly typhoon, a destructive landslide.

And so fate just gave the poor and the hungry another booster shot through the Kidapawan encounter. Or was it God? Anyway, the violent dispersal of a protest came at a bad time. At the very least, it was badly handled, both the dispersal and the attempts to justify why it had to be done. Did the Left manipulate it? Of course, they did. Have you ever seen thousands of poor farmers who can hardly survive their farming routine become expert in blocking highways and rock-throwing—at policemen at that? Only activists and militants know how to confront police or military personnel and not blink, then push some more.

Surprisingly, the beneficiary is not the Left or the political opposition. It is the poor and the hungry among them—at least in that area of Mindanao. First, the nation paid attention, sympathized, even got angry. That is enough to translate to thousands of sacks of rice for families who could surely use them. And there will be a short list of items besides that can help the drought-affected farmers come the new planting season.

There have been some discussions over print and broadcast media, asking about what government has done and spent to counter the adverse impact of the El Niño. It’s not going viral, though, and needs its own drama, its own massacre or scandal context. Because poverty and hunger just don’t generate that much of an interest as if the poor and the hungry just don’t have that kind of value to the rest of Philippine society. Until people die, many people die. Because without the drama, poverty and hunger are simply boring subjects.

The drought is not as harsh as expected. Only a few provinces have reached a point that they are now declared as calamity areas. Even then, a few provinces can still mean hundreds of thousands of families who are forced to experience hunger. They were never really food sufficient even before the drought. Can we think about them even if they are not protesting? Can we feel sorry for them before they become part of a massacre? Can we join hands in creating food relief operations in the more several affected towns and barangays?

Because if we do not, why will a democratic government do? Do we really believe that the obligations of public servants are sacrosanct when the obligations of citizens are not? Incidents such as the Kidapawan protest and dispersal are mere reminders, gentle at that, that society as a whole is caught up in more fractious, personal drama than a deep concern for our collective well-being. The poverty of half of the Filipino people, the constant threat of hunger to half of them, these are not the top of our national priorities.

That is why the Left or political opposition cannot resist but exploit the festering resentment of a marginalized majority, many of whom are terribly food-poor. It’s not a resentment against any particular administration but all government on a continuing basis, including everyone who can help but never do.

And all we need to do to change all this is to care enough.

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