Philippines needs to start fighting poverty
Few countries fail so badly to tackle disparity
Nearly one third of Filipinos still live below the poverty line. (Picture: Joe Torres)
Reggie is the human face of poverty in the Philippines. He and his family lived on the edge of hunger before Typhoon Haiyan pushed them into the abyss.
Reggie is 17 years old, unemployed and homeless. His home was taken away by the 245 kph typhoon in November. With the strong wind, the boy's dignity was also taken away from him by human traffickers who forced Reggie and six others into unpaid labor on a fishing boat.
The boys were later abandoned, hungry and unpaid. Reggie sunk into an even worse situation when his freedom was taken from him by authorities who jailed the boy for being a vagrant. It was only recently that he was rescued from illegal detention.
The most haunting example of extreme poverty in the Philippines though is that of Edgar. One of the poorest of the poor and typical of hundreds of thousands of Filipino street children, he is skinny and emaciated – someone nobody wants to look at.
Edgar was found wounded on a street in Manila wearing a pair of shorts to cover his otherwise naked body. He had nothing else in this world, a reality so shocking when we realize that the obese are more numerous than the 1.2 billion poor that live on less that US$2 a day across the globe.
The Philippines, with its towering condominium buildings, wealth and opulence of the ruling elite, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Progress in reducing poverty despite so-called economic growth has been virtually non-existent. In a country with about 100 million people, there are 29 million Filipinos living below the poverty line according to government statistics. This was almost the same figure seven years ago.
Walden Bello, a member of the Philippines congress, writes that the rest of the world has made great improvement in reducing poverty since 2005. The World Bank declared (in 2010) that the "progress is so drastic that the world has met the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to cut extreme poverty in half, five years before its 2015 deadline”.
But the Philippines has not made any such strides. The roots of poverty are found in the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few powerful families.
Debt has also become a tool of control. Getting poor countries into debt was a deliberate policy by rich nations to have economic and political influence over developing nations.
The worldwide campaign to cancel debt succeeded in exposing this tactic, and nations refused to pay or had it restructured and changed economic policy in a bid to have real freedom and growth that favored the poor.
But the Philippine elite, forever subservient, made debt servicing their obedient obligation. This slavery to debt masters consumes as much as 25 percent of the national budget, leaving little for infrastructure and rural development.
The Philippines has remained enmeshed in the debt trap and makes no effort to throw it off. The Philippine government and their backers are clinging to an economic ideology that allows multinationals to exploit the economy and natural resources and makes them all richer and the rest of the nation poorer.
The Philippine Congress passed mining laws, for example, that gave the international mining corporations unprecedented privileges that many claim are unconstitutional. They destroy the environment with open pit excavations, cut forests causing landslides and disasters. Meanwhile, entire villages and communities are uprooted and driven into poverty.
The poor are driven from the impoverished countryside to urban slums where children, some as young as 13 years old, end up in the sex trade.
Poverty is allowed to grow by the greed of the dynastic families that hold a political power monopoly backed by the military. They passed laws that allow members of congress to have huge lump sums of money from the national treasury for their so-called development projects in their constituencies. However, most of it has been siphoned off into private accounts.
The scandal has dominated the headlines for months now as one sordid revelation of corruption at the highest levels of power follows another.
Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to meet the UN millennium development goals, the government has been implementing the Conditional Cash Transfer Program. This handout project, despite its shortcomings, is helping to stop poor urban families from falling into abject poverty.
The program is a temporary life jacket to keep the poor afloat in an ocean of deprivation and hunger. What is needed is a pro-poor economic policy change that will put job creation for the poor and land distribution (with support), at the center of economic policy.
Hopefully it will help create a strong lower and middle class with spending power that will, in turn, create more employment. The wealth will be distributed instead of concentrating among a few at the top.
The Philippines will remain among the most backward and poor unless there’s a dedicated pro-poor government in power, and sadly that is not likely in the foreseeable future.
Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary priest. He established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and promote the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.
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