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A poverty beyond Poverty

“How are you doing, my friend? I was worried about you there in Naga, in this terrible Typhoon Rolly — hope you are OK?”

“Almost a week without electricity and no drinking water, but I am OK,” she says. In its wake Rolly swept away the houses of the poor in Catanduanes, Albay, Quezon, and Batangas. Trashed the fields that would have given a good harvest for farmers looking forward to Christmas. Shuttered the small businesses and all economic activity; P17.9 billion in estimated damages. Killed at least 25 people, with 399 injured and six missing.

“You crazy-rich in Manila sit in your cozy homes and condos, aircons run by monster generators, watching all this on uninterrupted television. No problem with water or food — there’s always delivery orders. Everything is online — the shopping never ends. The only ‘slight’ discomfort is having to self-restrict venturing outside the home because of this coronavirus scare.”

She could have said, “shame on you!,” but I knew what my friend meant. And as if to drive home the point, Typhoon Ulysses came lashing in on Nov. 8, a week after Rolly had blown away. Ulysses wreaked havoc on Quezon province, Batangas, and, again, the Bicol region was affected. The storm deluged the low areas as its downpour filled the rivers and dams and overflowed to cover rooftops in Cagayan and Batangas and even the Marikina Valley in Metro Manila.

At least three million individuals were affected by the typhoon’s onslaught, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council — better known as NDRRMC — reported on Nov. 17. The poor are always the ones affected by disasters — that is what my friend in Naga was taunting me with. Do the non-poor feel enough for the poor?

But the US presidential elections on Nov. 3 were distracting. Yes, in the comfort of home for those who were not directly affected by the twin storms Rolly and Ulysses, it was probably more interesting to watch the close fight for the US presidency between the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump and the Democrat contender Joe Biden. The two were stark contrast to each other in demeanor and in what was perceived to be the principles they stood for — yet public favor seemed so hotly and jealously equal for one and against the other.

Perhaps there is that urgency, after all, for America — an intuition to curb the uneasy compromise of some basic principles and values that had been brought in by a radical strong-man leader who — maybe with good intentions, maybe with not so good intentions — wanted to do things his way. For those who unshakably believed in Trump, they condoned his ways. For the paranoid who feared where he might bring America by his “juvenile delinquency,” they opposed his re-election to a second term.

Social scientists say juvenile delinquents are in “moral poverty” because they lack a grasp on social and moral values from a wrong upbringing or a bad environment. And in the genre of the bad-guy/good guy scenarios prevalent in the movies and entertainment, Trump seems to have lived out in real-life the “bad-ass” way of getting things done and being applauded for it. Some other country leaders are noticeably mimicking (or are natural clones of) Trump for effective control of their nations towards strategic goals in global competitiveness.

But my friend in typhoon-devastated Albay is right. Before political global competitiveness can even be thought of, poverty in the country must be addressed. After Typhoon Rolly, the international poverty watch group Oxfam assessed that at least two million Filipinos or 400,000 families have been affected, with thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, and an estimated 20,000 farmers impacted with the loss of crops.

“The Philippines is a country where 17 million people live below the poverty line. It has persistent high levels of inequality and vulnerability. Further, it is one of the most highly at-risk countries from disasters, with pockets of fragility that threaten its stability and development. (Moreover,) the Philippines is also classified as a lower middle-income country,” Oxfam writes.

The World Bank Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report 2020 reported that COVID-19 was likely to push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty — those living under $1.90-a-day — around the globe in 2020. The United Nations World Food Programme predicts that 200 million people worldwide will lose access to basic food and nutrition in the coming months because of the pandemic. This is on top of the more than 800 million people who experienced food insecurity before the crisis.

According to a Social Weather Station survey, the percentage of Filipinos who were involuntarily hungry in May 2020 (16.7% or 4.2 million families) almost doubled from December 2019 (8.8% or around 2.1 million families). This is the highest percentage since September 2014 (22.8% or 4.8 million families).

A 2009 Asian Development Bank report on chronic poverty in the Philippines notes that economic growth did not translate into poverty reduction in recent years because of deficient targeting and weak implementation of government in various poverty programs, constrained by regional disparity in the concentration of the poor, who usually have large families, with six or more members. Not only the very poor, but Filipino families in the large lower middle class are vulnerable to recurrent shocks and exposure to risks such as economic crisis, conflicts, natural disasters, and “environmental poverty” (e.g., climate change) shocks and risks. Slow government response to alleviate these shocks has exacerbated poverty in this country.

It is the sacrosanct and foremost responsibility of the government to take care of its poor. However, “countries experiencing chronic poverty are seen as natural breeding grounds for systemic corruption due to social and income inequalities and perverse economic incentives,” USAID warned in a November 2003 report, “Corruption and Poverty.” It pointed out that the poor suffered most from corruption in government because of unfair distribution and reduced or lower-quality services and infrastructure decimated by rent-taking and bribes of government functionaries.

But the poor have little choice — “Beggars can’t be choosers.” And the patronage system of politics in the Philippines has exaggerated the dependence of the poor (the “masa”) on individuals in power (rather than on symbolic “government”) who can deliver their needs for survival. As a relevant aside: in this time of the coronavirus crisis, why must government help and support be called “ayuda” — a Spanish term for the Tagalog “tulong” (help)? “Ayuda” reeks of the feudal patronage system that made the peasants (the poor) forever dependent and grateful to the lord of the hacienda for dole-outs for their subsistence and survival.

And we go back to the distraction that a personality like Trump has been, in this world economic crisis and health pandemic. The strongman, bad guy image that he purposely employed garnered near victory for a second term, in what would have been a ratification by the people of what might be compromises towards good governance, even good manners and right conduct. But no more lies, Americans declared on Nov. 3.

Perhaps some might see risqué attraction to certain similar personalities in power in our small, developing country. We must address the poverty situation first, but should the end justify the means? Should patronage and corruption be ever an acceptable compromise to getting things done?

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index 2019 ranks the Philippines a low 113th of 198 countries, so close to the bottom with the most corrupt. The “cleanliness” score is a pitiful 34/100, shameful against Singapore’s 85/100, who ranks a proud 4th of 198 countries listed from little corruption to heavy corruption.

We must stem the rising moral poverty to truly address economic poverty.


Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

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