Groups urge Aquino: Act on poverty now
President Benigno Aquino III. INQUIRER file photo
Warning that poverty, like guns, kills, representatives of the nation’s most destitute sectors have called on President Benigno Aquino III to mobilize government resources to help the poor.
“Our nation is in an explosive situation,” Archbishop Antonio Ledesma said, reading from a prepared statement issued at the close of a three-day “summit on poverty, inequality and social reform” last week.
“Poverty is mounting, streets all over the country are teeming with beggars and dislocated indigenous peoples,” he said.
“The children of the poor wake up to poverty, eat poverty for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sleep poverty—without understanding why they are such. There is a proliferation of poor households erected right on the bangketas, above the esteros, under bridges, in the karitons on the hillsides and even in the cemeteries.
“Overcoming poverty requires the decisive reform leadership from the center,” the prelate of Cagayan de Oro City said at a press conference on Friday. “We, therefore, call on the President to refocus the whole governance system in support of the aspirations of the poor as articulated in this conference.
In his keynote address, Christian S. Monsod, a convenor of the event, noted that the nation had just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that delivered the country from tyranny and a second Aquino administration was swept into power with an unprecedented vote margin last year.
“The task today is no less heroic than at Edsa—it is liberation from the yoke of poverty that would make democracy more meaningful to the poor,” said Monsod, former chair of the Commission on Elections and member of the 1987 Constitutional Commission.
“It is not only guns that kill. Poverty kills. It is slow death from hunger, from diseases that we thought no longer existed, from the loneliness of a life with an empty future. It is also the dying of dignity,” said Monsod, also a pro bono lawyer for farmers.
The conference released grim statistics on the country’s dire situation that seemed to mirror protests by the “indignados” in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street Movement that have turned into a global campaign against widespread economic imbalance and corporate greed.
Poverty and inequality have bedeviled the nation since independence in 1946 and Edsa I in 1986, the conference statement said.
The nation’s top 1 percent of the families—185,000—have an income equal to the income of the bottom 30 percent of poor families numbering 5.5 million; the 1 percent of the families make the laws, dispense justice, implement programs and control media, it said, echoing the lament of critics of a country remaining under feudal bondage and ruled by “caciques.”
“There is nothing wrong with having wealth and power and special connections, but there is something very wrong about the great imbalances and the use of these advantages to influence the politics and policies for their own interests or deny or delay justice to the 99 percent of our country,” it said. “This must change.”
“Twenty-five years after Edsa, where are we on that promise?” Monsod asked.
“The latest government family income and expenditures survey (2009) shows: The incidence of poverty may have gone down from 35.15 percent in 1988 to 26.49 percent in 2009, but the numbers of the poor have increased from 21.3 (million) to 23.9 million.
“By ‘poor’ we mean per capita income of less than P46/day. And of these 23.9 million, 9.4 million are ‘food poor’ who live on P32/day, not even enough to meet the minimum 2000 calories/day,” Monsod said.
He noted that the latest Social Weather Stations survey in October put the percentage of hungry families at 21.5 percent up from 15.1 percent in July.
“The inequality of income has not changed since Edsa,” he said, adding that “since studies show that there is very little of a middle class to speak of, this means that 99 percent (of Filipinos) are also poor.”
Monsod said different poor groups that needed urgent attention were below the radar screen of antipoverty programs because they have no addresses.
Critics say Mr. Aquino is too preoccupied with putting his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to jail for alleged corruption and electoral sabotage that he has forgotten to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Third-quarter growth was a dismal 3.2 percent and a lackadaisical overall performance is likely this year.
The conference statement welcomed Mr. Aquino’s decision to allow the law to take its course in the decadeslong Hacienda Luisita case after the Supreme Court on November 22 decided to partition the 5,000-hectare sugar plantation owned by the President’s family among its 6,200 workers.
“There are many other Hacienda Luisitas waiting to be reformed, especially those under the spurious Agribusiness Venture Agreements,” it said.
The conference called on Mr. Aquino to transform its P21-billion conditional cash transfer project (CCT) “into a truly empowerment program for the poor.”
It said the program should also cover environment nurturing and rehabilitation, climate change adaptation, housing, rural and urban poor infrastructure, among others.
The conference said the program designed to provide care for indigent mothers and keep malnourished children in public schools was a “positive initiative to prevent the poorest from falling in society.”
“But the P1,400 per family monthly is way below the official P7,000 poverty threshold for a family of five just to stay afloat. Only 2 million families are benefiting from the program, which is less than half of the bottom 30 percent of poor families. There are also problems in catching the poorest of the poor, who have no permanent addresses, in the CCT network.”
More than 200 representatives of farm workers across the country, labor groups, fishermen, indigenous peoples, Church people, urban dwellers and civil society organizations attended the gathering.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and Environment Secretary Ramon Paje attended the final day of the conference on Friday at the Bureau of Soils in Quezon City.
The discussions, according to a conference summation paper, came up with a “common outlook” on wide-ranging issues.
On agrarian reform
Participants slammed “incoherent policies on support services.” For example, they said that the national budget since 2010 up to 2012 did not provide for agricultural production inputs and socialized credit. Convergence strategy appears more of a merger to streamline bureaucracy than to achieve required synergy of programs to enhance development interventions.
Consistent lack of political will to seriously enforce the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, particularly on the coverage of private agricultural estates comprising more than 1 million hectares owned by “sacred cows” that have evaded distribution under the land-to-the-tiller program.
(The Philippine Daily Inquirer has learned that budget officials had cut in half a proposed P30-billion allocation by the Department of Agrarian Reform [DAR] for 2012. A proposal to dismantle the DAR and distribute its functions to the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has demoralized DAR personnel at a time when land acquisitions are being stepped up to meet a 2014 distribution target. A P4.7-billion proposal for support services for agrarian reform beneficiaries has also been scrapped.)
On war and conflict
The Mindanao conflict is rooted in injustice and inequality—not poverty—and fueled by misunderstanding and lack of communication, transparency and honesty between the state and the governed. Participants urged, “Let justice be swift and indiscriminate, especially in cases between the rich and the poor.”
Mining is hazardous to people and environment. Participants cannot find any beneficial reason why mining of any mineral should be allowed in the country.
Local and national officials are always unprepared to respond to natural disasters and manmade calamities.
The government has so far failed to take aggressive steps to address environmental degradation and the ill effects of climate change, including coming up with early warning systems, stopping logging, mining.
On the CCT program
Assistance has not reached the poor in remote areas, where banking facilities are nonexistent and beneficiaries are forced to sell cash grants at 50-30-20 interest.
The poor have still to feel the impact of economic growth often heard from government officials; “poverty remains and at times go to extremes, the rich has become richer.”
Government funding and investment should be extended to enhance technology, production and marketing of farmers’ produce rather than big agribusiness corporations.