October 08, 2004

Consistently harebrained

At the height of the Arroyo government's military offensive against the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] in 2002, in the middle of a much publicized ceasefire and just before the President left for a state visit to the US, I remember DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] Secretary Dinky Soliman appealing for donations of toys to be distributed to Moro children in evacuation centers.

The bright idea was this: by giving the displaced children toys to play with, government could somehow alleviate their sad plight, occasioned by the government's strategy of bombing populated areas to flush out leaders of the Pentagon criminal gang who were purportedly being coddled by the MILF. (Maybe this is what the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] learns from those joint RP-US war games; that is, how to wipe out the "enemy" by causing as much "collateral damage" as you possibly can.)

In fact-finding missions of Kalinaw Mindanao during the "all-out war" waged by the Joseph Estrada-Angelo Reyes tandem in 2000, Moro evacuees were one in saying that they didn't want the government's charity. They demanded that government stop bombarding their homes, that the military stop occupying their houses and stealing their chickens, and that basically they be allowed to return to their devastated communities and be left in peace to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. The same pleas reverberated during the Arroyo government's own mini version of "all-out war," this time trendily decked out as "counter-terrorism."

Now this idea of distributing PhP6 billion worth of food coupons to around five million poorest and hungriest Filipinos is about as harebrained as the one about bombing the daylights out of those Muslim Filipinos who happen to live in areas the government believes to be MILF strongholds, then doling out food, not to mention toys, to ease their misery and pain.

Aside from being oppressive, this government is downright duplicitous with all this talk about fighting hunger and poverty. Why so?

In a recent study presented at the Ninth National Convention on Statistics, researchers Jose Albert and Paula Collado of the Statistical Research and Training Center, pointed out that that poverty in the country "is largely a rural phenomenon," with seven in every 10 poor Filipinos residing in the countryside.

The implications of these findings are unmistakable: "The overwhelming numerical importance of the rural poor means that poverty programs must be concentrated in improving the plight of peoples' living standards in rural areas and that we ought to promote policies on rural development...," the authors said.

Instead of giving a man fish, teach him how to fish. That's an old adage found in the Holy Bible that's so much quoted it has become a trite truism.

In the actual conditions of our largely feudal countryside, that exhortation translates into nothing less than giving land to the landless tiller, thus breaking the centuries-old stranglehold of landlordism over the hapless peasantry and laying the solid foundation for raising people's incomes and standards of living. It also means infusing capital in order to undertake rural industrialization that will generate new jobs, provide basic consumer goods to rural families, and staunch the flow of migration towards the towns and cities.

Among the urban poor, it's about jobs that pay decent wages, job security, and humane conditions of work. It's also about modest but livable housing and affordable food, water, electricity, and transportation. Regardless of urban or ruling setting, it's about adequate healthcare when one gets sick, education for the youth, and support for the elderly.

It's not about doleouts, no matter how government packages their latest gimmick as an "intensified food voucher system." It's about sound economic fundamentals -- land reform, national industrialization, economic sovereignty -- anchored on social justice and powered by the will to do what's right by the Filipino people no matter what the bastions of finance capital such as Wall Street and the IMF-World Bank-WTO combine say.

Staunchly capitalist economic managers in Malaysia, exemplified by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, share their country's experience in fighting poverty while coaxing the underdeveloped economy to grow.

Mahathir cited the need to increase real wages while keeping costs low; the way to do this is for government to minimize inflation by controlling the prices of essential goods. Further, the poor should pay less or no taxes while their incomes should be reasonable through government supervision of indirect and direct subsidies and provision of social services that ease the burdens of the poor.

What the former Malaysian strongman had to say to his audience of government officials, big business, and the media must have caused many of them to flinch if not raise their eyebrows in disbelief. "Equitable distribution of wealth must be attempted (even if) this invariably gets in the way of growth. Failure at equitable distribution of wealth almost always results in class or racial confrontations and violence of one kind or another," he warned.

Compare and contrast this with Mrs. Arroyo's spiel, "We cannot shut our eyes to the truth of hunger and poverty...The immediate causes are unemployment in the cities, and pockets of conflict in the countryside, but the overall challenge is structural and strategic, encompassing the entire run of human development issues."

So what does she show for all the fancy words? Let's cite a few.

"A new and improved" system of food coupons in lieu of wage increases and price controls demanded by workers and consumers on essential items like food, water and medicines. This is simply tokenism considering that the overwhelming number of poor people are in the rural areas and will likely have great difficulty just to go to town to queue up, be screened, get the vouchers, and only then go to the duly accredited groceries to claim their rice, noodles, and sardines.

With runaway oil prices after deregulation, all the government can do is throw up its hands in the air, plead with the oil companies to spread out their increases, and call on the people to cut back on their already meager consumption. Of course there is the hype about reinvigorated plans to develop alternative energy sources that have been gathering dust in some bureaucrat's drawers until the next oil crisis comes along.

With austerity as the government byword, social services already receiving far lower budgets than what is really needed, are also the first to be further cut back to the bone. What safety net then is the government prating about?

In the meantime, water and power tariffs are being allowed to go sky high while all sorts of government fees are being escalated as if it was just the government and not the people themselves who are in desperate economic straights. Last but not the least, there are the new regressive tax measures to squeeze blood from stone so that government can convince foreign creditors and investors that debts will be religiously serviced, profits can be freely repatriated, and a modicum of governance can be sustained -- in particular, that the military and police will be kept in fighting form, the better to keep the hungry and angry masses at bay.

With all these, who is to believe President Arroyo when she tries to get away with attributing the poverty and hunger to "pockets of conflict in the countryside?" It's like the proverbial cart before the horse. Ever heard of a cart pulling the horse? Consistently harebrained.

Oct. 8-9, 2004


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