On being pro-poor

One year ago today, Joseph Ejercito Estrada ran on a pro-poor platform and became president of the country.  He made history by making the radical elimination of poverty the principal burden of political leadership. His moral slogan was as urgent as it was simple: Erap para sa mahirap.

Cynics scoffed at the ordinariness of this vision.  They saw it as a banality compared to the lofty challenges of a new century.  But there is nothing simpleminded about a preferential option for the poor. When adopted as a comprehensive standard of effective governance, a bias for the poor compels the nation’s leaders to reexamine the entire institutional framework of society.

Other presidents before Joseph Estrada also spoke about alleviating poverty.  But to them it was always an auxiliary goal.  Cory Aquino treated it as a matter of charity, secondary to democracy.  Fidel Ramos viewed it as a logical consequence of development, secondary to economic liberalization.  Estrada elevated it to the status of a crusade, regarding it both a precondition to economic development and a legitimate end goal of government.  It is by this that he wishes to be judged as president.

He knows that an economy in recession cannot afford direct redistributionist measures no matter how efficient the tax-collection. But he also believes there is no reason why, given the right incentives, private business should not invest in activities that benefit the poor. This is the logic, for instance, behind the present housing program, which seeks to pool the resources of government and of the private sector to address the housing needs of the bottom poor.

Admittedly, the problem with such schemes is the corruption that usually attends every deployment of public funds in partnerships with private enterprise.  In its desire to make it easy and lucrative for the private sector to contribute to socialized programs, government would often relax the rules and close its eyes to shortcuts resorted to by unscrupulous businessmen.  The resulting mismatch between the services paid for with public funds and the existing unmet needs attests to the enormous complexity and pitfalls of such a venture.

But this is where the difference between charity and a coherent antipoverty strategy arises.  Charity is content with episodic demonstrations of generosity, whereas an anti-poverty commitment is concerned with the sustainability of the program.  The first folds up as soon as the money runs out; the other persists in reviewing the program, plugs the loopholes, and fine-tunes the strategy until the program becomes self-sustaining.

If the Estrada government is to be taken on its word, then the public is entitled to expect from it a coordinated, feasible, and enduring program to end poverty.  Its avowed pro-poor stance must be measured by the concrete solutions it offers in four main areas in which an intervention on behalf of the poor, I believe, can make the greatest difference.  These are: health, housing, education, and agriculture.

Past interventions in health have mainly been in the form of preventive care.  The Erap government can push the program further by addressing the total health requirements at least of all Filipino children.  Many of them die or become physically and mentally crippled by illness even before they enter school.  The sad state of our children’s hospitals is but a mirror of the tragic neglect to which we have consigned the nation’s children.

It is certainly pointless to imagine better schools for the young when disease and malnutrition have long disabled their bodies and their minds.  But let us take a look at the country’s basic educational system, for this is the domain in which poverty is either terminated or reproduced.  Despite the fact that the Constitution assigns the biggest budget to education, parents know that if they want a good basic education for their children, they must turn to the private schools and pay for it.  What ultimately spells the difference between the costly private schools and the free public schools is access to competent teachers, textbooks, classrooms and other learning resources.  If the DECS can free itself from the syndicates that surround it, there is no reason why public instruction cannot be restored to its former glory.

The face of chronic poverty has mainly been associated with homelessness and landlessness.  Of the two, the problem of housing is probably easier to solve.  Here you do not upset entrenched hierarchies as much as you do with agrarian reform.  New technologies in mass housing and various affordable financing schemes have altered the configuration of this problem.  But the housing situation cannot be decisively addressed without enlarging the metropolis and creating new satellite towns linked to places of work by rapid mass transportation.

Because the bulk of our poor live in the countryside, the government must confront the roots of rural poverty: landlessness and low agricultural productivity.  In a sense, the option of overseas work almost killed agriculture.  But an economy dependent on overseas work is not sustainable, and sooner or later, we must face the problem of food security.  Thus we may judge the seriousness of Erap’s antipoverty thrust by the meaningfulness of the reforms he introduces in agriculture.

By now, Erap must know that he cannot pursue his pro-poor program by executive fiat.  Anti-poverty reform, to be enduring, must be cast in concrete legislation.  Erap must find a champion of the poor in Congress, who can be his worthy successor.  He has five years to go, and the poor cannot wait forever.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>