One does not have to be a seer to know that as a nation we may be heading toward disaster. We live in a time of great affluence and of astounding possibilities for human happiness and fulfillment. And this only makes the degrading poverty in our country so scandalous and so unnecessary.
We have changed our political leadership many times. Yet things do not get better with the passing of an old administration. Our population multiplies unabated, creating even more pressure upon limited resources. Our natural resources, depleted by wasteful use, are beyond redemption. The soil has dried up in many parts, making its cultivation sheer folly. Our waters are polluted and over-fished. Our farms are infested. Our children’s stomachs are bloated from malnutrition and disease. Their brains are stunted from lack of nourishment. Despair runs through our people’s veins. Those who can, leave. Those who cannot, seethe in anger, take the law in their own hands, or wait for relief in the next election.
There is a volatile accumulation of aimless resentment out there that can explode in ferocious violence at crucial moments. It could blow up this country anytime if only it were not deadened daily by gambling and alcohol, or by religion and television. But we continue as if it is business as usual.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is right in saying that poverty is our biggest problem. But she is systematically blind to what is needed to end its scourge. She knows that new solutions are politically risky, and, feeling insecure, she refuses to rock the boat. She methodically avoids stepping on the toes of the powerful, hoping to enlist their support for her re-election. Her strategy is to embark on a short-term program of high-profile charity with maximum impact. This explains the premium she puts on public relations.
The problem of poverty has become so acute and complex in our country that it is hard to say where a government must begin. My own view is that the first business must be to stem hunger and disease where they already exist. The appalling plight of the Mangyans in Mindoro, so near to Manila, is symptomatic of our pervasive indifference to marginalized communities. We cannot make their survival dependent on the recognition of local governments. The latter are too close to be able to see, and too familiar with pain to be shocked by it.
The second is to stop the tide of migration from the countryside to the cities by creating opportunities where people already live, through the long-term development of our regions. This means building schools, hospitals, markets, roads and ports in the remotest provinces, as well as modernizing agriculture and encouraging rural industries. There is no way we can defeat poverty without developing the productive capability of our people and making them economically active. To expect foreigners to do this for us, the way we expect American engineers and medical personnel to wipe out poverty in Basilan, is, I think, not only naïve but also an abdication of responsibility.
By now we should know that our efforts at economic development have failed mainly because of bad governance. Our borrowed institutions are as modern as they can be but they are not working because our everyday relationships, which have remained deeply feudal and personalistic, contradict their logic. We pay lip service to the language of modernity with great skill, but we don’t hesitate to tap traditional connections or resort to the crude methods of power to secure advantage in our daily affairs. At the base of this practice is a highly unequal society. We cannot expect change to come from those who profit most from this culture. The constituency for change has to come from those who are made to pay for it, and these are the very poor, and the truly talented, hardworking, and productive.
Slowly the poor are becoming politicized and a growing number of patriotic Filipinos are coming forward to contest public positions that over the years were kept as the exclusive entitlements of a few families. But the shift is not occurring fast enough. We remain desperate for new leaders. Our electoral system is so expensive that the only threat to those with great wealth comes from those on whom the mass media confer instant popularity. And the latter are also all too quickly initiated into the ways of patronage politics.
Consequently there are no real debates, no real political contests. The Left stands alone at the moment as the only voice that offers any meaningful challenge to the discourse of the status quo. Yet it remains an insignificant voice, with no hope of capturing power in the near future. The situation urgently calls for new political parties, new movements, new voices that can articulate a vision of a better and more hopeful society for our children. Without reasoned debate, some space may be created for interventions based on force. These are costly in the long run, and without new ideas, they will not succeed.
The future may look bleak, but we are not a doomed people. The agony of our nation is spawning a new generation of decent and subtle young Filipinos who refuse to live by the old resentments and the stale paradigms of their elders. They made their presence felt at Edsa II, and though they may be dismayed by what has happened since then, they have not lost hope. In a few more years they will be the leaders of the nation. The horizon looks brighter because of them.
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