Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Intellectualizing poverty

This is my column today, August 5, 2014.


Since the hoopla over the buzz and the frills around the President’s 2014 State of the Nation Address - such as what was worn by whom, how many times people applauded and for what, and why the Presidential sisters wept, ad nauseum - have now died down, we now witness the attempts to focus on the more substantive parts of the President’s report.  I know that there are sectors who think the post-SONA discussions border on nitpicking, but I think that the discussion over the accuracy of the figures presented and the attempts to separate truth from the embellished facts are all necessary in the exercise of democracy. 
Like many others, I am particularly interested in finding out exactly how the government arrived at the 24.9 poverty rate that the President bragged about in his SONA.  Other groups cite higher rates - exactly how much higher seems to be dependent on the particular agenda of the group or person making the claim.  Poverty is obviously the major issue in this country and anyone who wants to brag about development actual progress must and needs to show proof of inclusive growth. 
Having said that, I must point out though that the subsequent attempts of some legislators to discredit the government’s conditional cash transfer program in the wake of the SONA is uncalled for, if not suspicious.  It seems too coincidental that legislators are now calling for a review of the CCT, particularly since the general citizenry seems bent on ending this penchant for giving legislators or the administration blank checks courtesy of the pork barrel system.
I know that the President brought the issue to the table by linking in his SONA the supposed reduction in poverty rates to the conditional cash transfer program.  But the calls to significantly reduce the CCT budget for 2015 and cast aspersions on the efficacy of the program is quite uncalled for.
Obviously, I believe in the CCT.  There are many things about this administration that I have reservations on, but the CCT is one of the programs that I fully support.  Of course the administration could be a little more honest and give credit where it is due and acknowledge that the program was actually the brainchild of the former administration, but that’s not as important as ensuring that the program is sustained.
I am not sure if our legislators go out of their way to really interact with the poorest of the poor in this country, particularly those in rural areas, who are beneficiaries of the program.  If they do, perhaps they would learn to moderate their attempts to intellectualize poverty.   All this talk about the need for long-term solutions and for master blueprints and sustainable programs are all wonderful - but let’s get real, people; poverty and the many issues linked to it such as hunger, sickness, ignorance, disempowerment, etc, are urgent issues.  Our leaders can continue to debate over what the more sustainable response to poverty is, but what do we do with the multitude who are hungry and the millions of children who are skipping classes today because their families just do not have the means to survive now? 
I understand the need for intellectual swashbuckling, but I have been travelling to Leyte almost every other weekend since Yolanda struck for relief, medical missions, and other rehabilitation efforts and I have personally met people whose survival in the last few months has been guaranteed only by the money they get from the CCT program.  
Senator Bongbong Marcos – who, if rumors are to be believed is preparing for a run for the Presidency – has gone to town in the last few days criticizing the CCT for being a short-term solution to the poverty problem in the country.  Well, Senator, what concrete long-term solution do you offer? The poverty problem is real, pervasive, and urgent.  Short-term measures are called for.  Of course the local governments are still smarting over the fact that they have no control over who gets to be in the list of beneficiaries of the program; I think it is best to keep it this way to ensure the integrity of the list of beneficiaries and to keep the program untainted by political machinations.
Quite frankly, a program that pours money directly into the hands of poor Filipinos is by any measure so much more preferable than a program that enriches people who walk the various corridors of power at the local, provincial, regional, and national levels. Simply put, I would rather we give money directly to people rather than course them through our legislators.  If the hundreds of billions of pork barrel money who got siphoned off by legislators in various schemes through the last few decades were given to the people directly, perhaps we would have had better chances of eradicating poverty in this country.
Unless someone comes up with a better idea, perhaps the better option is to allow the CCT to continue.  At least the billions of pesos have gone directly to the people - there is no accusation of the money having been siphoned off by some bureaucrat at the Social Welfare Department.


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