I should be the change I wish to see in the world

As eschewed by aid agencies and the government, poverty is supposedly to be ‘alleviated’ and ‘reduced’ hence the national poverty alleviation program and poverty reduction strategies.

For me, the terms ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘reduction’ connote something done to the other, in this case the poor, in order to bring them up to the level or state desired by the doer party. It views the other as the problem and so the target for change.

But the way I see it, my realization after a decade of direct contact with the Filipino poor, it is the community eschewing for poverty alleviation and reduction who first need to change. By changing itself, poverty will come to an end which implies that alleviation and reduction programs will become irrelevant. (If one goes further down in the analysis, irrelevance of poverty alleviation and reduction programs will spark off the death of the community as there will be no more poor to fund.)

Let me provide a couple of examples.

The national K-12 Program. In an earlier article, I wrote about the mess the DepEd has embroiled itself (and effectively, the society) in its mishandling of the Program, beginning with K(indergarten) and soon with Grades I and VII. In its rush to cater to one man’s wish, the Department is leaving in its trail damaging impacts on children, their families, schools. In effect, the K-12 Program isn’t out to change the national status quo of bad education. In fact, it is adding another layer of complexity to the problem. The added layer makes it even more difficult for the poor to have quality education and ultimately economic power. And if good movies take 3-5 years to prepare for and complete, what more for critical national commitments (impacting on 80M Filipinos) such as education? The rules of the game haven’t changed.

Programs and projects of aid agencies and civil society organizations. How much do you think is spent for these by these agencies in a year? How many years have these agencies been operating in the country? To what extent is the change in the incidence of poverty then and now? Is it significant? From the 2009 Poverty Statistics, it isn’t. Over the years, poverty incidence has remained stable within the 2009 figure.

Studies offer several reasons for why there hasn’t been a significant change in the situation of the country’s poor but at the top and relevant to this article’s topic are, (1) there has been little genuine communication and collaboration between and among agencies and the poor. The relationship with the poor who organized themselves in order to “manage” agency-funded projects is administrative at best. The relationship between agencies is competitive at best; (2) the rules of the game that have sought to keep the poor out of the game haven’t changed much. I’ve always been scandalized by the inconsistency between words for the poor and lawns of multilaterals such as ADB which has elite headquarters here but which no poor person will feel confident to approach even at its gates. I understand that it’s essentially a bank but then the inconsistency’s huge; (3) too much dole out and too little or no mentoring at all. Doling out up to the last nail takes away responsibility and accountability from the recipient. Agencies blame the recipients when they return to old ways. They don’t see that they are as much to blame, for leaving recipients out on the cold after brief engagements.

When agency people (from public and civil society organizations alike) go to any given barrio, they bring with them more or less pre-packaged frameworks and projects. The framework says ‘you – the poor – are the problem and so you need our technology (usually conceptualized with the Western hemisphere in mind) guaranteed to improve your lives’. Sometimes there are barrio people who speak up and say ‘but what we need are jobs/livelihood’. But because agency people are wired to the framework (especially to the pre-allocated funds) the dialogue is facipulated (manipulated through facilitation, usually by civil society organizations) or outrightly dictated (usually by public agencies) in order to get barrio people (unwillingly) on their side. Sooner or later, the constructed clinic center is utilized as barns. Or, the seeds sold. And, chickens eaten. Agency people would then say the poor are stupid.

But if only agency people listened. Didn’t the barrio people say they needed jobs or livelihood? Jobs. Livelihood. With jobs and livelihood, barrio people will increase their purchasing power and stock of capital (i.e. sooner or later, from their savings, they could purchase machinery and education for themselves or their children). How did the middle-income class get to its level of economic comfort? Skills. Knowledge. Jobs. Entrepreneurship. In fact, entrepreneurship and jobs were the engines of growth during the Industrialization. Hard work sustained the pace and eventually paid off as once poor families moved up the economic ladder.

To what extent is the poor’s contribution to the country if they have good jobs and livelihoods? Let’s do a mathematical estimate, and take taxes as proxy. Of the total 80M population, 30% are poor according to the latest 2009 national poverty statistics so that’s 24M. Average household size is 6 so that would be 4M household heads. Let’s give these 4M with jobs. If each worker makes 216,000 pesos (USD 4,900) gross annually that would be 864B pesos (USD 19B) total. Let’s just say half of it goes to taxes that would be 432B pesos (USD 9.5B) annually. What could 432B pesos of taxes do? Public school improvement, roads, electricity, water that will benefit barrio people, ultimately the whole country.

Turns out the barrio people are not stupid after all. Nor really poor, if only agency people regard them as assets.

But what is happening? Unemployment is high and the new breed of employed people (i.e. In BPOs and related services) are not receiving good returns on the education invested on them. Baguio City, is an example of an Highly Urbanized City that has high unemployment and joblessness. Without the statistics, I could tell by merely going over the Jobs Ads in the City’s weekly paper (which by the way I’ve been doing for years, just to see the trend). The Jobs Ads could give you a heart attack, as year in and out the local market could only absorb sales ladies, front desk clerks, tutors for Korean students, call center agents, maids for HongKong, factory workers for Taiwan. (Furthermore, information regarding employment in prime positions (usually in local government agencies) are not among the public ads and it isn’t always that the job seeker has local connection or knowledge where to seek the information.) Yet the City is a university town, and what sort of graduates does such a town produce? Natural Scientists (biologists, chemists), Political Scientists, Communication Scientists, Medical Practitioners (doctors, nurses, physical therapists), Psychologists, Dentists, Economists, Managers, Bankers, Financial Analysts, CPAs, Lawyers, Educators, Information Technology Specialists, Engineers (all fields of specializations), Architects, Writers, Artists. My God. I’ve always wondered where these bright young people go after university. One wonders the usefulness of having a university education if one will only end up as a sales lady or clerk.

Going back to the employment trend, you could see that the bulk of work is toward producing so that others will profit as opposed to the desired pattern of producing goods and services that is our own and from which we’ll profit because this was what made our Asian neighbors Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, and now China (perhaps Vietnam in the near future) nations to contend with globally. I believe that every country (and localities) has an initial endowment of capital be it natural resources, labor, and local knowledge, assets to begin growth with. But African nations such as Ethiopia is a glaring example of another country that has not been given the space, genuine technical assistance (i.e. no burdensome loan packages) and economic support (via favorable trade) to produce its own from its endowed resources. Famine in a perverse way gives agency people reason, in the name of emergency assistance to the poor, to spend for goods (usually from developed countries) and projects (whose work force comes from developed countries) and spread technologies (that usually come from developed countries). At completion of the food assistance, there’d be a lull giving agency people time to recoup for the next cycle of famine which will begin another cycle of food assistance. Meanwhile, locals haven’t grown any wiser, technically and economically. And agency people are with jobs.

If I may speak for the “poor”, what they need from agency people (particularly civil society organizations) more than doing and funding parallel and separate work in poverty alleviation and reduction is to help clear the path of landmines by influencing (at times making a strong stand), skilling, and mentoring governments toward the desired development outcomes. Doing and funding parallel and separate work is the easy way and it doesn’t change the status quo. I’ve heard both government and civil society agency people say they need to work within the system. They’re practically saying they’re working with a hopeless case. But that shouldn’t be the attitude. People created the system and it’s people who could re-wire the system. Change makers have got to hold onto that conviction. Right now, in this country, agency people could start with working with each other to influence the government to put off the launch of Grades 1 and 7 of the K-12 Program until the Curriculum is completed, teachers have been well trained in it, teachers for Kinder and Grades 7 are hired, classrooms or alternative rooming schemes are in place. Rushing the Program will further hurt the “poor” who stand to directly benefit from it (as opposed to the money-ed 70% who could send their children to quality schools of 100,000-peso tuition a year, here and abroad).

Mental models influence attitudes, behavior, decisions, actions. The poor continue to be poor because of mental models that perpetuate the poverty framework (i.e. the poor are the problem hence in need of change, Filipinos must look outside the country for funds and jobs because the country couldn’t take care of its own). I believe that a Utopian society where everyone shop at an LV store is possible and it starts with each one changing their mental models. Some people and institutions refuse to do so because then it would mean that they will have to share the place at the top which they’ve been protecting for so long.

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