I have been monitoring the hunger incidence statistics of the Philippines as reported quarterly by SWS for over ten years, as long as I have been involved with the Gawad Kalinga movement. Because I was a late-comer in anti-poverty work at that time, I remained observant but quiet. I thought I could not speak up when I was just like most people I knew then—uninterested, uninvolved and concerned with a million other things.
Along the way, I grew more intimate with poverty from consistent presence in areas where the poor were, getting to know them better, deeper involvement with community organizing, working with volunteers and partners, and helping design community programs. All the time, I always remained watchful about hunger. And when I knew the terrain much better, I began to write about it.
Wanting to understand why the Philippines, a country so rich in almost everything, was inexplicably mired in massive poverty, I was forced to turn to history. In my whole lifetime, poverty was already a reality in the Philippines. And since governance by Filipinos began only in 1946 despite claims of independence earlier, I could not blame any government administration of causing poverty. Of course, government may be very guilty in perpetuating in what it could have substantially mitigated in the last 67 years, but not in causing the massive poverty we have.
There is no doubt in my mind that poverty was a direct consequence of Spanish colonization, specifically in taking control of land that belonged to the people. Land in the 16th century was more meaningful that what it is today. When everything was agricultural then, land meant everything that man needed aside from his own skills and administration. Land meant home, land meant food, land meant security, land meant opportunity, land meant the past, the present and the future.
When Spain engineered the largest land-grab in our history, the people’s slide to poverty began. Only a few were spared from it, mostly local leaders who allowed themselves to be used by the foreign masters to control the rest of the natives. Only a few, then, were spared from the massive poverty that ensued in the centuries to come. These included the peninsulares and the insulares who, together with cooperative local leaders, became the first elite.
The landlessness of native Filipinos led to poverty, led to homelessness, led to hunger. There was just no other explanation for poverty, not at the national scale it reached. That there are always poor people around may be understandable, but not when it reaches 90%, as in the D & E classes of the Philippines. The saving grace is that livelihood is now not anymore totally dependent on land. Landless OFWs are earning enough to buy home lots and build sturdy homes. They are also lifting themselves out of poverty without help from the government and the elite.
But the point is not only about poverty but one of its most horrible faces— hunger. I have written many times that hunger shames us as a people. It shames government. It shames the Church. It shames all the non-poor among us. Beyond being a shame, it places a curse on us, not just the administration in power, not just the cardinals and bishops still active in their service, but all of us who can feed someone who is hungry but does not.
It is extremely difficult at this time not to be angry about 20 million Filipinos experiencing hunger. There is something that is inhuman about it, not that there are hungry people, but that there are people in strategic positions who end up doing nothing. It is not as though it is only now that millions have experienced hunger, it has been reported by SWS for at least 15 years.
We have a Catholic Church that expended great effort to wage war against the RH Bill, to create Team Patay during the campaign. My God, if my God is the same God they believe in, the same Bible we read has Jesus Christ asking on Judgment Day, “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” Is that kind of message so hard to understand or have the priorities of religion been flushed in the toilet bowl?
We have a spokesperson for the President of the Republic who, when asked about the latest hunger incidence report, says that “they do not take the survey results alone as the sole benchmark used by the government for its poverty-alleviation priorities.” Well, Ms. Valte, if you speak for our President, please take the hunger incidence report every quarter with the utmost interest, priority and sympathy. Do not make people believe that the President is simply more interested in defending his policies than getting more hungry people fed.
In truth, who cares about poverty-alleviation priorities when people are hungry? The success of anti-poverty programs can be appreciated only when hunger is effectively and substantially reduced. In other words, if the CCT claims that it has helped millions of families, it is like saying the SWS surveys are terribly understated, that the two or more million families that the CCT says it has reached used to be part of the hungry. Either the CCT is completely inutile against hunger and dishonest about its failures, or there used to be more than thirty million Filipinos experiencing hunger.
I thought that an Einstein saying was most relevant only to elections. But it seems even more relevant to poverty and hunger. Einstein said, “Insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In attempts to ease poverty and hunger, what I used to think was only stupidity is actually insanity according to Einstein.
But what may be the unkindest cut of all for our millions who experience hunger is not government, not the Church, but the rest of the Filipino people who are not hungry and who make no effort to feed the hungry. It is Philippine society as a whole, its perversion from a culture of bayanihan to one that cannot think beyond oneself and one’s family. How sad to realize that, by how we have treated them, nobody really cares about the hungry.