No Free Lunch

Helping the poor

/ 04:05 AM December 03, 2019

For many years, I would end all my speeches and public presentations with a challenge to members of my audience to help at least one poor family get out of poverty. With poverty incidence of families at 20.5 percent (or one in every five) 10 years ago, I would point out that this meant four out of five are not poor. To wipe out poverty, we needed only one in every four nonpoor Filipino families to care enough to help lift one poor family out of poverty. Now, less than one in every six (16.1 percent) Filipino families is poor, so we only need one of five nonpoor families to do so. With a little caring and sharing, poverty need not be inevitable in our society.

What would it take a well-meaning family to help lift a poor family out of poverty? We’ve all heard the saying attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. How can we “teach a poor family to fish,” then?


The late Sen. Raul Roco used to say that having at least one college graduate in a family would lift it out of poverty, and thereby stressed the critical importance of widely accessible education all the way to the tertiary level. A concrete way of helping a poor family, then, is to support a promising child through school all the way to college, or vocational/technical training as appropriate. My own late father did so most of his professional life and on through his retirement, and reaped the satisfaction of seeing his successful protégés uplift their families’ well-being and standards of living.

Gawad Kalinga sees decent housing as the key. Founder Tony Meloto expresses the conviction that once you give poor people middle-class surroundings, they begin to have middle-class dreams. It could indeed be low aspirations that make the poor their own worst enemies. A foreign colleague once told me of a conversation he had with the young son of his Filipino driver, who he asked what he would like to be when he grew up. The boy’s unhesitating reply was that he wanted to be a driver like his father. No wonder, my colleague remarked, that too many Filipinos remain poor.


Another concrete way of helping is to equip a poor family with the means (including skills, values and financial capital) to start and sustain a livelihood enterprise. But various programs fostering enterprise development have a mixed record of success. I believe that such assistance could more likely achieve lasting outcomes when there is a family-to-family mentoring and nurturing relationship involved, say a successful business family directly assisting a poor one nurture and grow a business of their own.

This direct involvement, to my mind, is key. While we tend to focus on the receiver, we overlook the giver. People who care and are willing to share find greater meaning in their sharing when they somehow partake of the pain and suffering of those that they help. That is, true sharing goes in both directions. I’ve long felt that this ingredient is what has gained Gawad Kalinga such wide support. When people actually endure pain and strain by literally helping build homes alongside those who will receive them, sharing is brought to a totally different level from simply writing out a check to one’s favored charity. Giving a scholarship directly to one’s chosen poor child and taking a direct concern and involvement in his/her progress through the years is quite different from sending a regular contribution to a scholarship-granting foundation. An entrepreneurial family that hand-holds a poor family into starting and growing an enterprise of their own finds greater meaning in sharing than simply pledging a portion of their profits to a livelihood development NGO.

The most meaningful way to help them is to be with the poor, feel with the poor and work with the poor, not merely give to the poor. We need to feel and share in the pain of those whose lives we seek to uplift. For the Christians among us, this is how we truly share the Cross of Jesus Christ, the real meaning of caring and sharing in Christian love. This could well be what we’ve been missing in our poverty reduction efforts all along.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, Poverty
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