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Second Opinion

Community pantries and the dependency myth

/ 05:07 AM April 30, 2021

You have heard people say it many times in the past: That programs that benefit the poor will encourage idleness and discourage industriousness, thus making them counterproductive and unsustainable. You may have heard people say this in relation to cash transfer programs in low-income countries, or welfare programs in high-income ones.

And you may be hearing it now amid the spectacular spread of community pantries all over the country.

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“Teach them how to fish instead!” naysayers cry, like that meme woman yelling at a cat, alluding to the oft-invoked proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

This kind of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons.

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In the first place, many Filipinos are actually hungry and do not have food for the day; their immediate needs must be attended to before we can even talk about long-term solutions—and it need not be a choice between the two. Moreover, to use the proverb’s language, it’s not that people don’t know how to fish. In the case of the Philippines, people have been prevented from fishing, both literally (as in the case of the West Philippine Sea), and figuratively, as in the case of our cities where lockdowns have cut people off from their work. If anything, it is government incompetence, not people’s laziness, that has led us to the point where people are dying while queuing, whether in community pantries for food or hospitals for health care.

The myth of dependency is not just misleading, it is also actually demonstrably inaccurate. For instance, studies of conditional cash transfer programs around the world (Banerjee et al. 2017) routinely reach the conclusion that they do not discourage work among the beneficiaries. To the contrary, as evaluations of the Philippines’ own Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps show (e.g., Orbeta and Paqueo 2016), such schemes actually stimulate productivity and generally achieve the educational, economic, and social goals they were intended for.

The same holds for food pantries. Tellingly, a study in Canada (Black and Seto 2020) found that 91 percent of the people who went to food banks came only for a few visits, suggesting that they only sought help when they actually needed it. In the United Kingdom, anthropologist Pat Caplan (2016) found that contrary to media and popular discourses that ascribe laziness and dependence to people who visit food banks, “they just did not always have the money to buy food for themselves or their children.”

Given the preponderance of evidence against the dependency myth, where is it coming from, and why do so many believe in it?

One possible explanation is that many influential people in our country, including policymakers and politicians, are so out of touch with the lived realities of our people and the structural factors they face. This is not hard to achieve given how inequitable our society has become. And instead of listening to, and learning from, people like Ana Patricia Non who are attuned to what’s happening in our communities, these people are red-tagged and vilified.

Likely it also comes from longstanding prejudices against the poor by the rest of our country; the same prejudice that, alas, informs the political viability of the murderous drug war, as well as anti-poor pandemic policies and practices, including penalizing people for falling in line early for those community pantries and labeling them as “pasaway.”

Thankfully, some LGUs and even some government agencies have been quick to recognize the value of food pantries amid this time of grave economic crisis. But even as this political support is most welcome, we should anticipate and challenge the dependency myth because it delegitimizes what the writer Criselda Yabes calls “a silent revolution,” and diminishes the appeal for individuals and communities alike to act on what the government itself has failed to provide: An environment where people can earn enough to feed themselves and their families. Must we accept the view that the revolutionary kindness we see today can only lead to dependency, not social solidarity?

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In the process of challenging this myth, perhaps we can partake of what, aside from food, is being offered and shared in those community pantries: Hope.

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