Leaders and representatives of the nation’s poorest sectors attending a summit on poverty, inequality and social reform last week urged President Aquino to mobilize government resources to help the poor. Christian Monsod, a convenor of the summit, said that poverty kills. It is “a slow death from hunger, disease… a life with an empty future.” Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma warned at the close of the three-day summit that “our nation is in an explosive situation.”
It was not the first time that leaders have warned that the nation, because of poverty and inequality, has become a social volcano that could explode any time in the near future. Except for short periods of relative prosperity, poverty and inequality have bedeviled the nation since it won back its independence in 1946.
The figures tell the story: 1 percent of the families (185,000) have an income equal to the bottom 30 percent of poor families (5.5 million). The number of poor families increased from 3.67 million in 2006 to 3.86 million in 2009.
What can be done to alleviate, if not entirely eradicate, poverty?
The first priority should be to give the people good-paying jobs so that they can enjoy a decent standard of living. Because of lack of employment in the country, close to 10 percent of the population have left, or are leaving the country, to take jobs abroad. Those who cannot afford to pay for transportation and other fees to get jobs overseas have no choice but to stay behind. Many of the poorest live on the sidewalks, under bridges and on caritons (pushcarts), scrounging for their next meal from trash cans and for items they can sell from garbage dumps.
An honest-to-goodness agrarian reform program has to be undertaken to improve the lot of farmers who constitute nearly half of the nation’s population. A prime cause of rural poverty is that people do not have farm lands. But giving them land is not enough; they should also be given loans and access to modern agricultural technology.
Good education and adequate health care are needed to give the poor an opportunity to improve their lot. In addition, the poor should be given safe drinking water, adequate nutrition, housing and sanitation. Special attention has to be focused on the most vulnerable groups in any society: children, women and the elderly.
The government has to take more aggressive measures in solving the problems of land reclamation, erosion control, reforestation and water management through the building of dams and reservoirs. Something also has to be done to mitigate the effects of typhoons and floods that every year kill hundreds of people and destroy billions of pesos worth of private property and public works. In many areas in the country, after a very strong typhoon, it is back to zero as crops and infrastructure are destroyed, and thousands of people are displaced.
More roads, bridges, sea and airports as well as railway lines have to be built to improve the mobility of people and to reduce the cost of transporting produce and other goods from one part of the country to another, thus stimulating trade and internal tourism.
Tourism is a potentially rich source of employment and incomes. The Philippines has a lot of things to offer tourists: beautiful tourist spots, white sand beaches and a hospitable, English-speaking people, among other things. But a strategic plan has to be adopted to increase tourist arrivals to 6 million in six years.
All the people—and especially the poor—should be afforded the basic human right to shelter. This means construction of low-cost housing subsidized by the state.
The Aquino administration, if it is to make some headway in the drive to eradicate poverty, has to pursue without letup its anti-corruption campaign and translate into action its slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (There will be no poverty if there is no corruption.)
The administration has a huge task to accomplish in the five years that remain of its term. Making a big headstart in the fight against poverty would be the best legacy it will leave to our people.
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