Perennial irony | Inquirer Opinion

Perennial irony

Naty has not heard or read about the Marcoses, Estradas, Binays and Ampatuans wresting election victory. She is a 53-year-old beggar who looks a haggard 80. What matters is even leftover food, she shrugs.

Alms cadged from shoppers and churchgoers tide Naty and her grandkids over to the next day.  Walang  tutong  sa  taong  nagugutom. There is no burnt rice to a hungry person.

In the dumps where ill-fed squatters huddle, tuberculosis spreads like wildfire. TB incidence here is 275 for every 100,000 people. (It’s 137 for Thais.) Handouts couldn’t buy for Naty the anti-TB medicine she needed. So, the wife scraped up the anti-TB pills.

But what about other Natys locked in this treadmill? Almost 3.9 million Filipinos experienced hunger in March, the Social Weather Stations survey reported this week. That’s 19.2 percent of Filipino families. SWS did the head count from March 19 to 22. In December, 16.2 percent had empty pots.


Despite a 2-percent drop in self-rated poverty, overall hunger increased in all regions except in Metro Manila, where hunger slumped to about 615,000 families. In Mindanao, 1.4 million families tightened their belts. So did 1.3 million families in Luzon and 580,000 in the Visayas.

The hungry are not “another race of creatures, bound on other journeys,” Charles Dickens wrote We all are fellow passengers to the grave.

In the Asia-Pacific, 578 million have empty plates, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. Three out of four cluster in villages or barangays. Many eke out a living from scrub agriculture; others fish in depleted waters. “Those who produce the food are often the ones who suffer hunger the most.” That is the perennial irony, former Malaysian agriculture minister Datuk Hussein Onn noted.

Many trek to cities to search for nonexistent jobs. They bloat the ever-expanding populations of shantytowns. Hunger triggers a lethal cycle. Chronically malnourished mothers give birth to stunted children who often die early.


In the Philippines, more infants are orphaned today than in 2006. And one out of every four pregnant women are “nutritionally at risk,” says the 2013 study by the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Child Health Development. Worse, “there has been no change in the past 15 years.” On average, 11 mothers die daily during childbirth.

Most of those deaths were preventable. “Sri Lanka and Honduras led in slashing maternal mortality,” Nicolas Kristoff of the New York Times reports. “The biggest themes of life are put into the best focus when held up against the very sharp light of mortality.”


Over one-third of child deaths here are due to undernutrition, which ushers in diseases that a little more nutrition could have staved off. Out of every 100 kids who survive, 22 are scrawny underweights, the United Nations Development Programme’s 2013 Human Development Report notes. IQs will be dampened for life. “Their elevators will never go to the top floor.”

Among Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and Cambodia rank second in prevalence of undernourishment: 17 percent. Laos towers at 28 percent. Chronic hunger means food intake slumps below minimum energy requirement.

My two grandkids put a human face on those arid figures. Some Sundays, their parents drive them to where grimy out-of-school kids cluster. The two share food packs they’ve prepared. “A lola  ate the rice I gave, then cried,” our 6-year-old granddaughter Katarina explained. “There were two children with her,” her 9-year-old sister Kristin added. “They ate the sardines I put on their rice.”

Malnourished Filipino children remain at 20.2 percent today. And what about the Philippine pledge to meet the Millennium Development Goals? We’re committed to tamping down the prevalence of malnutrition among under-five-year-old children to 13.6 percent by 2015. But forget it. We’ll fall short.

In Asia, domestic prices of rice and cereals weakened with the arrival of 2013’s early season rice and winter wheat harvests, the FAO reports. That’s a breather after over five years of food price inflation.

Hunger is local. That reality confronts 80 newly elected governors, plus mayors, in 143 cities and 1,491 towns. The brunt of easing hunger’s ravages, especially among infants and young mothers, fall on them, not on the national government. They have a window of opportunity to reverse the sorry track record of their predecessors.

Far too many local officials couldn’t be bothered with voiceless endangered mothers or infants. Many squandered the 20-percent Local Development Fund on waiting sheds nobody uses. The late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo had to issue memo circular No. 2010-138. This bounced claims for honoraria,  lakbay-aral  junkets and such.

Others tried to bore their way into the P44.5-billion conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. President Aquino beat them back, and rightly so. A 2013 World Bank study confirmed the program’s successful record of keeping kids from dropping out of school and better healthcare for mothers.

The hungry should spur the new local officials to set their houses in order. That calls for scrapping the laid-back habit of just wheedling for larger slabs from the Internal Revenue Allotment Fund, as a start. Then, they have the gut-wrenching task of collecting local taxes better. In addition, they must revise obsolete taxes that coddled the rich. The new revenues generated should then go to help the poorest. That’s why the European Union underwrote a project to buff up finance management.

In a 1955 award-winning movie, the kid Marcelino offers a small loaf to the Crucified and says: “Tiene cara de hambre (You have the face of hunger).” Just like Naty.

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TAGS: food, hunger, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Poverty, Viewpoint

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