Rep. Leni and our poor
Environments tell us our future offers climate warming, rising seas, pollution, unprecedented storms, famine and drought. There are also, if we look very closely, what we used to call “signs of the times”—namely, those people’s initiatives that radiate hope in a dark world. There is always hope. Only in hell is hope missing, the Italian poet Dante tells us.
We don’t see these signs of hope because we are looking for change in the wrong places. We still look to our politicians; we still follow them, as the children followed the Pied Piper into the heart of the mountain. In the slums and rural villages of the world, including here in the Philippines, something different is happening. Poor people’s groups are telling their political leaders: “We can plan what’s best for us. Please listen to us and do what we ask of you. Your ways of doing things have simply not worked.” Politicians are still present, but their role is very different. They become the public servants they are supposed to be. They may have served the rich well, but they have failed to better the lives of the poor.
And then every once in a while a politician comes along who believes the people’s demands for change is legitimate and good for the entire country, and is prepared to use the skills he or she has to work alongside the poor in their search for respect from society, decent homes, jobs that pay a family living wage and good education for children, so they at least can climb out of poverty. When Leni Robredo was chosen as the Liberal Party’s vice presidential candidate, I thought here is such a politician.
When I watch her with poor people, especially poor women, I see a seamless group. It is not immediately clear who has power and who is powerless, who has ideas and who is listening, who is leading and who is following.
I hope she is elected and I hope the next president whoever it is puts her in charge of a program that will empower the poor people of the country. Such a program will educate the poor about their rights under the law, help them organize, help them get professional help (lawyers, architects), help them get land, justice in courts and fair treatment from our bureaucracies that at times appear to be as thoroughly antipoor as the most bigoted rich person.
I believe Leni is just the person needed for this crucial work. She was the wife and coworker of Jesse Robredo during his many terms as mayor of Naga, when he added to the city’s prosperity and the wellbeing of its poor and revolutionized urban management.
Leni Robredo has the charisma, experience, family tradition and desire to work with the poor. As a young lawyer she worked with Saligan, an alternative law group that served the rural and urban poor in Naga City and Camarines Sur. She knows the poor are not saints. God has a special love for the poor not because they are good or better than the others, but because He chooses to love them above others.
All poor people need help. I can speak somewhat about the special areas of need of urban poor people. Others will have to identify the precise areas in which rural people (farmers and fishermen) and tribal people need help.
In the cities the thrust of poor communities to plan and to undertake their own development focuses on housing. At the Housing Summit they presented two requests/demands. One asks that all government housing agencies allow for genuine people’s participation and consultation and use a family’s affordability as the measure of its monthly amortization.
The second request/demand is for a new government bureau or agency that will work with the poorer and poorest of the poor. This agency will help the poor people; make their own analysis of their situation (not someone else’s analysis); help them plan good, clear housing solutions; help them acquire land—the land they are on or other in-city land—and financing. The agency will remind everyone that we shouldn’t demand so much housing repayment from the poor that they have to take money from their food, education or health budgets to pay the monthly housing bill. Children must have a good diet and a good education or the cycle of poverty will continue.
I see Leni eventually overseeing a government agency devoted to the empowerment of all the poor in cities, rural and tribal areas. This empowerment will include a political dimension. As they organize, the poor will be able to reward the officials who work with them. This is what happened in Naga City. In his first race for mayor, Jesse Robredo just barely won the urban poor vote, but he recognized the potential of the poor people’s votes, treated them as a genuine constituency and in the second and third races he won 90 percent or more of the urban poor vote. Good governance is smart politics when people are properly organized.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).