Friday, February 24, 2012

Reflections About The Philippines

It is unfortunate that there is so much poverty in a country so rich in agricultural resources.

It’s a striking contrast to see the flush green fields and mountains as a backdrop for the overcrowded city centers of nomadic people looking for ways to support their families. It was surprising to me to see so many different ways that people were trying to make money. It didn’t seem to me like a beggar culture. It seemed like an entrepreneurial culture. Sure there were plenty of people wanting a few pesos, but it was in exchange for them doing some kind of service or offering some kind of product for it. Indeed there were also those who appeared incapable and relied on compassion (or pity) that begged. But the vast majority of people looked like they were willing to at least try to earn their peso.

On one occasion I rode a horse drawn cart called a calesa with my mom. We rode around Manila seeing some of the city sites while dodging cars in insane traffic. There was a moment when we stopped in traffic and saw a naked toddler girl who was dirty and probably hungry. Our calesa driver probably wasn’t a wealthy man either. I’m sure he had his own family to support. He through a coin that bounced on the ground near the little girl before traffic allowed us to proceed forward. She quickly ran to collect the coin which would likely contribute to purchasing a meal.

Poverty is relative.

There is a spectrum of those in extreme poverty, those who are barely making enough to survive, those who are able to own, and those who are able to support the livelihoods of others. Yet, even in this spectrum, the concept of living comfortably can be experienced by anyone. There are those that don’t know a lifestyle outside of their own context.

The shame in this, I think, is that corrupt people leads to the taking advantage of others. I heard about it often in the way people talked about government and law enforcement. Corruption was so common place that it was assumed by the people. I also saw people taking advantage of service providers or day laborers or farm workers in that they were paid so little for such long and hard work. I can also see families taking advantage of each other in those who rely too much on family members who come from the U.S. to pay for everything. This was a frustrating realization for me. I discovered that some of it was cultural to assume that the person with the most cash will pay for the meals when going out in a group, or pay for the groceries, or pay for the transportation. My American attitude was offended! However, even if some of it was cultural, I still thought it was rude.

It was a surprising contrast to see the hospitality of people and hard-working people alongside the willingness to get something free for as long as it’s being offered.

With so much agricultural resources, why is there still so much poverty and pollution? I think it is because there seems to be an overall lack of vision for anything better. As a student of social entrepreneurship, I know that creating change will take systemic action. This means that it will require everyone, in all parts of this society, to shift the way they see their environment. Those in government will have to adopt an empowerment attitude and lose the power-grabbing attitude. Those in communities will have to adopt an ownership attitude and lose the apathetic attitude that it’s someone else’s problem. Those in business will have to adopt a value for fairness and lose the value for profit-at-any-cost.

When I went to Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao, I immediately noticed the lack of trash littering the streets. In contrast to Manila which had trash everywhere, Davao City actually seemed clean.  I saw billboards and signs and even a sign in my hotel room discouraging smoking on a city level. It said that it just isn’t good for us. Clearly, this city had a mayor with vision who was working to help residents adopt certain values.

Overall, I think the Philippines has so much potential. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a country that has had its independence (from the U.S. and from Spain) for less than 100 years. They still have a lot of infrastructure to build. Globalization brings knowledge of what everyone else in the world has, does, or can do into a context where government and technology is just trying to keep up. This produces a tension in people’s attitudes and sense of culture. Gentrification leads to the building of large cities while displacing those too poor to live there into the slums or outlying areas. While at the same time, the allures of technology and industrialized living environments brings people in from the rural areas to overcrowd the urban cities.

I think a greater sense of equity would help. I don’t think social hand-outs are the solution. But creating an empowering model in every level and context of the Filipino society can create an environment that will allow so many of the hard-working people to receive real value for their work instead of the scraps they have been accustomed to.

But I know it’s not that simple. It’s just one piece that can contribute to some real systemic change. 

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