TURNING POINT: The Evil of Being Poor

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/17 October) — In the war to end the drug menace the poor were the first to fall. In the greedy schemes of corruption that have wasted the wealth of a nation the poor were used and suffered the most. In economic recession, the poor were the first to lose their jobs or sources of income. In armed conflicts or uprisings, the poor were the ones commonly displaced, dislocated and killed. In weather disturbances arising from climate change the poor bore the brunt of suffering. Indeed, in the equation of disasters the poor are always the bulk of the victims.

It is evil to be poor.  Some men rose from non-entity and became hugely famous from their attempts or pretentions to change the poor, that is, to make them no longer poor but equal to the rest of mankind. In modern history, Hitler tried and invented the Holocaust, eliminating the wealthy and thriving Jews so that the poor Aryans will rise.

In the communist movement, we had Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot who waged devastating purges of society to allow the poor workers, peasants and other bottom dwellers of the earth, to rise and be equal among men and nations. They all failed; the poor have remained poor and inequality continues to prevail. It seems the poor shall forever remain poor or that there shall always be poor in every human community.  When Jesus Christ was criticized by his disciples for lavishing himself with an expensive perfume, which his followers commented  could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, he dismissed and told them bluntly “the poor shall always be with you.” He recognized no doubt the futility of changing the poor.

In whatever school of thought anent the beginning of mankind, whether in evolution or creation, the resultant humans of the process came out with different physical and mental attributes which the religious call as God-given talents or gifts. This difference in the development or grant of talents and capacities led to the formation of a hierarchical structure of human societies. This explains why there have always been kings and subjects, masters and slaves, landlords and tenants, and in modern times, CEOs, managers, supervisors and workers, entrepreneurs and wage earners.  Since the beginning of civilization this has always been the situation. Nothing has change. Those at the bottom of the structure are generally poor.

In my early teens when I roamed the streets of Butuan City to help my parents earn a living, peddling ice-drops, newspaper and other transient goods,  or offering services to strangers as a bootblack, I one day came to abhor our precarious hand-to mouth existence.  I vowed to change it and shall never be that poor and miserable again.

I succeeded; we are no longer that dirt poor as before.  I’m not rich either – I am simply comfortable. That is change enough. How explain the transformation? It appears that deep in me was embedded the gift of getting out of poverty –  the ability to set direction and the perseverance and endurance to reach goals. In short, I was not, from the very beginning, destined to be a bottom dweller in the social strata.

The poor may remain poor but the quality of their lives may yet somehow be improved. That’s the philosophy behind the external intervention programs of governments, civil society organizations and of foreign aids from donor (rich) to poor countries.

On government intervention, any such initiative to improve the quality of the lives of the poor should be examined thoroughly to determine whether they are really of help to the subject beneficiaries or they make them poorer instead as a result.

Consider, for instance the Department of Agriculture Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources  {DA-BFAR} continuing program of providing unemployed coastal dwellers with fishing boats and various fishing gears to allow them to fish and earn a living. At first glance the intervention is laudable. But when examined against the resources of the fishing grounds which all have dwindled in recent years, the intervention program will only increase fishing efforts and contribute further to the impoverishment of the resources, thus reducing the catch and income of every fisher.

Resource and ecological assessment studies found that most fishing grounds were getting heavily silted and polluted and were experiencing precarious depletion of their fishery and other marine resources.  Catch versus fishing effort had become uneconomical. The studies made recommendations to improve the quality and productivity of the marine ecosystem.  These include the establishment of fish sanctuaries or marine protected areas; integrated coastal resources management to cover pollution control and the reduction of fishing effort by diverting fishers to alternative land-based livelihood activities among others. It is, lamentable, however,  that the findings and recommendations of the many overlapping studies conducted under DA-BFAR and DENR with loaned monies and bilateral grants were not given a hard look to improve the quality of intervention and outputs.   Intervention programs, not only in fisheries but in most domains of governance, remain the usual knee-jerk approach to perceived problems.

Indeed, unless we move away from impulse-driven governance policies, we will go nowhere however good the intentions and the sound bites may be. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan is a retired professor and former chancellor of the Mindanao State University Naawan campus in Misamis Oriental).