Friday, October 17, 2008


This is a belated post for Blog Action Day '08, covering poverty.

.:Blessed Are The Poor: We, Who Have Nothing:.

Despite the fact that our current administration wants to insist that the Philippines is, until fairly recently, experiencing an economic boom, not too many people can genuinely say that they are feeling the improvement. Truth be told, the fact that there is technically more money to go around for the entire country does not automatically indicate that it goes around for a lot of people. We've heard the expression “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, and it couldn't be truer than our present situation.

There's nothing simple about the poverty situation in the Philippines. We could all try to declare the Reproductive Health Bill as the cure to our woes, but it's only one part of a big puzzle. We could try giving alms on a daily basis to all the mendicants we cross paths with, and it still wouldn't help. The fact of the matter is, the very mindset by which we view poverty affects how we continue to deal with the situation, and this is the main issue I intend to contend with.

I am, by no means, an economist. I can't tell you how to run your finances, and if you took my advice, you'd probably sincerely regret it in short order. I will be honest here and say that nothing I am saying right now could guarantee a solution to our poverty issue, but perhaps providing a different point of view in contrast to how we as a country have come to understand this predicament might give us food for thought.

A majority of this country is composed of Catholics. Despite the Beatitudes' admonition that “Blessed Are The Poor”, we have a natural tendency to look down on poor people, and for some reason, Catholics are strongly repelled by poor people, regardless of the church's teachings. Admittedly, this isn't an exclusive feature to Catholics, but it's worth noting.

Admittedly, even I find it annoying when approached by mendicants, or those kids who get you cabs along Katipunan. Their sense of entitlement to alms, and their tendency to insult you when you don't give them anything or worse, give them something they don't think is enough, can certainly grate on even more generous people. If charitable organizations are any indication, people have an easier time doing charity when there's no opportunity for the direct beneficiaries to somehow ingratiate themselves to the benefactors.

The funny thing is, this mindset, this gap between the rich and poor, is cemented by pretty much every single telenovela that comes our way. Let's face it: the poor are kind and good, the rich are painted as evil, and any rich person who is actually kind-hearted is more the exception, rather than the rule. Soap operas imply a certain disdain for rich people, making it come off as though it's someone's fault if they were rich.

Do we now blame television for people who stay poor? Of course not. It's never that simple. But I'll be damned if it doesn't add up to something. The sense of entitlement crosses poverty lines, but is more glaring the less things a person is actually entitled to. We are a product of our times, and unfortunately, the gap is wider than ever because the rich distrust the poor (At times with good reason.), and the poor resent the rich (At times, also with good reason.) thanks to the dynamics they find themselves in: the greedy corporate entity that displaces farmers from their ancestral lands, the syndicate in charge of kids who beg on the streets, the massive layoff of rank and file employees during a recession, and the cabs who prey on their passengers by holding them up.

Having said all that, if there's one thing I discovered from my mom, who went on vacation here from her new life in Thailand, it's that the biggest difference between the average Thai and the average Filipino is the sense of entitlement. As a mainly Buddhist country, charity and poverty are heavily part of their religion, and having never been colonized, the Westernization of Thai values is far behind the Westernization of Filipino values.

There are poor people in Thai. Heck, Thailand is arguably has an even more corrupt government than the Philippines, yet at the end of the day, it's the sense of entitlement that accounts for quite a bit of the difference. Sidharta Gautama was a prince who gave everything up to achieve enlightenment, and thus the poor find much in common with Buddha. The poor are definitely poor in Thailand, but they are looked upon with equal parts respect and commiseration. It's not too difficult for a mendicant to find someone on every corner willing to give them food or even money when they look to be in need, without even asking.

It boggles the mind, truth be told. The Catholic faith is supposed to be a pro-poor religion, yet why does this not show? Is it because compared to Buddhist ascetes, Churches manifest a kind of opulence that runs contrary to their declaration of solidarity with the poor? Is the culture inspired by television to blame for our sense of entitlement? Really, who is to blame?

This is a post made a day after Blog Action Day. Despite that, I think we know the answer is that knowing who to blame at this point is irrelevant: we can only do what we can to alleviate the situation.

It starts with the simplest of gestures. Maybe you can't spare someone a few bucks for alms, but if you could just look at a mendicant with less disdain than you normally do, then it's a start. Or maybe you can be a bit nicer to your maids, and cut them some slack when they don't do something too smart. There're a million little things you can do to help in the war against poverty, and little though they all might be, if you end up doing them all, you would have ended up doing a million things for your part.

My journey of a thousand miles begins today. I hope I am not alone in this trek.

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