Monday, March 24, 2008

What is Wrong with the Philippines?

by Ryan Maboloc
Ateneo de Davao University

Living in a poor country where hunger is the face of many people’s state of affairs, I have seen the terrible reality of human life which truly makes one doubt whether poverty can vanish from the earth. Inequality is a hard fact of life. About 25 years ago, fish was abundant in my beloved barrio, so they put a fishing port in the 90s. More than a decade has since gone by, and all the fishes have disappeared. They said the port will make the lives of people better, but after all, Fr. Pete Lamata of Davao City's Social Action Center was right in opposing the fish port. I have not understood him then. Right now I do. A hell lot of people in my barrio are still poor.

In the past few years, a great amount of wealth has been created by the Philippine economy through exports, extensive tax collection, and overseas remittances but such has not translated to the well-being of many poor Filipinos. What is wrong is not the way we practice liberal democracy, but the way we understand equality. In view of the evidence of human deprivation in our highly economized world, the sociologist Des Gasper says that the concept of equality should advance the idea that people are not just the means but more importantly, the principal ends of development. But the way we do it in country, our OFWs are our number one export product and clearly, we use them as means and its toll in families, not to mention the lonely nights of being away from your loved ones is beyond any measurement.

First and foremost, money doesn’t solve our problems. The traditional concept of well-being in welfare economics evaluates social arrangements in terms of aggregate income and wealth through indices such as the Gross National Product, the Gross Domestic Product, and per capita income. For instance, the efforts to address the demand for social equality in many of poor countries are anchored on economic growth. But is this correct?

Lowness of income of a country’s poor sector obviously indicates social inequality. Furthermore, it also suggests that families who live below a certain line experience hardships in maintaining a decent way of life or what mainstream economics calls a standard of living. Aggregation in terms of national income is seen to have a cascading effect envisioned to improve living standards. Basically put, it means that the poor are expected to take advantage from the gains due to economic growth, their welfare dependent on the amount of wealth the economy creates.

In measuring national development in terms of real numbers from a country’s economic activity policy makers assume that economic growth in terms of GNP and GDP will have a positive effect on the well-being of the poor. Des Gasper outlines this in what follows: economic production results to income which triggers consumption. Consumption satisfies personal utility which is construed as well-being (Gasper 2000, 283). Well-being is the end result of income coming from higher inputs to production in a country’s economic activity.

The process of production employs people which in turn enable them to gain something from it. Income is translated to the consumption of commodities which satisfies personal utility. The satisfaction of this advantage is construed as well-being in economic terms. Is this right? Nope, for income does not tell how well a person is. Say, a man and a pregnant woman have the same income. The pregnant woman is still at a disadvantage owing to her condition. Income, in this sense, does not give the whole picture.

In their effort to arrest the problem of poverty, in many of third world countries, governments indicate a certain cut off point called the poverty line based on income earned per household to identify the poor. Those who live below this line are considered poor. This type of measurement shows that poverty is simply the lack of income or the lack of means to pursue a certain standard of living. Low income is seen as the lack of means, (i.e., income) to achieve well-being. Government programs concentrate on reducing the number of people who fall below the poverty line.

But for Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, this is stupid because there can never be a policy to supplement the income of people who fall below the poverty line because the only information it provides is the recognition that some people are poor. In addition, Sen says that the aggregation exercise done through simple head counting pays no attention to the fact that people could be a little below the line, or a lot, and also the distribution of income among the poor may or may not be itself very unequal. Such type of measurement does not provide an adequate basis for the reasons why people are deprived of their well-being, or whether the kind of deprivation they suffer is so grave or unimaginable, say for instance the case of homeless orphans or families (i.e., in Manila, the Philippine capital, one does not only see street children but also street families). Thus, Sen says that the real extent of deprivation may be underestimated if we concentrate only on the size of incomes.

It is sad and tragic for our deeply communitarian society that our country relies on OFW remittances. Nope, this is not about brain drain. This is about the fact that our countrymen, most notably those who go to Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Middle East, become victims of abuse in these countries and our government is helpless in assisting them. Families, especially children, suffer because of this. Of course, there have been success stories. But we mustn't commit a slippery slope in this case. The end of the Japayuki phenomenon is not due to our country's concern for women's welfare. It is Japan who took the initiative. And the future generation of Filipinas are lucky to benefit from it.

Good GNP numbers through the money sent by OFWs are our government's way to obsfucate our real economic conditions. Ceteres paribus, it can be argued in the end that poverty is a result of the lack of real or substantive freedoms, not income per se. Deprivation, destitution, and oppression suggest that the inability of a people to live a meaningful life is due to the absence of their power to actualize their freedoms or capabilities towards being or doing. Thus, poverty is irreducible to income measurement. Poverty is about the lack of capacity of our people to choose the things they have reason to value.