Message for the UP School of Economics 2006 Graduates (2)

Ms. Coronel is the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.  This is the second part of a condensed version of her speech she delivered on April 22, 2006 before the graduating class of the UP School of Economics.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, May 8, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Let me tell you about the face that haunts me when I cannot sleep at night. It is the face of Christian Alvarez, a frisky five-year old I met on the streets. Christian lives in Plaza Miranda. He and his family sleep on milk cartons near the Mercury Drugstore in Quiapo. Plaza Miranda is his playground. That is also where he and his family eat breakfast everyday: a bowl of lugaw given free by the feeding center run by a Catholic charity in Quiapo church.

Christian’s parents, Rowena and Lawrence, are street vendors who make P150 to P200 a day. They have eight children, three of whom—all boys—live on the plaza. Three others are in the care of relatives and friends because their parents do not earn enough to feed and house them. Another was entrusted to the care of an orphanage. The last one, a girl, then aged two, disappeared on the plaza one night when Lawrence left her to fetch water from the Jolibee outlet near Quiapo church.

Christian is at the Quiapo church feeding center with his entire family three times a day. The day I went there, after the noon feeding, the boy shared with his parents and brothers their only real meal that day: three cups of rice bought for P5 each and pinakbet sold for P10 at the Quiapo market. So at 6 pm, Christian lined up again at the Quiapo church, for another bowl of steaming hot lugaw that would at least ensure that he will not go to sleep on an empty stomach.

I wish I could say that the Alvarez family is a special case, but it is not. In 2000, one in every five Filipinos cannot afford to meet his minimum food needs. In current numbers, that’s 16 million people.

The numbers are dismal. Over 30 million Filipinos earn less than the estimated P200 a day needed to keep a family of six clothed, fed, and housed. Many families now eat only one full meal—meaning rice and cooked food —a day. As marketing expert Ned Roberto found out in his study on the consumption patterns of the poor, ulam for many families in the lowest income strata these days are: patis, soy sauce, pork oil, sugar and even Pepsi.

Let me give you more numbers. In the 1990s, we wrote about the PEA-Amari case, billed as the “grandmother of all scams,” where close to P3 billion were paid in bribes and commissions to businessmen and officials—including, it was alleged at that time, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

In 2001, the Office of the Ombudsman alleged that Joseph Estrada accumulated up to P20 billion in cash and real estate in two-and-half years in Malacañang Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were believed to have amassed up to $10 billion in the 20 years they were in power. Recently, it has been alleged that P1 billion recovered from the Marcos wealth by the Arroyo government was used to bankroll the president’s 2004 election campaign.

The real scandal is that while all these officials were helping themselves to the national treasury, they were further ruining homeless and hungry families like those of Christian Alvarez’s.

Something is terribly wrong when hunger stalks millions not because there is a lack of food but because the social system impoverishes the multitudes while enriching a privileged few. The richest 20 percent of the population have nearly 55 percent of the national income, while the poorest 20 percent have less than 5 percent. At the same time, the wealthy monopolize political power.

That such inequity has existed for so long is a testament not so much to the talents of the elite but to the resilience of the ordinary Filipino, a resilience that comes from the strength of our social institutions, particularly the family. Where state and society have failed, the family has filled the slack. One of the coping mechanisms for dealing with lack of food is sending children to the care of other family members. The other is stretching meager budgets and lowering eating and living standards.

Yet, our political leaders believe they can rule in the old way: that the corruption and ineptness can continue, that the low level of spending on social services will not fray the social fabric beyond repair, that the poor, though hungry, will find ways to cope and not mass up on the streets.

But what if they are wrong? In 1971, then Senator Benigno S. Aquino famously said, “The Philippines is a social volcano.” Thirty-five years later, the volcano has not exploded—there were eruptions but they were not quite Pinatubo in scale. But how long can we postpone the social reckoning?

Our political leaders, however, seem impervious to the signs of the times. They cannot see because they are blinded by their own interests. Our tragedy is that the horizons of our political class are narrow; their interests, short-term.  They cannot even see that the system that has nurtured them is failing.

The organizing principle of our political life is the division of spoils. Those in power struggle for a share of the largesse from the national treasury and use this to keep themselves in office, mainly by dispensing patronage to allies and constituents. Patronage is the glue that keeps our unjust and unproductive political system together. Politicians use their powers to bring benefits to their constituents and supporters and to amass funds for their reelection. Constituents, in turn, make continued demands—for jobs, money, basketball courts, etc.—knowing that politicians will use their office to deliver.

Governance is distorted to meet these demands. Broader development and reform goals are forgotten. In the end, a system that mires the people in poverty is further entrenched.

The implicit social contract on which our political system has so long been anchored is this: politicians can steal but they have to share the loot with their constituents. But with the government in the red and constituent demands increasing with a fast-growing population and rising poverty, the system could unravel.

The key reforms have to do not so much with changing our form of government but with overhauling our political and electoral system. It hardly matters whether we stick to a presidential or shift to a parliamentary form of government. What we need is a system that will distribute power—and the benefits of power—more equitably.

We need a more even electoral field, and an election commission that will ensure that the rules are followed. We need to build political parties that articulate the interests of the poor, not just of the wealthy. We need measures that would impose party discipline and ensure accountability and transparency in campaign contributions.

Why should politicians want to overhaul a system that has been so good to them? The answer simply is this: That system cannot hold.

Our fates are entwined. Our country will prosper only if everyone is looked after. There can be sustained prosperity only if such prosperity is shared by all. Our economy cannot expand if the benefits of growth are enjoyed by only a privileged and powerful few. We will not develop if a big segment of our population is poor, hungry, uneducated and uncared for.

We must find a way to funnel resources from the wealthy—by streamlining our tax system, for example—so that we can spend more on education, health care and livelihood projects for the poor. Government must stop its waste and profligacy to provide more social services for the people. Public spending has to address basic needs rather than greasing the patronage machine.

Ultimately, we need stable institutions responsive to the needs of the majority.  Twenty years after the restoration of democracy, our institutions remain feeble, unable to stand on their own and to keep their autonomy and independence from partisan politics.

This means forging a new social compact, one built no longer on the mutual, if unevenly distributed, benefits of a system based on patronage and spoils. We need a social contract that is premised on the right of every citizen to the fundamentals of a decent life and on a more equitable sharing of the wealth our country produces.

This is your task now. The generations before you—including mine, which reached adulthood in the 1980s, at the dawn of people power—have failed. Now in the throes of middle age, my generation has realized that many of our great hopes about this country have been frustrated, our big dreams of reform have turned to dust. While Edsa 1 is the defining experience of our lives and we will always be proud that we took part in restoring freedom, we have also failed to build a just and equitable society.

That undertaking is yours. And as economists trained in the country’s premier university you are uniquely placed to play a reforming and nation-building role. The UP School of Economics has a tradition for critical thought. For the past decades, it has upset presidents with its uncompromising analyses of our country’s economic problems. You are the bearers of this tradition.

Do not be daunted by the fact that the changes cannot be done overnight. They may not take effect soon enough to save Christian Alvarez from a life on the streets or prevent him from dropping out of school. But it is imperative we sow the seeds now so that if not Christian, then his children, your children, will be ensured not just of an education but also of a secure and comfortable life.

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