Fighting poverty: The missing element
FOR YEARS, I HAVE ENDED MY speeches and public presentations to every new audience with a challenge for each of them to help at least one poor family get out of poverty. I call attention to the current official poverty incidence figure of 26.9 percent (as of 2006), which means roughly one out of every four Filipino families is poor. I then point out that this also implies that three out of four are not poor. Thus, to wipe out poverty, we need only one in every three nonpoor Filipino families to care enough to help one poor family get out of poverty. Perhaps, I surmise, if we take our efforts to combat poverty to this individual (“micro”) level of caring and sharing, we could be much more successful at reducing poverty in our midst, as against the more grandiose macro-level programs that government is known for.
What would it take to help lift a poor family out of poverty? We all know the saying attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Outright dole-outs, of the kind government has lately been handing out a lot of, are clearly merely palliative and will not reduce poverty in the long run. Thus, we’ve also seen a plethora of poverty reduction programs that attempt to provide the things expected to make a long-term difference: Improved education and health services, microfinance and livelihood assistance, housing, safe water and sanitation, and so on. These things have figured in the government plans, programs and annual budgets for decades, and yet widespread poverty has persisted, and reducing poverty has remained the country’s foremost challenge. Indeed, poverty actually worsened since 2003, even in the face of supposedly record economic growth—proving that unqualified economic growth does not necessarily provide the solution either.
Teaching to fish
On a micro level, what would a willing family need to do to “teach another family to fish?” The late Sen. Raul Roco used to profess that having at least one college graduate in a family would surely get it out of poverty, and thus stressed the critical importance of widely accessible education up to the tertiary level. For those who can afford it, a concrete way of helping, then, is to support a promising child of the family through school all the way to the tertiary level, whether college or vocational/technical training as appropriate. My own father has done so almost all of his professional life and on through his retirement, and has reaped the satisfaction of seeing his successful protégés uplift their lives and their families’ well-being and standard of living.
Gawad Kalinga sees decent housing as the critical entry point. Founder Tony Meloto espouses the conviction that once you give poor people middle-class surroundings, they begin to have middle-class dreams. Indeed, the barrier often keeping many of the poor from uplifting their lives is their own selves, when they keep their aspirations low. A foreign colleague told me of a conversation he had with the young son of his Filipino driver, who, when asked what he hoped to be when he grew up, unhesitatingly replied that he wanted to be a driver just like his father. No wonder, my colleague remarked, that too many Filipinos remain poor.
Still another concrete way of helping is to equip a poor family with the means (including skills, values and financial capital) to start and sustain a livelihood enterprise. But time and again, government and nongovernment organizations get a mixed record of success when they try to do this en masse for groups of beneficiaries. My own sense is that such assistance will more likely achieve lasting outcomes when there is a one-to-one nurturing relationship involved, such as what a personal family-to-family hand-holding involvement would provide.
Sharing the Cross
This kind of direct involvement, to my mind, is key. We tend to focus on the receiver and overlook the giver. People who care and are willing to share find greater meaning in their sharing when they are able to somehow share in the pain and suffering of those whom they help. True sharing, in other words, goes both ways. I’m convinced that this is the ingredient that has made Gawad Kalinga catch fire not only in the Philippines but overseas as well. When people are urged to spend weekends enduring pain and strain by literally helping build homes alongside those who will receive them, sharing is brought to a totally different level from simply writing out a check to one’s favored charity. Giving a scholarship directly to one’s chosen poor child and taking a direct concern and involvement in his/her progress through the years is quite different from sending a regular contribution to a scholarship-granting foundation. An entrepreneurial family that hand-holds a poor family into starting and growing an enterprise of their own finds greater meaning in sharing than just pledging a portion of their profits to a livelihood development NGO.
When a disaster-based organization I am part of sought to draw Christian churches into our cause by asking each church to donate a target sum, I suggested that they go beyond that by urging the church members to actually come to our beneficiary sites in Albay, Infanta and Aurora. That way, they could share first hand in the pain of those whose lives they are helping rebuild. Only then do we Christians truly partake of the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is the true meaning of caring and sharing in Christian love. This, to my mind, could very well be the missing element in our poverty reduction efforts all these years.
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