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Will the Poor Be Always With Us?

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    Reflection on the Lecture: “Will the Poor Be Always With Us?” by Joy Aceron

    After listening to the talk of Sec. Dinky Soliman during the Metrobank Professorial Lecture yesterday entitled “Will the Poor Be Always with Us?,” my assumption is validated.

    DSWD, under the leadership of Sec. Dinky (with the support of one of my most favorite public servants in the country, our very own, Ma’am Angge, of course) is doing a good job attending to the human face of poverty, attending to the immediate needs of the poor as individuals and families through social welfare, social protection and human development. There is a strong and solid thinking there from its theoretical premises to the nitty-gritty and technical part such as monitoring and evaluation. The people of DSWD are hardworking, resilient and there is no doubt that they know the poor and their hearts are with the poor. Sila ay kasama, kakampi at katulong ng mga mahihirap.

    However, in my humble opinion, unless the structural causes of poverty is addressed, the successes and gains of the good work of DSWD now will likely to be just a momentary relief to the poor. Whether the poor will and can use that momentary relief to lift themselves from poverty will depend on the poor — on their own respective efforts as individuals and families who are receiving direct assistance from the government, which varies dramatically depending on the individual condition, capacity and motivations of the poor, subject still to the politico-economic environment, hence the structural factors of poverty.

    To prepare for the talk, I started reading an interesting book that was given to me in my recent trip to the US. Entitled “Do the Poor Count?,” the book tries to empirically and quantitatively (using methods such as regression analysis) see whether the voice of the poor matter in Latin America. This is Latin America where Brazil is, the originator of grassroots participatory budgeting and CCT, so I expected the result to be favorable. I have not yet finished reading the book, but like how I read books that have conducted rigorous quantitative analysis, I go first to the conclusion. While I have reservations in its conclusion, or at least its nuances and details, I think it is something we can learn from and glean upon.

    The book says: no, the voice of the poor largely doesn’t count not because of poverty (not because they are poor or their particular condition as poor individuals and families), but because there are institutional factors, both formal and informal, that keep the poor from exacting accountability from their public officials (in sanctioning public officials) and that disincentivize pro-poor policy or programmatic representation by elected officials. These institutions are the formal ones such as electoral rules, design of legislative and executive branches; and informal institutions such as party nomination procedures and patron-client relationships.

    If we truly believe that poverty can be addressed if the poor can themselves overcome their own deprivation (taking off from that definition of Amartya Sen: poverty as a deprivation of basic capabilities, which according to Sec. Dinky is the same definition DSWD adopts), then we need to address poverty not only by assisting poor individuals and families, but by addressing the structural causes that perpetuate and incentivize the condition of poverty and inequality in our society that creates, maintains and reproduces poor individuals and families.

    We owe this to the poor people who we lend our hands to. We emphatize and care for them truly if aside from lending a helping hand that provides immediate relief to their basic needs, we also take on the difficult struggle that will naturally involve conflict for it will inevitably involve neutralizing those who benefit from the continued state of poverty and disempowerment that turn and keep the poor poor. This is of course beyond what DSWD can do, but given the mandate of poverty-reduction and caring for the poor, DSWD (or at least its leaders) will have to find a way to address this piece of the puzzle that will be critical for the success of their work.

    Otherwise, the poor will always be with us because poverty will continue to be perpetuated and utilized to benefit a few. The good work that DSWD does would perhaps alleviate a number of poor individuals and families, but it will not solve the country’s state of poverty.

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