Thursday, November 25, 2010

Typhoon ‘Yoling’ and Pope Paul VI

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:04:00 11/24/2010

Filed Under: Poverty, Churches (organisations)

FORTY YEARS ago this month, two spectacular visitors arrived in Manila. First came Typhoon “Yoling,” the worst storm to hit Manila in the last 100 years. It rolled back the roof off the Ateneo covered court and threw it away as easily as a person peels an orange or an apple and flips it into a garbage can. It removed half the roofs of the poor houses in the Tondo Foreshore area and covered Taft Avenue with water up to people’s waists. The second visitor came toward the end of the month. This was Pope Paul VI, and with him 100 bishops from the surrounding countries of Asia. They were here for the first Asian Bishops Meeting and the formation of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. As in the past, strong winds and prophecy arrived together.

The Pope and bishops issued a Message to Asia that remains as fresh and challenging today as it did then. And at the end of the meeting, as if teaching by example, Pope Paul spent a day in Tondo. He walked the muddy streets to the home of a poor family and spent almost an hour with them.

If we were back in 1970, what would we have expected the Pope and bishops to say to the peoples of Asia at the start of their Asian-wide evangelical effort? Most people, I think, would have predicted that they would talk of the Church’s past works, defend it against old accusations and insist on its rights—its freedom to practice the faith, for example. People would have predicted that the bishops’ statement would be triumphalistic in tone, although Catholics made up barely 2 percent of Asia’s people.

Instead the Message of the Asian Bishops Meeting was a very “non-churchy” document (in the words of Fr. Catalino Arevalo, S.J.). The Pope and bishops accepted the poverty, oppression and fatalism of Asia as their special areas of concern. They talked respectfully of Asia’s ancient and diverse religions and cultures, and with admiration of the new awakening of the Asian people at that time, especially the youth, and their longing for freedom and a better life and their willingness to struggle for those blessings. The Churchmen said they wanted to work alongside all in Asia who seek to bring freedom and prosperity to the Asian masses. In the resolutions that followed, the first expressed their determination to become the Church of the Poor, “in order that no man no matter how lowly or poor should find it hard to come and find in us their brothers.” I think we can now add: and no matter what their religion or sex.

One of the young Catholic students who was presented to the Pope in a special ceremony on that occasion took the message to heart. Oscar Francisco dedicated himself to a life of poverty. It was not the life of poverty a religious might live, but one that might impress modern youth. At the end of his life, for example, there was little money to care for his illnesses. All his life he had worked to organize the urban poor and farmers.

At the end of the meeting, the Pope spent Sunday afternoon in Tondo’s Barrio Magsaysay. Thousands of ZOTO members marched to the Don Bosco compound to hear him. After the speech he walked on streets still thick with Yoling’s mud to the home of a poor family and spent almost an hour talking and praying with them. (I remember that the security forces were anxious that he was taking so long.) He walked back through the mud sober-faced as if he had seen and heard something terrible.

The Pope and bishops also said in their message, “We have seen the face of the next age of mankind being written.” They said they “saw the masses awakening, the end of long ages of fatalism and the passive acceptance of poverty, ignorance and sickness.” They saw and understood the expectation of Asians for “more rice on the table, more knowledge, freedom and dignity…” They saw “the people of Asia coming together as one family.”

I remember how happy the young people were that the Pope and bishops had talked of things that were close to their hearts. It is easier for the young, for the people of other faiths and even for Catholics, it seems, to see the Church as the Good Shepherd when it talks of human rights and defends the poor.

The text of Resolution No. 1 sums up the heart of the Church’s Message to Asia: “It is our resolve, first of all, to be more truly the Church of the Poor. If we are to place ourselves at the side of the multitudes in our continent, we must in our way of life share something of their poverty. The Church cannot set up islands of affluence in a sea of want and misery; our own special lives must give witness to evangelical simplicity, and no man (or woman), no matter how lowly or poor (or what their religion), should find it hard to come to us and find in us their brothers (and sisters).”

Those few days at the end of November 1970 that Pope Paul and the bishops spent here in Manila were probably the brightest theological moment in the continent’s history. We should remember that at this very special time, they chose to talk of poverty, human rights, democracy and equality, and of the Church of the Poor. They showed us the road to the future.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Organizing Forever

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 08, 2010

FORTY YEARS ago this week the people of Slip Zero, Isla Puting Bato and other Tondo Foreshore areas met with Protestant and Catholic church people to sign a covenant. The church people said, “If you wish, we will help you set up, through community organization, a democratic, non-violent people’s organization that will be strong enough to resist government’s attempts to evict you. You will get the land here. You will be a strong body respected by all, even in other Asian countries.”

The people led by Trining Herrera and David Balondo said, “Yes. That’s what we want.” Zoto, the Zone One Tondo Organization, was born. It was the first of the urban poor community organizations that would revolutionize urban social action throughout the country.

The Philippines became a leading advocate in Asia of community organization and the promise that poor people can gain power through non-violent and democratic people’s groups and actions.

History has shown that without some form of people’s organization there will never be a fair distribution of wealth in countries. Randy David (Inquirer, 10/28/10), while discussing conditional cash transfers, notes they alone will not end poverty. “Only economic growth and the equitable sharing of its fruits” will end poverty, he writes. True, enough, but isn’t it also true that without people’s organizations (unions, peasant associations, coops, urban poor organizations, etc.) the wealth will never be fairly shared? Organized people compel the powerful to share.

In a 10-year struggle Zoto forced the government of President Ferdinand Marcos to turn its plans for developing that area upside down. Marcos had planned to clear Tondo of all its poor people and build a modern commercial-residential complex. In the end some poor people had to relocate, but they received lots of 96 sq m in Dagat-Dagatan just a five-minute jeepney ride north of Tondo. Two-thirds of the 30,000 families won land titles and upgrading on site.

Community organization is not just a struggle for land. It has proven to be the most efficient way for communities to get legal light and water, sanitation, medicine, better schools and even jobs. It gives good government a partner in the slums. It gives bad government an opponent with which it must come to terms.

The community organizers that started Zoto included people like the late Fr. Jose Blanco, the late Oca Francisco, Ed dela Torre, Fernando Yusingco, Herb and Jessica White, Holy Spirit Sister Victricia Pascasio, Bishop Roman Tiples and Rev. Henry Aquilan. They convinced the people they were, despite their poverty, as valuable as anyone and should stand up and speak as free men and women for what they believed were their human, God-given rights.

The COs, as they were soon called, showed the people how to analyze problems, how to find solutions, how to plan mass actions, how to carry them out with discipline, how to negotiate and how to carry on despite setbacks and arrests. They never, however, told the people what to struggle for or what plan to follow, at least not most of the time. CO was meant to help people gain the skills and vigor needed to win a seat at life’s negotiating tables. It gives power to the people.

Zoto was disciplined. If they said they would gather at 9 a.m. they were there at 9 a.m. All of them. It was a strong organization, but women loved it. I remember talking to a group of women who had been evicted from Slip Zero and moved to Dagat-Dagatan. They were crying, remembering their years in Slip Zero and Zoto, their weddings and the birth of their children. “I loved Zoto,” one woman said after many stories and they all cried.

CO won land tenure security for hundreds of thousands of urban poor families, and it often failed. Whether it failed or succeeded it encouraged people to take their future into their own hands and struggle for change. That is just about the best thing people can do for their brothers and sisters.

CO allows poor people to negotiate effectively with public utilities for legal light and water connections. These connections bring large savings. Legal piped water, for example, costs only a third or less of what people in the slums pay for illegal water. Savings can be used for other essentials.

As a companion to the CCT in the war on poverty these savings are important. In the R-10 area of the North Harbor, families save P300-P400 on average per month on water now that they have legal connections. They can afford to use all the water they need (250 liters per day per family, according to the United Nations) and still save money. In the new Dumpsite area of Tondo, families pay the syndicates P60 a day for generated electricity. This is P1,800 a month, while the average monthly legal electric bill for a poor family that consumes 50 kWh is about P297 (with light, TV set, radio, flat iron and electric fan). The light and water utilities usually require some form of people’s coop, which won’t come to be without a people’s organization. The people’s organizations also provide the courage needed to offset the threats of the syndicates. They sometimes threaten death. If families can save P800-P900 a month on light and water, they can increase their food budgets by 25 percent.

CO and peoples’ organizations allow good governments to function better. They force bad governments to reform. It’s appropriate to thank all the Philippine community organizers for what they have done and suffered. May God reward them all.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Monday, November 1, 2010

Two economies, two presidents

Commentary : Two economies, two presidents

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: October 28, 2010

ON THE last Sunday of September my wife, our daughter and I walked through Central Park on what New Yorkers said was the loveliest day of the year. Just a few steps into the park from the midtown traffic, we were stunned by how deeply and vividly green the trees and open fields were. The park glowed like a giant emerald. We walked down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. Everyone we saw looked young, happy and prosperous, except for a South Asian woman who lay curled up on the sidewalk in her sari near the cathedral. No one looked at her. If they saw her, they looked quickly away. For that day no one wished to worry about the poor and the economy.

Poverty is not very visible in New York. Even poor families come out of the supermarkets pushing overloaded carts of food. Economic insecurity, however, is rooted just beneath the surface. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, said: “The American economy over the last 40 years (since the Nixon years) has given unparalleled wealth to the very, very rich, undermined the living standards of the middle class and crushed the poor.”

Only the super-rich have benefited, the top 1 or 2 percent of the population. Herbert pointed out that the pauperization of 98 percent of Americans is not the result of impersonal market forces gone amok, but the consequence of the conscious planning of the economic elite to achieve ever greater wealth for themselves no matter what damage was done to the rest of the population. The growing poverty of the people is the collateral damage of the greed of the very rich.

He wrote: “The middle class is finally on its knees. Jobs are scarce and good jobs even scarcer. Government and corporate policies have been whacking working Americans every which way for the past three or four decades while globalization and technological wizardry were wreaking employment havoc, the movers and shakers in government and in the board rooms of the great corporations were embracing privatization and deregulation with the fervor of fanatics. The safety net was shredded, unions were brutally attacked and demonized, employment training and jobs programs were eliminated, higher education costs skyrocketed, and the nation’s infrastructure, a key to long-term industrial and economic health, deteriorated.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is in trouble. His Democrats may lose the House of Representatives in next month’s election. His approval ratings are down. New Yorkers who voted for him enthusiastically two years ago are disappointed and even angry with him. These days political talk is always angry talk.

Compared with the somber economic and political news from the US, we now have good news in the Philippines. We can learn, however, from the US failures and weaknesses as we once sought to learn from its successes.

If Herbert and other similarly minded experts are correct, the US economy has been undone by the super-rich and their allies in Congress who have gained near-total control over who gains and who loses in the economy. The rich and powerful in the Philippines exert at least the same amount of control over the Philippine economy as their counterparts in the US have over theirs. Who watches these men and women?

President Aquino should have a salutary fear that the Filipino rich will manipulate the economic gains to their near-exclusive benefit as the US rich have done. The President has spoken enthusiastically of the benefits of government-private business partnerships, but it would be tragic if these ended up benefiting the very rich and few others. Corruption must be controlled, but there are many legal ways in which financial wizards can channel economic growth into their coffers and away from those of the middle-income and poor people. Who watches out for this? Who protects the President’s back on this issue? Who makes sure that he is not betrayed by the very rich?

Obama is criticized now for having spent too much time and political capital trying to negotiate with the Republicans, when it was clear from the beginning they had no intention of negotiating or working with him, and were out simply to stonewall all his efforts. Instead, Obama should have acted single-mindedly from Day One for his priority goals, the critics say. In the beginning he had high popularity ratings, so he could have done almost whatever he wished to do. Now it is more difficult. “Ripeness is all,” Shakespeare tells us. Now seems the best time for President Noynoy to assist the poor, before political problems mount for him and his choices become limited.

Finally, Obama is criticized for not explaining his programs carefully to ordinary Americans, his healthcare program, for example. He has found that the people do not support his programs because they often do not understand how they benefit from them. If the ordinary people support a president’s programs, Congress will have to pass the necessary laws. The most important step for a reform president is to get the unequivocal support of ordinary citizens. No Congress or boards of directors can resist the power of a president who brings with him the support of the nation.

When President Noynoy undertakes specific legislations and programs to benefit the poor and lower middle-income people, he will be dependent on the strong and loyal support of these groups. Few others will back him. The more time he spends with the poor and middle-income people, explaining his programs and listening to their wishes, the more they will support him when the crucial days arrive and basic issues of social justice are at stake.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

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