Wednesday, December 15, 2010

‘Have you forgotten us, Mr. President?’

Commentary
By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:44:00 12/15/2010

Filed Under: Human Rights, Housing & Urban Planning,Governance, Politics

URBAN POOR groups have written a very sad letter to President Noynoy. It begins, “Have you forgotten us, Mr. President?” and goes on to talk about their failure to get a meeting with the President, despite four months of continuous effort. It is sad because they had expected so much from the President.

During the election campaign the urban poor and then Senator Noynoy signed a covenant in which he promised to treat the urban poor in a just and generous way in matters of eviction, relocation and other urban poor concerns. It was the first time a presidential candidate signed such an agreement with them, the people said. They looked on the covenant as a solemn promise by the President, much more serious than ordinary political gimmickry. Correspondingly, they are surprised and disappointed when the promises are not kept.

They point out that in some matters affecting the urban poor the present government comes out poorly in comparison with the government of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Their prime concerns now are that government follows the law in evicting and relocating poor families, and that it relocates people in-city. The families living on the esteros, for example, whom the government threatens to evict after Christmas, want to be housed on the esteros, but in housing designed by Palafox Associates that mitigates flooding, yet allows the families to keep their jobs, schools and the old neighbors they would lose in distant relocation. The people of Laguna Lake, Manggahan Floodway and Lupang Arenda have similar plans. The families in these places who are liable to relocation total 250,000 families or one million men, women and children.

This may be a very temporary estrangement between the President and the poor. There is a danger, however, in the modern world that presidents are so busy with so many different problems, they may lock themselves away in their presidential offices, and sever on-going close dialogue with the ordinary people who elected them and their social movements. The presidents may consider this a more efficient way to govern, but the chief victims of such lack of dialogue are the major justice issues of the day. Justice is not realized.

When presidents and the ordinary people are close to one another there is a good chance that justice can win out. When they are not united there is little chance of this happening: the president either will not attempt to pass the needed legislation or he will try but fail because the majority of the people, the poor and near poor, do not rally to support him.

Jim Wallis in Sojourners Magazine (November 2010) gives examples of this dynamic from American history. Abraham Lincoln was moved to free slaves by the Abolitionist Movement and by persons, such as, the Afro-American writer and orator Frederick Douglas. Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s was pressured by the labor unions to institute the Social Security System and thereby free ordinary people of a poverty-ridden old age. Wallis also remembers how Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement pushed Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to pass the voting rights legislation and Medicare which looks after the health needs of old people.

These issues—freeing slaves, freeing old people from poverty and sickness, and restoring the right to vote to all people—are clearly central in any understanding of justice and human rights. These are not mere political matters, but are the deep down concerns of what it means to be human. This characteristic accounts for the mass popular support such issues received. Wallis credits the presidents with good faith in these matters, but says they would not have acted without the popular pressure the ordinary people’s movements generated and men like Martin Luther King and his like.

Wallis traces President Barack Obama’s current loss of influence to his decision to remain closeted in the White House, cut off from close communication with ordinary Americans, unlike Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson.

A president needs a movement to help him realize justice and human rights issues. When he feels the ordinary people’s pain and is assured they are behind him and cover his back, then and only then will he act. Presidents are not gamblers.

How will matters work out in the Philippines? Will President Noynoy patch up his relationship with the urban poor and resolve to stay close to the poor of all sectors? Everyone hopes so, especially the poor. Perhaps he can have the meeting the people want.

What are some of the issues today in the Philippines in which the President needs the powerful support of ordinary Filipinos? What are the deep down justice issues comparable to freeing slaves and voting rights? A truly successful land reform program seems to be one. There has been more than enough blood of farmers spilled already. Legislation that would narrow to a significant degree the income gap between rich and poor is another high priority.

Maybe it is not legislation that is needed so much as an attitude in the President and all government people that can be compared to the Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” For the President this would mean that in all the issues that arise he looks to see how the poor can benefit and how he can give the poor a little extra by way of resources, social services and opportunities. In all matters that come before him, the President will consider how the matter affects the poor, and look after them and make sure other government people do the same.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.)

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