Tuesday, September 6, 2011

‘All are responsible’

Commentary By: Denis Murphy 3:12 am | Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 For decades our social research has dealt predominantly with poor people, namely, farmers, urban poor, tribal people, street children and others. We sought to know why they failed to progress more rapidly in society. We have learned many lessons no doubt, of which the most important is that in order to have a more equal sharing of wealth and a decent life for all, we must allow for poor people’s participation in the decision-making that affects their lives. Programs were started based on this insight and had some success, but there have been few substantial changes in income distribution and equality. We know more about the urban poor now than we did 40 years ago when systematic organizing of poor people began in Tondo. We know more, but the people there now have the same problems as people had back then. They still need decent jobs and housing. We have come to realize more clearly that lack of progress by the poor is not primarily their fault, but rather it is because their efforts to shape their future run smack into the interests of the rich and powerful. The fault is not in the poor, but in the elite, that they are underlings, if we may be allowed to mangle a line of Shakespeare. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel said when asked who was responsible for the Holocaust: “A few are guilty; all are responsible.” Do the rich see themselves simply responsible as others in the country or do they see themselves as guilty? We know how much poor families spend for recreation, including beer and cigarettes—only about P400-P500 per month—but we have no idea how much a rich family spends on its recreation. We know from research a great deal about poor people’s hopes, fears and goals in life, but almost nothing about those of rich people. As a result we are far from understanding our society. If Bill Clinton were a sociologist working here in Metro Manila, he’d be repealing in that inelegant way he has, “It’s the elite, stupid!” Before interviewers flood the rich subdivisions, I want to ask some general questions that have been with me for years. First, I would like to know how our well-off people react when they see old women begging or small girls tapping on their car windows to sell sampaguita flowers late at night. I am sure they feel the compassion all humans feel at such sights, but do they feel responsible as rich and influential persons for what is wrong in the society that they and their co-wealthy peers control? Do they feel responsible when they read that among Southeast Asian countries the greatest income inequality is in the Philippines? (Stratbase, Inquirer, July 22) Another question concerns our very slow rate of economic growth as a nation. Why has economic growth trailed far behind that of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore? Corruption is not the answer. Corruption exists everywhere, but other elites have been able to manage their countries’ economic affairs far better than ours. We would like, therefore, to ask the elite why this is so. Other elites may take care of themselves in shady ways, but they still find ways to benefit all the people of their countries. Why can’t our elite do the same? I’m sure many people would like to know how it is that a Christian country is the most unjust among Southeast Asian countries, judged by its very poor distribution of wealth. Is Catholicism a less powerful influence to acting justly and caring for one another than Buddhism, Islam, or even Marxist ideology? Catholicism has the most carefully worked out social teaching among all the religions, yet it seems less effective in moving the rich and powerful to act justly. A country where 80 percent of the population is Catholic should be doing better in matters of social justice. The word “elite” is an abstraction. Do our powerful people see themselves as an elite, that is, as a governing group or class, or do they see themselves simply as fragmented and competing rich families? Are these families opponents in day to day matters, but able to come together in times of crises to protect their common interests? Is there hope that they will see that inequality of income can lead to political instability? Maybe research among the very rich will provide answers. Let’s hope so. Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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