By Denis Murphy, Manila
The Philippines’ urban poor finally had their long-awaited meeting with President Benigno Aquino two days before Christmas and found it was worth the wait.
Since July, when Aquino came into office, the urban poor have sought a meeting with the president to clarify the government’s position on the demolition of shanties, relocation of slum dwellers, social housing and basic services for the poor.
A press report on Dec. 15 suggested that the president had forgotten all about the poor despite an agreement he had with urban poor leaders during the elections. Aquino signed a “Covenant with the Urban Poor” as one of his campaign promises.
The Dec. 23 meeting between the president and 10 representatives of the poor and key government housing agencies resulted in a promise that the government will declare a four-month moratorium on evictions from public and private lands. The poor said the time was needed for government agencies and the poor to come to a consensus on how the issues in the “covenant” will be implemented.
President Aquino also agreed to set up a committee with representatives from civil society, the urban poor, the government and the Church. It will analyse the situation and make recommendations to solve the issues.
A main point of contention is the relocation of people evicted from their homes. The president vowed that no family on public or private land can be evicted without decent relocation. He also agreed that relocation of displaced residents will be “in-city” and not in distant areas where there are no jobs.
Felino Palafox Jr., head of one of the country’s foremost architecture firms, told the meeting that urban poor dwellers need not be removed from canals because there are ways to address access to the city’s waterways that will be beneficial to both the government and residents.
There are more than five million urban poor people in Metro Manila, where the total population is estimated by the Asian Development Bank at 14 million.
Urban poor leaders believe the government will have to attend to the immediate problems of the poor, like imminent eviction, while looking for long-term solutions to the problem, including providing jobs for the poor, improving education and ensuring good health.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the social action secretariat of the Catholic bishops’ conference, for instance, has made attempts to train parish committees to help address the problems of urban poor communities.
The urban poor representatives who met with President Aquino found him knowledgeable of the problems people face. Results, however, will depend on seriousness of the people he appointed to address the issues of the poor.