Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Hopeful Presidential Poor Initiative

Commentary
By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:45:00 01/17/2011

IN A long-delayed meeting President Aquino and the urban poor chose to attack urban poverty and the many problems of our cities in a collegial way through discussion and common sense, as collaborators rather than as combatants. Government and the poor have more often than not seen each other as opponents, or at least as obstacles in the way of each other’s plans.

The President agreed with the request of the poor for a three- to four-month moratorium on all evictions on public and private land. He and the poor believe the moratorium will create the peaceful milieu in which a committee, appointed by the President with representatives from government, civil society and the Church, can seek solutions to the many problems of evictions the poor brought to the President’s attention. Over 350,000 families in the past six months or so have received written or oral notice they will be evicted. With an average size of five members per family, some 1,750,000 persons are under threat.

For five months the poor people tried to arrange this meeting. They began to feel the President had forgotten their concerns, though they had signed a Covenant with him during the election campaign. On the matter of evictions the President had promised in the Covenant to give decent relocation for every family evicted, and to do everything possible to relocate the people in the city itself and not in far off areas, such as Calauan, Laguna, 115 kilometers away, where there are few if any jobs. In the first few months of President Aquino’s term of office there was no change from the old ways of evicting families, and the people wondered if the promised changes would ever come. They now believe they and government are on the right track.

The problems presented to the President are of two types: one set concerns the concrete eviction threats mentioned above that need solution as soon as possible. The second type concerns the long-term land and housing policies. Government, for example, must decide on its strategic priorities in the use of urban land. Will these uses include homes and jobs for the poor as well as for infrastructure, business centers, industry and homes and recreation centers for the well-off?

Such policy questions can best be answered with the help of urban planners, architects, social scientists, moral leaders, such as the Church, and representatives of the different stakeholders. Research is needed, including a better knowledge than we have now of what is happening and succeeding in countries around the world which have similar problems.

The poor have asked that the committee include, in addition to officials of the government’s housing agencies, Cabinet secretaries Corazon “Dinky” Soliman and Jesse Robredo, experts such as Architect Felino Palafox Jr., Dr. Esteban Godilano and Mary Racelis, the Mapua Institute of Technology architects and engineers, the UP School of Urban and Regional Planning, the Church and other moral leaders and civil society leaders. The poor suggest the committee choose its own chairperson.

Eviction is not the only problem the poor face. They need legal light and water connections, better clinics and schools (shouldn’t the children of the poor have the best teachers, for example?), help in finding work, land proclamations and housing loans adapted to the abilities of the poor to repay. They need an understanding government and an understanding elite.

Is it na├»ve to hope this cooperative approach proposed by the poor and approved by the President will succeed? Perhaps it won’t succeed fully, but that only means other new approaches are required. What is certain is that it makes no sense to go on trying to solve the growing problems presented by millions of poor, unskilled and unhappy families in our cities without some form of systematic planning that takes all aspects of problems into account. Our present policies haven’t worked. Government cannot ignore, mistreat, cajole or abuse its urban poor, now 20 percent of the country’s total population, and expect to have a peaceful harmonious nation. The poor won’t disappear. They will continue to sit on the doorsteps of the powerful demanding change.

Perhaps farmers, industrial workers, tribal people, the aged and other sectors can find similar planning arrangements with the President. He has shown a willingness to engage in more democratic forms of decision making.

The well-being of the entire country depends in great part on the President remaining close to the poor in these planning efforts. In turn he will be supported by the poor in his efforts at curbing corruption and building a nation based on social justice. It is difficult to see how he can succeed in these tasks without the poor.

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

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