Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Commentary : It’s up to the President

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: April 04, 2011

“THE BEST laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He had spent the afternoon plowing his fields and by accident had destroyed the home of a small mouse and its family. He watched them flee in terror. In the poem he shows compassion for the poor mice who must now spend their winter in the cold, instead of in the warm underground home the mouse had planned for them. With just a few small changes the poem can be understood to be about poor people evicted from their homes and about all poor people and their plans.

A plan was made last Dec. 23 by the powerful (including President Aquino and his Cabinet members) and the weak (the urban poor and their allies) to bring together the best minds in the country, in order to solve one of its main problems, namely, the increasing number and pauperization of our urban poor people. By mid-March the plan was slowly unraveling.

The plan had started with a moratorium on all evictions declared by the President, in order to give time for the parties to the agreement to study the strengths and weaknesses of several land and housing proposals of the poor. The results would be discussed by a panel of experts appointed by the President from government, civil society (such as Mapua Institute of Technology), the Church, independent experts (architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, Dr. Esteban Godilano and Mary Racelis) and urban poor leaders. The panel would recommend to the President the actions they thought he should take on the proposals.

In brief, the poor asked that the families living on Manila esteros, Lupang Arenda, R-10 Road, Manggahan Floodway, Laguna Lake, Navotas Fishport, Baseco and Parola be allowed to stay where they are and that the communities be upgraded and the people be housed in a decent fashion. The plan would benefit 280,000 poor families who are living in these areas, well over one million men, women and children. The plan harms no one.

Why is the plan not working? There is more than enough guilt to go around. The failure of the appointed committee to play a key role is one reason. The committee never met. The members were never notified of their appointments. Perhaps, due to the absence of this prestigious body, agency heads and others didn’t come to meetings when invited. The best minds never met together and never had a chance to cut to the heart of the problems faced.

Also as often happens in governments and other bodies the people in charge are reluctant to give up old ways of doing things, even when these ways have proved ineffective. They are guilty of what can be called “intellectual laziness.” Albert Einstein wrote, “the greatest inconvenience of peoples and nations is the laziness with which they attempt to find the solutions to their problems.”

A good example of this laziness at work can be seen in the government’s ways of relocating evicted families to far distant sites, in the case of Calauan, Laguna, up to 100 kilometers away. There are no jobs, so regularly 30-40 percent of the families return to the city and to slum areas. Also the government never recovers the money spent on these distant housing efforts, because the people don’t want to be there, don’t have much money and don’t care to use the little money they have to amortize the lots and houses they received. Billions of pesos have been lost. The government cannot create thousands of jobs in wilderness places. By contrast poor families who found a solution through the Community Mortgage Program, a solution they chose, repay government at a rate of over 70 percent. Why does government insist on following its thoughtlessly cruel and fiscally unwise practice of distant relocation? As in so many things Einstein may be right: the great obstacle to development is intellectual laziness. The old ways haven’t worked. Let’s try new ways, the people suggest.

The people themselves are part of the problem. Sometimes they are stubborn; sometimes they are not sure what they want, and they aren’t well organized. The Department of Interior and Local Government which was asked by the President to coordinate the whole work has been caught in a political whirlpool of intrigue and suspicion.
Some people felt that guilt for the program’s seeming failure reached even to the President, because he didn’t appear to back the program with the power of his office.
But then the tide seemed to turn, slowly at first but in a determined way, thanks to the efforts of many inside and outside government who see value in the people’s plans.

Among its first recommendations to the President, the study group (TWG or Technical Working Group) advised the government to give 1,000 families in the Navotas Fishport the land they live on. It recommended that an executive order of a former president be scrapped, paving the way for families along the Manggahan Floodway and in Lupang Arenda to enjoy land tenure security and upgrading. It recommended Baseco be fully developed for the people living there. This is in line with the President’s promise to the poor to upgrade all the lands proclaimed.

More recently the TWG has recommended that buildings designed by Palafox Associates architects be built on certain Manila esteros, provided it is physically possible to do so. Private architects say such construction is very possible. People are optimistic.

It is up to the President. It would be of tremendous significance if President Aquino backed the plans suggested by the poor people, especially since many powerful persons do not want him to support such plans. It might become the norm.
(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.)

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