Friday, November 22, 2013

A horrible half-year

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Now that the worst is over in Tacloban and some other typhoon-devastated areas, it may be time to look not only at the awful tragedy there but also at the last six months, which were marked by a series of manmade and natural disasters seldom seen together in such a short period. It may be good to look at them now because people are quick to forget, especially with Christmas just a month or so away.

Midyear, economists criticized the national economy for creating “growth without jobs,” which meant that the rich got richer and the poor remained mostly stuck in poverty. It wasn’t an accident; the economy was designed by our business leaders and policymakers to operate in that way. Such an economy, dividing the population even further into rich and poor conditions of living, is at war with notions of solidarity and compassion, which should be guiding norms. (Economist Cielito Habito wrote in this paper on Nov. 12 that it was not enough that we have growth: “It must be growth that produces jobs and livelihoods for as many Filipinos as possible.”)

Then came the disclosures on the pork barrel scam involving leading politicians. In an estimate, a government official claimed that the P10 billion allegedly stolen by Janet Napoles was a trivial matter compared to the P1 trillion (12 zeros) stolen from the government from 2001 to 2010.

Next came the battles in Zamboanga. People have wondered how a small ragtag militia could gear for war and march on that city without the Armed Forces being aware of it, especially since there is a heavy military presence there. People also wonder why the military can’t find criminals, such as former general Jovito Palparan, And even more important: Why can’t the military find missing activist Jonas Burgos?
And then there was the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that jarred Bohol, Cebu and other areas.

Then came “Yolanda.” Day after day, as people watched the news on TV, they saw sorrow and pain, how fiercely men and women can love their children and one another, and how perishable we all are.
We saw people half-crazed with thirst in Tacloban and bodies of beautiful children lying dead by the roads. We heard of looting, and of a new species of criminal, the looter-rapist. Who would have imagined Filipino men taking food and whatever they wanted from poor women in a time of calamity—while dead bodies lay all around—and then raping the women? Many people simply sat and waited for death. And where was our Church? Where were the priests to bury the dead and console those laid low in sorrow? Bodies lay everywhere as if they were the usual garbage.

Some may ask, as Jewish people asked at the time of the Holocaust: Where is God?  God was there in Tacloban, receiving the dying children, the young parents and the aged into His arms. He was wiping away all their tears, as we are told in the Book of Revelation, and bringing them to their true home where there “shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If our economic elite, military, elected officials, and even the Church can disappoint us, to whom will the people look for leadership? To the same institutions—where else?—but these must recognize their weaknesses, and begin anew with the intention to reform. There is an old saying in the Church, older than the Reformation: “The Church must always be reformed.” The same need exists for all our institutions. If the Holy Church needs constant reform, surely our human institutions do, too. There are enough decent, hardworking people in government to do the job.

Reform should include the willingness to listen to all groups of citizens, including the poor. We should remember that in a democracy, policy is a matter of compromise. It is also said: “In a democracy, reform comes from the ballots of the poor.” To help shape the future, the poor must have better jobs and education than they have now.

At a meeting on Nov. 13 at the Ateneo de Manila, the urban poor of Metro Manila and fishermen from Laguna Lake began to play their role in this renewal. The participants covered three matters: 1) what to do when there is conflict between government and poor people’s plans; 2) what to ask of government, now that it is clear there is much more money available than they previously thought; and 3) what service will the poor offer society in the settlement of the pork barrel disarray.

The poor do not expect to become another Neda (National Economic and Development Authority), but they have the skills to analyze government plans and sort out what is good for themselves and the common good, and what is not. They limit their advice to those matters in which they have direct knowledge. The fishermen of Laguna Lake have begun to do this by rejecting the ring road dike around the lake that will require the relocation of 45,000 families, and the shorter Laguna Lake Expressway Dike that will affect about 10,000 families. They will examine alternatives and support those remedies for flooding on the lake that treat them fairly. They will oppose solutions that do not. The fishermen who were at the meeting are from the Calamba-BiƱan area. They have fished in those waters for generations, or at least since the time of Jose Rizal, who wrote about how much he enjoyed the fish caught in that part of the lake.

The poor realize that government has much more money than they ever imagined, so instead of pork barrel they ask government to widen the benefits of PhilHealth to include medicines, lab tests, ambulances, and other out-of-hospital expenses at affordable rates. They ask government to please improve the schools in poor areas, and give poor groups funding to begin to upgrade their areas—for example, their drainage. They ask government to review its economic policies and direct the economy to creating jobs. Finally they ask the government to make food available at affordable prices.

In return, the poor will organize to vote out of office all politicians found guilty of involvement in the pork barrel scam. They will make citizen arrests of people they know are guilty. They will cooperate with other groups in these matters.

* * *

For many years Nandy Pacheco and others have urged Filipinos to accept Christ’s peace in their hearts. This peace is the love, forgiveness, compassion and strength of Jesus. It is well described in St. John’s Gospel (Chapters 14 and 20). Christ’s peace takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. It takes away the sorrows of Tacloban and gives us Christ’s joy.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Urban Poor and the Pork Barrel Scandal

Urban Poor Associates
25-A Mabuhay Street, Brgy. Central, Q.C.          Telefax: 4264118          Tel.: 4264119 / 4267615
Ref:  Princess Asuncion-Esponilla      Mobile phone: 0908 1967450

13 November 2013. Urban poor groups composed of Urban Poor Alliance, Urban Poor Associates, Community Organizers Multiversity, and other different people’s organizations presented urban poor peoples’ views on the pork barrel scandal and related matters November 13 at the Ateneo De Manila.

Professor Prospero “Popoy” De Vera, University of the Philippines Vice-President for Public Affairs and  Senator Benigno “Bam” Aquino spoke to the group.

Jeorgie Tenolete, President of Kabalikat sa Kaunlaran in Baseco, Tondo said the poor were shocked by the amount of money revealed.

Tenolete spoke for all urban poor when he said: “If that money were spent for the good of the poor majority, nobody would be begging in the streets, nobody would be evicted because housing is inadequate, nobody would be out of work, no children would be out of school, nobody would die because he/she had no money for medicines and nobody would be hungry. Now that we know there is money, they cannot tell us anymore that there is no money for basic needs. We will do our best to make sure that the poor will never be an ingredient in a scam like this—we will organize ourselves to go against the corrupt.”

The forum called for extending Philhealth benefits to every poor family; by making sure each student in elementary school had free uniforms, text books, meals and transport; provide funds to improve light, water and drainage in the poor communities; creating jobs; and flooding poor neighborhoods with rice, fish and vegetable at affordable cost.

The urban poor also pledged action by organizing signature campaigns and rallies for honest government and in order to jail pork barrel villains within one year; organizing voters against persons known to be corrupt; putting a committee of urban poor leaders and NGOs into the six agencies that received the money that would have gone to the pork barrel in 2014 to monitor the utilization of the funds; work with Bottom-Up Budgeting, and make citizens’ arrests of corrupt officials.

Alice Murphy, UPA Field Director said, “this forum is a venue for poor people to get together, share their sentiments, suggest alternatives and at the same time be enlightened on the issue of the  pork barrel scam. We believe that by free discussions we can learn and with understanding of the issues we can come to commitments that will improve the condition of the poor through better public service.”

She said: “We will start by advocating PhilHealth for our poor people. Many of our leaders have PhilHealth but when the time came that they try to use the card and present it in the hospital, they find out that it was not funded. Many poor people die because they don’t have access to hospital care.”

Token From Kabalikat's Habi Bag

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Revolt in the Manila Zoo

By Denis Murphy
9:40 pm | Sunday, November 10th, 2013

When it was time to leave the zoo I sat near the giant aviary that is close to the entrance, waiting for my wife, Alice and our coworker Ivy to come back from the comfort room. I was close enough to the aviary to hear a group of eagles, flamingos and storks talking. They don’t move their lips or bills, but you can hear them if you listen closely.

They were very angry. The zoo was shabby, they claimed, and the food was not adequate. Worst of all, some zookeepers were cruel. The animals were going to take action. I heard the word corruption repeated several times. I leaned so close to hear that a stork said to me: “If you are really interested, hang around. We will have a meeting by Mali’s enclosure.” My wife and Ivy returned and we decided to hide somewhere and later on join the animals at their meeting.

There were close to 50 animals in a big circle. Their complaints went beyond food, shabby quarters and corruption. Mali complained she was the only elephant in the zoo, the only member of her species. “I am desperately lonely,” she said.
The overweight lady hippopotamus told the animals how ashamed she was when the visitors came and saw her. “I’m a mess. Look at my tail; is that a fitting tail for the only lady hippo in the zoo?” She turned her huge rear in a circle so they could all see the tail. It had only five or six long strings of hair. “Is that tail something you want tourists to see?” She seemed to imply the success of the zoo depended on the state of her tail. From the rear it looked like a giant guitar with busted strings. “We need personal caretakers and beauticians,” she said.

The oldest deer in the zoo told the group in the sad voice of old deer: “They are all gone—the lions, leopards, rhinos, giraffes. They are no more, but their cages are still there and empty, like gravestones. We’re dying off one by one, and we are not replaced. I see no future for us.  Empty cages grow in number. We are near the end.”
Then the stork I had talked with earlier moved to the center of the circle of animals and began to outline the action plans. They would kidnap five zoo workers when they came to feed the animals on Sunday. They would issue their list of demands, and if the authorities didn’t give in, they would feed the keepers to the tigers and the crocodiles. I noticed the crocodiles and tigers didn’t look so enthusiastic about this food.

The eagle read the list of demands. It included calls for better food, better cleaning of their cages, and an end to corruption. “Any others?” the eagle asked.

Mali said, “We need babies. We elephants need babies. We don’t make sense without them.”
“We need flowers,” the deer said.

“We need to discuss all those empty cages.” A ghost-like voice called from a tree. I think it was the red-faced Japanese monkey.

The eagle conferred with the storks and flamingos. Then he told the animals. “We’ll get to all of that—the babies and flowers and deaths and all that other stuff, but now we need unity. Let’s get those zookeepers.”

When I heard this brush-off of the older animals, I began to worry. Whenever I hear a leader say, “Not now; we’ll get to your problem later,” I begin to worry. Remember “Animal Farm” and how the pigs manipulated all the animals?
“No, no,” Mali said. “We have to discuss these things now. I am afraid if we don’t, we will forget about them.” There were several shouts of approval.

“OK,” the eagle said and the meeting went on long into the night. They discussed everything all over again and wound up with a list of demands that ran to several pages. The animals knew in their bones that democracy and solidarity must begin on day one or they never take root.

Then I heard the eagle call our names. He was inviting Alice, Ivy and myself to talk at the meeting.

I told the animals how impressed I was with the way they carried out their meeting. I told them humans had a lot to learn from them, especially their willingness to work on everyone’s problems and not just those of the more articulate.

I suggested that they not threaten to feed the keepers to the tigers and crocodiles, since they would need the support of humans when it comes to the negotiations. Everyone needs allies. Anyway I’m not sure, I said, our tigers and crocodiles are eager to eat them. Alice and Ivy spoke in a similar congratulatory manner. Then the animals went home: tigers and deer side by side, crocodiles and monkey, those who had spoken and those who had been silent. They helped Mali back into her enclosure. What a job that was! They assured the lady hippo she looked very nice the way she was.
They cared for one another and worked to solve one another’s problems, and they will succeed, we believe.

* * *
We all have problems—whether we are rich or poor, old or young, good-looking or not.  If we work together, give and take, compromise with one another and encourage one another, we can end pork barrel scams, find other ways to help the poor, and create a country of justice and peace. We can be as wise as the animals.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Draw Good from Evil

By Denis Murphy

One good outcome from the pork barrel scandal—maybe the only good outcome—is that in the future no government official will be able to tell poor people: “We don’t have money for what you want.” We now know there is money, and it’s up to the citizens and perhaps especially the poor to seek what is justly due them.

Janet Napoles is accused of having gained P5-6 billion in real estate. In addition, she most likely has money in bonds, trusts, cars, jewels, etc., and she is only one of a few hundred individuals who grew rich in the pork barrel scam. What is the total loot? Is it P100 billion? Or P500 billion? Then there is the Malampaya Fund and other funds we may hear about in time. Certainly there is money enough for hungry, jobless, sickly, homeless people and for young people who want to go to college as their way to escape poverty, or for people who want to start a small business, or buy a small piece of art to brighten a poor home.

Some urban poor people seek a way by which they can continue to get the benefits they once received from the pork barrel, such as help in times of sickness and death, but now without the corruption.

While the poor and others search for such a good solution, there are steps that can be taken immediately to lessen people’s suffering, now that we know there is adequate money. An example of such a step can be the widening of PhilHealth benefits to include all the medical needs of poor and near-poor families, and at a cost the poor can afford. We can make PhilHealth our universal-healthcare program.

Medicines and laboratory tests and other out-of-hospital expenses can be added to the benefits that people receive. Enrolling fees can be reduced, so all families can afford the program. A young man friend of ours died in Baseco because his family didn’t have money for a doctor at the Philippine General Hospital, and he was put instead on the charity waiting list at No. 176. He died before his turn came. The operation by the doctor who would be paid could have been done in a matter of days. The family also lacked money for the medicines and tests that the operation would require.

In the Covenant with the Urban Poor signed by President Aquino on March 6, 2010, there are sections on improving conditions in the slums, including legal electricity and water connections, more adequate drainage, toilets, garbage removal, and good policing.

Can officials chosen by the President negotiate with Meralco, Maynilad and Manila Water to improve the supply of light and water in all slum areas? Such an improvement—namely, legalizing the connections—can save families P1,000 a month on average. Can the government enter into a public-private partnership contract with a construction company or two for adequate drainage and environmental risk reduction measures? There can also be provisions for toilets and waste disposal. Much of this elementary construction work can be done by the people themselves if they had the funds needed.

Perhaps the most significant contribution that society can help provide our urban poor brothers and sisters is good policing. Drugs are the great problem. People have told me that “almost every day someone in our area is shot dead.” The bodies are left untouched on the ground for hours to make sure everyone has learned it isn’t wise to disagree with the drug bosses. The use of drugs constantly grows. For talented young men the drug business is the best paying and most prestigious work, and often the only work, available.

Democracy and human vitality die when drugs are powerful, and we may end up like the great cities in Brazil—hostages to the pushers and their bosses. The wider society must help, but the poor must demand change. It won’t come sailing into Manila Bay at sunset.

What should our attitude be to the politicians who have betrayed their solemn oaths and the people they are supposed to represent?

Hatred is understandable, but it is not enough. We must seek repentance on the part of the guilty, as well as fitting punishment. Luke’s Gospel has an example of these twin needs. As Jesus is walking on the streets of Jericho, he realizes that the despised tax official Zacchaeus is in the branches of the tree above him. Jesus says: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly for today I must stay in your house.” Zacchaeus came down and, realizing he was forgiven, said: “Behold, half of my possessions I have given to the poor and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.” (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was as corrupt as any of our pork barrel villains, and in addition he was a traitor to his people because he served the Roman occupation forces.

If the guilty ask forgiveness from God and the people and repay what they have stolen, as Zacchaeus did, maybe like the tax collector they can find forgiveness. Otherwise, there is prison.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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