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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).