Saturday, July 12, 2014

Change the strategy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

In the New York City subway, there are signs telling people to notify a policeman if they see something dangerous happening: “If you see something, tell someone.” In Tacloban, there are hundreds of people, from all walks of life, who want to tell whatever “policeman” is listening that the government’s relocation plans in their city are loading one more disaster on the shoulders of poor people who have suffered enough.

As many as 20,000 families, who are still mourning the deaths of their loved ones in the onslaught of Typhoon “Yolanda,” as well as the loss of their jobs and homes, will be relocated from downtown Tacloban where they live to hills and logged-over woodland far north where there are no jobs. Most of the families will be sent to temporary housing, which is good for one or two years at most. Hopefully, they will be transferred to permanent housing within the two-year period, though there are doubts that the government can meet such deadlines.

This relocation plan violates the central lesson learned from the many relocations of poor people from Metro Manila in the years 1965 to the present: that you cannot relocate poor families far from the city because there are no jobs in these far-off places, and government cannot create jobs for so many people. Government is sending thousands of families, wounded in soul and body, to survive without work in strange surroundings, in deteriorating houses.

True, people can commute back to Tacloban to earn a minimum wage of P260. But by the time a family subtracts 20 percent of the earnings for transportation and other work-related expenses (baon, for example), there is little money left. We have also learned that a poor family cannot survive decently on a single low-income salary. The mother must work part-time; the children must help after school.

There is, however, no demand for washerwomen or manicurists in relocation areas; children can scavenge in-city, but there is no valuable scrap in a community of poor people. It is better, economically and socially, for rich and poor to live side by side. It may also be better in a religious way. Living side by side, rich and poor learn to know one another, which makes the Church of the Poor more feasible in our lifetime.


Are there alternatives? Thankfully, there are. There is more than enough idle land in Tacloban suitable for housing. The Bank of the Philippine Islands, for example, has printed a list of about 40 pieces of property it has foreclosed in Tacloban. Some of these areas measure 6 hectares. Some haven’t been used for 20 years. We had an engineer look at one of these 6-hectare properties, and he told us that very little money would be needed to prepare the land for housing.

This is a list of just one bank. There are other banks, businesses, government agencies and private individuals with similar land holdings.

A government that has concern for its poor people can make these landowners offers they can’t refuse, that can be well within the law and customs of a democracy. The Church teaches that God made the world for all. No one, no entity, can hold idle land which poor people need to survive. We are stewards of the land, not absolute owners in God’s eyes.

The people have suffered enough. In-city relocation is relatively painless. The people work with a contractor (government, nongovernment or private) to build the houses. They can decide what type of house and overall community development they want. They move in when the houses are ready. They can usually walk to work or take a short jeepney ride. All the services are available because the main water and light lines, hospitals, schools, markets, churches, etc. are already in place around the site.

To understand the uncertainty and pain of distant relocation in a temporary housing area, it is necessary to visit one. We were in the Operation Compassion (OC) relocation site in New Kawayan, 10 kilometers north of the barangays of Tacloban from which the people had come. We were there because it was raining and we had met two small boys shivering in the cold who were from the OC site and were out searching for firewood. We took them home and then the thunderstorm hit, so we decided to wait it out there. The 78 homes are all alone in an area of old fields and overgrowth. The wind and rain battered the houses that were shuttered up like turtles in danger. We wondered what the people would do if someone in the community had to be taken to a hospital at night. There were no vehicles in the community that we could see.

The storm passed, the sun came out, and the beautiful children spilled out of the houses to play in the street. It struck me that the children would suffer the most in the future in that relocation site. Food was scarce, some women told us, because community feeding was stopped a month or more ago. One mother told us she could live in the house for six months because she was told she would transfer to a permanent home in six months. She may be disappointed. The construction of permanent homes is moving very slowly in the government’s pilot project, which is also in New Kawayan.

How will the mother react when she has to stay a year, two years or more in that house? Added to all her problems will be the experience of living in a rapidly deteriorating house.


People in Barangay 88, 89 and 90, as well as people in the temporary houses outside Tacloban, say there has been growing hunger ever since the government and the United Nations agencies ended the community feeding programs. The expectation was that new jobs and cash-for-work programs would help the poor enter once again into a cash economy after six months of community feeding.

However, Tacloban still has a long way to go: Only 2,008 businesses are active now out of the 12,900 businesses that were active last year. Jobs are scarce. Fishing has its down seasons. There are no large cash-for-work programs organized.

With growing hunger comes an increase in petty crimes and violence. Perhaps it’s time to restore the feeding programs. Why were they stopped, in the first place?

Change the relocation strategy and resume the feeding programs, before it is too late and we discover that we have clusters of poor people close to death all throughout the northern part of Leyte.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Monday, June 30, 2014

Night rains

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Many of us lie awake these nights listening to the rain race across the city, wave after wave. We may be grateful for the dry homes we have. We may feel the hostility of the wind and rain and think of the poor people trying to get through the night in  kariton  hauled up on the sidewalks, or the people sleeping in doorways, allowed to do so by the security guards out of simple compassion, or the people in the shanties of the slums where mothers gather the children as close to them as possible to keep them dry and comforted.

We may think of the “Yolanda” survivors’ tents that leak whenever it rains, and we can sense the people’s fear that another typhoon is upon them. After some time we may realize very well that as a people, we haven’t done nearly enough for our poor brothers and sisters and their children. We can do much better.

Each city is supposed to acquire land and provide housing for its own landless poor. No city does enough. The national government is supposed to support the local initiatives with advice, funds and models. Despite the efforts of many good people, not nearly enough is done at the national level either. The country’s war on poverty is in a trough. Little happens that is very good or very bad. We hear a monotonous “no” from the government when working people, including teachers, ask for a salary raise. Land reform ends this month—unmourned, it seems. It ends “not with a bang but a whimper,” to use T.S. Eliot’s words. There is little movement in any direction. It may take a presidential election to wake us up.

It all comes down to the President to get something going. It is his team. Can he do something to renew hope in the poor that concrete good things will happen to them? What actions can he take that will kick-start meaningful development and recapture the trust in him that the poor had at the beginning of his term of office? I suggest that he proclaim land for the poor in four areas of Metro Manila. Others may have other suggestions.

Last June 7, 5,000 people led by Bella dela Rosa, Marlon Querante, Lito Tejada and Rowena Nevado walked 10 kilometers around the Manggahan Floodway to air their desire for a proclamation that would give them land tenure security and banish the sword of eviction that has dangled over them since the floodway was constructed in the 1970s. There are 40,000 families living on its banks.

Nearby in Lupang Arenda, some 63,000 families also want a proclamation. Arenda has grown almost unnoticed to the size of Cagayan de Oro or Dagupan. In Slip Zero, Tondo, a group of strong women has led 200 families on a 15-year search for a proclamation, and in Isla Puting Bato, 1,000 families want a chance at a new life.

Proclamations offer a new life, in that the poor get to own a piece of land that they develop with their neighbors into permanent, attractive and truly democratic villages. Proclamations don’t cost the government any outlay of cash, and they are very popular. They can be issued within a month.

The President has only one small proclamation to his credit. Why should we think he will proclaim land for half a million people in the four areas? First, he may have begun to listen to the criticism of his economy, coming from persons like Pope Francis. Rarely has a pope spoken so sharply on any subject as Francis has on the evils of economies like ours. Maybe the President, through his trips around the country, has seen that things are far from well and adjustments have to be made on his plans.

To proclaim the areas just mentioned will give many families a kick-start toward decent urban living, but, equally important, the proclamations will hopefully kick-start the administration toward a more direct service to the poor that will complement the many moves of assistance that the President has made for well-off business people.
A certain disenchantment has set in between the poor and the President. They like him and admire him for his honesty, peace-keeping and firm foreign policy, but he has become a remote figure. When was the last time he visited an urban poor area, or a rural barrio, or a fishing or tribal village, or a factory, to talk to the people? Such symbolic visits and conversations are important. How will the President know the people’s problems and their sorrows unless he listens to them? How will they know that he is aware of their problems and sincerely cares what happens to them?

Maybe the President will see the value of direct action and visit Negros one day with soldiers to arrest the hacenderos who use the law and violence to frustrate land reform. Maybe, he’ll go to Tacloban and see the poor families in tents that leak when it rains and turn into ovens when the sun is out, and he’ll take charge of the hunt for land for relocation. Maybe, people hope, he will realize he has done more than enough for the rich and powerful and must turn his attention to his poor brothers and sisters.

Such presidential action may invigorate the government and send a surge of energy through the ranks and bring back among the poor some of the hope they had in the early days of his administration.
Proclaim Manggahan, Arenda, Slip Zero and Isla Puting Bato, Mr. President.

We must work while we have the light, Jesus told us, “for the night comes when no man works” (John 9:4).
The end of his presidency and his great chance to help is drawing rapidly to an end.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Make it look easy, Indonesia

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

INDONESIA, the Philippines’ sister republic to the south, has solved one of the great cultural-political dilemmas of modern times: It has shown that Islam and democracy are compatible. Most talk on this matter focuses on the West and the Middle East and is very negative about the chances of the two cultures living in peace with each other. Just recently, for example, the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was seen by some writers as “the death of political Islam.” Indonesia has solved the problem and made it look easy. There was none of the riots, battles, or furious demonstrations we have seen elsewhere.

Wardah Hafidz, an Indonesian woman who has led national urban poor movements for years, told us: “It will not be Islam’s fault if it and democracy part ways. It will be the fault of the people’s culture and history.” Wardah views Islam from the point of view of the very poor, from which point of view both poor Muslims in Indonesia and poor Catholics in the Philippines see their God as the source of all mercy and loving care. They don’t see why that Holy God of theirs would be interested in politics.

We should remember that Indonesia is the third largest democratic country in the world, with 200 million people. Some 86 percent of them are Muslim, so it is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is a democratic and Muslim giant, so what happens there has significance for both democracy and Islam.

We were still interested in seeing how Islam was lived out in ordinary life among the people, so we went last May 30 to a political rally of presidential candidate Joko Widodo in Surabaya. Except for the language, it was like any political rally in Manila, Davao or Cebu. The grounds were packed with young and old, mostly poor people, but many well-off people as well, about 12,000-15,000 all together.

Widodo spoke softly, as if he were in a conversation with the crowd; he told jokes that had the people laughing. It took the people a second or two to understand the meaning of his jokes, it seemed to me, and then they laughed as though they saw then how the funny story could make a political point. He talked very briefly and then was whisked through the people, who pushed in to see and touch him.

It was his third stop of the day that began at dawn 1,000 kilometers away in Jakarta. He would fly to Bali for the final stop. When I asked myself what person he called to mind, I thought of Abraham Lincoln—that is, his manner and plain dress spoke of Lincoln. We’ll have to wait to see what he does for his country, should he be elected.

One night we visited a community along the Surabaya River. The government had allowed the families to stay near the river if they would chop three meters off their houses and build a road instead. They did that with a great deal of suffering, but now they have permanent homes along a lovely waterway. Late in the evening the young girls and women danced—this was the modern, naughty, total-effort dancing we see in Manila. Some wore the veil (hibab). I watched an old woman near me in full Muslim dress. Her face wasn’t covered in the way we often see in other Muslim countries. She was beaming like she would burst as she imitated the young women as best she could. Faster went the music, and she looked for someone to bump hips with. Alas, I was the only one near her. She wasn’t ready for that meeting with the secular world.

At a seminar I asked a young Muslim girl wearing the veil what the Koran had to say about the poor and helping the poor. Her name was Habi (Love). She told me: “Muslims are told we should be with the poor people. It is a demand to live in peace and modesty and to love and care for the poor people in need.”

Muslims seem just as much at home in the politics and democratic and secular world of Indonesia as Christians are in Manila.

Indonesians speak softly, even when they are angry, but that doesn’t mean they are all gentle people. There is a movement now in Indonesia urging people not to forget the past, and to remember the estimated one million people—communists, communist sympathizers, people simply interested in justice and a better life, and personal enemies—who were slaughtered by the army of General Suharto in the mid-1960s as he climbed to power.

Sri Wiyanti Eddyono, formerly of the National Commission on Women and a longtime pro bono lawyer for urban poor causes, told me that the people are also asked to remember the plunder of the Suharto years and the human rights atrocities in East Timor and Aceh, and to watch out that the friends and relatives of Suharto don’t rise again to power.
We, too, should not forget. The Philippines has had just as many sorrows and villains as Indonesia.

The people I met are well aware of the limitations of their democracy, just as people here are aware of this country’s weaknesses. They are especially worried about the growing income gap between the rich and the poor, and the strains it puts on democracy, and the growing power of foreign investors and multilateral lending institutions.

Most of all, the people we met wanted their leaders to be close to and listen to the people, and include the opinions of the people in their decision-making.

Leaders of the Philippine government also need to listen more carefully before they decide what to do with the poor. It is frightening in a way to find the government deciding how and where the poor in the areas devastated by “Yolanda” will live, when there has been almost zero consultation with them on housing matters, according to a recent Oxfam survey. Only 7 percent of the people interviewed in the study had been consulted in any way on the question of housing.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Urban Poor NGO Appeal For Respect to Land Rights

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 June 2014. Urban Poor Associates, (UPA) a housing rights advocate held a first forum on Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) or Republic Act 7279 to Yolanda survivors and International Organizations Friday 9 AM-12 Noon at the Grand Stand Session Hall, Sta. Cruz Street, Tacloban City. The forum is an appeal to respect land rights and to allow Yolanda survivors to have access to transitional housing in their existing places while in wait for the permanent housing. 

Atty. Ritche Esponilla, UPA Legal Counsel said, “The forum aims to provide understanding of UDHA / RA 7279 to ensure that the affected families will have an informed decision on their housing options.”

Celia Santos, UPA UDHA Advocacy Officer based in Tacloban said, “This is an effort to lessen the suffering of affected families living in tents by educating them on their land rights particularly on the right for an adequate consultation. Consultation does not happen in most disasters stricken areas based on Oxfam study.”

According to a recent Oxfam Briefing Paper on permanent relocation, 81 percent of the people interviewed “stated they are not aware of their rights regarding permanent relocation,” and only 7 percent of those interviewed said “they had been consulted by a government official at the barangay, municipal or national level about the relocation process.” (New and Old Wineskins by Denis Murphy, Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 29, 2014)

The forum supports:
1. Immediate implementation of the repair or rebuild on-site for transitional housing in affected areas.
2. Transitional housing for those who opted outside the affected areas.
3. Make public the correct land inventory per barangay so, that people can effectively participate in choosing housing and land options as mandated by the UDHA law or RA 7279.
4. Speed up the construction of permanent housing in safe areas with decent housing, basic services and available jobs.
5. In the meantime, put in place safe evacuation areas, identify evacuation areas per district if possible per Barangay, make a community drill on complete disaster preparedness program and to ensure that when disaster hit, there is an abundant food supplies for affected families. 
6. Respect everyone land rights.

Mary-Ann Guinoohan, a resident of Barangay 89, San Jose District, Tacloban said, “We are happy to be informed of our housing rights. This is the first time that someone explains to us that there is a law protecting poor people housing rights. We are hopeful that in the meantime, the government will give us transitional housing on the site especially that rainy season has started.”

The forum was supported by the Office of the Vice Governor, Commission on Human Rights, International Organization for Migration (IOM), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Community and Family Services International (CFSI).


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Urban Poor 10K Walk, An Appeal for Floodway Proclamation

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

News Release
7 June 2014. 

2000 urban poor joined today a 10 kilometer walk, to appeal to President Benigno Aquino III for a proclamation for land tenure security and socialized housing in the Floodway that will benefit 20,000 residents. The walk stretches from Taytay, Cainta to Pasig Floodway to stress that people has the right to live in the city. This is also a call to engage all affected families to demand from the government a just and humane response for safe and secure settlement of informal settlers families(ISF) living in floodway, Rizal.

The 10k walk was initiated by Community Organizers Multiversity (COM), Exodus Homeowners Association, Damayan Homeowners Association, Pag-asa Homeowners Association, Maharlika Homeowners Association and Alliance of People’s Organization Along Manggahan Pasig.

Urban poor along the stretch of floodway have long been a beneficiary of three Presidential Proclamations (PP) that aim to provide socialized housing. PP 458 and PP 704 were issued under President Fidel V. Ramos and PP1160 under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

PP 458 S. 1994 reserving portions of Embankment in Manggahan Floodway, PP 704 S. 1995 reserving a portion of public domain in Taytay,  and PP 1160 s. 2006 reserving portions of the Berm slopes of East and West Floodway. These were later revoked by President Arroyo through an Executive Order 854 in 2009, shortly after Typhoon Ondoy without sufficient technical and legal basis. 

Marlon Quirante, President of Exodus Homeowners Association Taytay, said, “We want President Aquino to lift EO 854 that totally revokes our rights for a decent housing. We have been crying for his help to implement socialized housing for families of floodway.”

Quirante added, “We have even gathered 10,000 signatures to support our cause. We are hopeful that through our mass actions President Aquino will be guided to act with compassion to protect our housing rights.” 

President Aquino signed a covenant with urban poor that set the legalization of settlement in Manggahan, Floodway. The covenant inspired the people of Floodway to develop a disaster-resilient community through a housing design suitable in the area of the Floodway.

In parting, Bella dela Rosa, President of Damayan Homeowners Association said, “We will do everything to push our on-site housing. In today’s walk, we also gave emphasis on the need to amend Urban Development and Housing Act (RA7279) to ensure that all poor people will have access to a law that serves poor people interests.”


Friday, May 30, 2014

UPA presentation to LOCOA Meeting

This video is the presentation of Urban Poor Associates (UPA) to the Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia (LOCOA) meeting on May 24, 2014 at Surabaya, Indonesia. It summarizes UPA work since it began in 1992. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

A thorn in the flesh

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Two fine priests were buried last May 17.

Fr. John Schumacher was laid to rest in the Jesuit Novitiate, Novaliches. He lies near his mentor in Philippine history studies, Fr. Horacio dela Costa, and the gathered bones of the Spanish Jesuits who had actually known Jose Rizal and his contemporaries.

Vincentian Fr. Norberto “Bebot” Carcellar was buried in the lovely cemetery of the Daughters of Charity along the South Super Highway. The choir of the Payatas children sang at the funeral Mass. Father Bebot began his work in Payatas.

Father John helped us understand Church-State matters in Manila in the decades immediately before and after the death of Jose Rizal and the Revolution against Spain. Father Bebot taught us the value of people’s savings in development work, not only as a way of gathering funds, but also as a means of organizing people and instilling pride and self-confidence in them.

We can imagine the two priests outside the gates of heaven later that day. They are a funny pair. Father John is 6’4,” Father Bebot 5’7” or 5’8.” They wear the clothes they had worn regularly in the last years of their lives and not the vestments they were buried in. Father John wears his pajamas since he had been in the Jesuit infirmary at Ateneo for years; Father Bebot is in the plaid shirt, black windbreaker and denim pants he wore to construction sites, meetings and celebrations.

Father Bebot peeks through the gates and sees the poor have housing as good as anyone else, so he’s happy. Father John looks for Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini and the other people he has written about. An angel knows what Father John is after. “Most of the people you are looking for are with the Filipino group here, but some are still appealing their sentences. We don’t have many Filipino lawyers, so the process is slow,” the angel says. Then he sees Father John’s jaw drop and adds, “It’s only a joke, Father John. They got this far, so they’ll be all right. Just some small matters of belief.”

We talk of our priests, but we know very little about their fears and sorrows. They suffer of course as any person does, but in addition the priesthood has its own sufferings. There is in every priest, I believe, what St. Paul called a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12: 7-9). He describes it: “It was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” Scholars disagree on what the thorn was. They think it might be anything from a physical pain to a very obnoxious individual. St. Paul asked God three times to remove the thorn, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Loneliness and depression are such thorns.

Jesuit friends tell me they have heard older Jesuits weeping because of loneliness. It’s disturbing to think of the old priests who should, we would judge, enjoy a peaceful old age, wracked with loneliness and depression instead. And there is no consolation. Such pain has driven younger priests to drink, or to seek love elsewhere. Loneliness can take the heart of flesh out of a priest.

In some places in the United States priests are ashamed to wear the Roman collar which identifies them as Catholic priests. So badly has the image of the priest fallen due to the pedophilia crisis in the Church that people now look on the priest with suspicion and even hostility.

In the Philippines, bishops have taken money from politicians, and even specified the exact type of gifts they want. This troubles a good priest. He can wonder about the soundness of his Church. Is it all hype and propaganda like so many other institutions, or is it truly the One, Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of Jesus? A group of bishops acting so cravenly can erode a priest’s respect for the Church’s fidelity and bravery.

Many priests today are saddened by the reluctance of the Church hierarchy to be more intensely involved in work for the poor, and the narrowing of income between rich and poor, and in the very straightforward struggle to save poor children from life in the slums.

If we appreciate the effort these priests must make just to hold together the tensions in their lives, we will all the more be amazed at their accomplishments. This country has had great priests from the first days of Spain down through the centuries, men of all nationalities who faithfully tried to serve the people that were given into their care. There have been rascals, but no group has done nearly as much as they have done for the good of the country.

Priests are not all easy to deal with. I offer these tips from my own experience:

• Compliment them on their sermons and talks, even if you can’t remember what they actually said.
• Be patient with your priests. It’s not a normal life they have chosen to live.
• Give them a thoughtful gift—a good novel or historical book, a bottle of good wine.
• Get together with other parishioners and buy him a good TV. The Cubao Diocese used to have norms on the sort of TV a parish council should provide its priest.
• Pray for him.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hard truths on housing

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Hard and unwelcome facts have put an end to many of the theories advanced to solve the land and housing problems of Metro Manila. History, like a good teacher, has examined our theories one by one over the last 50 years, and each time has sent us back to our desks to do better. We are all included in this learning process—the government, the United Nations, experts, nongovernment organizations, and the poor themselves.

We keep trying. A new theory proposed by a small alliance of NGOs and people’s groups, for example, claims that there are three rock-hard truths on which we can build a successful housing program: 1) Rich and poor are meant to live together in the city; 2) all of us, rich and poor, must combine the elements of both urban and rural living in our lives; and 3) land is so crucial to a good housing solution that its distribution cannot be left in the hands of the market.

To appreciate this theory, we should go back 50 years and take a look at its precedents. In the mid-1960s the government and many housing groups believed that the best way to end the congestion and the increasing unattractiveness of Metro Manila—families living under bridges, for example, who, according to the government, discourage foreign investments—was to relocate poor families far from Manila. Some relocation sites were up to 100 kilometers away.

Land at that distance was cheap but there were no jobs, and some 30-40 percent of all relocated families returned to live in even poorer, more congested slums.

Near-city, in-city

In 2010 President Aquino forbade distant relocation. If families must be moved, he ordered, they should go to near-city or in-city relocation sites. “Near-city” meant less than 30-40 km from Manila. The thinking here was that wage-earners would be able to commute to their old jobs in Manila from these sites and the problem of jobs would be solved. The bus fare to and from the near-city centers could be managed by wage-earners, it was thought. Most NGOs believed this was a good solution.

Four years later we are seeing that near-city relocation may not be the excellent solution we thought it might be. At a meeting on April 4 on hunger organized by the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, mothers from near-city relocation sites wept as they told those present that they had no food for their children. They liked the sites and the houses, but as one woman said, “We can’t eat doors and windows.” The women’s stories were so heartbreaking that most of those present cried—government workers, NGO staff, and the poor themselves.

The key finding is that a single salary of the type that relocated wage-earners can earn is not enough to support a family, especially if 20 percent goes to transport to and from Manila. The salaries they earn are very often below the minimum wage.

If the same family were living in the city, the wife could find part-time work—doing the laundry, for example—and the children could help out after school and on weekends. They could snatch at every opportunity for work that became available. This is not possible in a relocation camp where everyone is poor. Who can afford a laundry woman or a manicurist in such a place?

In summary, it looks as if the poor have to be relocated in the city, because that is where the work is. However, in-city relocation has proved to be very expensive, especially if we talk of multistory housing and the commercial cost of the land. It is very expensive and probably impossible to implement for a great number of families, as long as the market controls land prices, and we insist on total house construction.

There is a need to find a way to control the distribution of land, so that large areas can be set aside for free or at very low prices for the poor. And we have to concentrate on one-story incremental construction.

One way to control land prices may be to choose a person of unchallenged integrity and competence to make these decisions. He/she would be independent of the government and private companies. In the aftermath of huge oil spills in the United States, a man was chosen with the consent of the oil company, the government and private claimants to make all decisions on damage awards. His decisions were final. The scope of such a person’s work here in Metro Manila can be limited to lands suitable for housing poor people.

Side by side

Rich and poor seem fated to live side by side. In truth they need each other. We are one nation, and one people in God’s eyes. Pope Francis’ recent pastoral letter, “The Joy of the Gospel,” says we must learn from the poor about the mysteries of life (#198). How can this happen if we live 50 km apart? The poor can find jobs with the well-off as laundry women, manicurists, and gardeners. And is there a man so locked into his wealth that he cannot enjoy watching poor children play?

Also, we must combine in our lives elements of rural and urban living. Vegetable gardening is becoming very popular in urban poor areas. People love to see plants grow. People first put up mangroves to protect themselves, and then have fallen in love with them. They raise ducks in the mangroves. There is a growing suspicion of a city which is all condos, concrete, overpasses, tunnels, bus stations and malls. There is a growing longing by citizens for trees, shade, parks, gardens, fountains.

Some 300 poor women in Tacloban farm a hectare together. The women work happily side by side. The day is coming when the rich will build playgrounds where their children and poor children can play together and become “best friends forever” (as in the play “Maryosep” produced by Peta last year, which had rich and poor children playing together and becoming lasting friends).

Rich people get away to the countryside on weekends and whenever else they can. They are aware of the need for some time with nature. They would most likely cooperate with efforts to reintroduce the rural into our cities. Trees, flowers and parks are democratic in their very beings: They look good and smell good and are restful to all, rich and poor.

We found in the near-city relocation experiment that low salaries and unemployment limit the housing solutions available. For the near future we must plan for poor people. Our plans must work for the poor. Planning is for the poor; they are not required to fit into plans made for better-off people. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

All these need the criticism of others and practical efforts at implementing the theory. Who will bell the cat?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Monday, May 12, 2014

An Irish mother

Philippine Daily Inquirer
Denis Murphy

All mothers are the same in most ways. Up close, however, they are also all different: God doesn’t create any two things exactly alike. Irish mothers may not be for everyone. They spoil their boys and make a pact of solidarity with their girls, that is, like a stance of “we women against the unthinking world.” They give their children lifelong, unbreakable loyalties—in my mother’s case, to a United Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that she knew in the 1920s, and the Catholic Church. Injustice must never be forgotten, even in hell. At the same time, like the Irish men, they are storytellers; you never know if what they tell you is completely true, or has just a grain of truth, or is totally imagined.

My mother and the other boys and girls of her time in the villages of Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century could only go to the fourth year of elementary school. They loved school and the young women who came over from England to teach them. Those teachers were the only English people I ever heard my mother speak well of. (Classes beyond the fourth grade were in the towns and were too expensive.) Later in life, in a much different context, she praised the British army’s sergeants. She told me the IRA would have been more effective if it had some English sergeants.

My mother rarely talked of their farm work. They moved hay, I know, and managed donkeys which they named after English politicians. Life seems to have begun for them when the IRA battled the British army in the early 1920s in the first colonial uprising against the mighty British Empire. Her brothers were jailed; their house was ransacked by the soldiers looking for guns.

When she was already an old woman, my mother told me she once followed, for three days, an Irishman working for the English government, and then gave all the information she had gathered about the man’s daily schedule to the local IRA commander. She was still in her teens then, the IRA man in his early twenties. The Irish man she followed was shot as he came out of his home the next morning as his wife looked on. We were walking slowly around Riverdale in New York City as she told me that story, admiring the houses and gardens. “It was a house like that,” she said pointing to a trim little house almost hidden behind bushes. “We were too young. We had no right to kill that man,” she said.

She never really ended her war with the English. Years later she would buy a more expensive sweater made in Ireland rather than a cheaper and better quality sweater made in England.

When “the troubles” ended, she went to New York with my father who promised he would go with her any place in the world she wanted to go. That’s the kind of talk any woman likes. They lived on East 21st Street in Manhattan, which is now a well-off area but was far from that in the 1920s, when the Third Avenue EL ran past the tenements and there was an Irish bar on every corner. I was born and another boy, and then we moved from the drama of old New York to the Bronx that had only Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo to recommend it. They were more than enough of course for young boys.

There were four children when my father died and my mother began another long guerrilla war, this time with the NYC Welfare Department. We were lucky. The Welfare workers were the same type of polite Protestant ladies who had taught her in Ireland; but there were many things they didn’t have to know, including the presence of her brother who lived with us and helped financially. Luckily we had a long hallway in our apartment. Whoever answered the doorbell and found the Welfare lady standing there was to call back into the apartment, “It’s the Welfare lady.” The long hallway gave my uncle time to hide in the closet, while my mother walked slowly to the door to greet her guest and bring her into the apartment.

My mother had a deep personal belief in the Blessed Mother. I think she believed that only Mary really understood her problems. It was part of the solidarity she saw among women.

Two of her sons became Jesuit priests, the only girl became a Sister of Charity, and the third boy became a US Marine who fought in Korea and raised a lovely family.

My mother and the other Irish immigrants were all democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt was their hero, until on the eve of World War II, he drew close to Britain. He never lost their vote, however.

I was sent to the Philippines as a Jesuit missionary. After I had been here 10 years or so, I asked her where she thought the country was. “Down here Cuba,” she told me. There were things that mattered in life and things that didn’t.

She recited an old poem when her turn to sing or perform came during family parties. The poem is about a person returning to Ireland after a long absence. As the ship draws close to the Irish coast, she sees the dawn break on the hills of Ireland. You could literally hear a pin drop as she recited.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

Friday, May 9, 2014

New and old wineskins

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

April 30 was World Disaster Day. It was a day to which most Filipinos paid little attention, believing they already knew more than enough about disasters. Yes, we may know much, especially about the human suffering involved in disasters, but there are other aspects of the phenomenon we know little about, unless we are directly involved in the reconstruction.

From the beginning, for instance, there has been serious criticism of the manner in which the government has responded to disaster victims’ needs. For example, according to a recent Oxfam Briefing Paper on permanent relocation, 81 percent of the people interviewed “stated they are not aware of their rights regarding permanent relocation,” and only 7 percent of those interviewed said “they had been consulted by a government official at the barangay, municipal or national level about the relocation process.”

Sharing of information and consultation are the first steps in relocation demanded by law.

The government’s reluctance to talk to poor people can easily translate to actual mini-disasters in which people are brought to areas where there is no food, no jobs, no land tenure security.

Some people who work with the survivors of “Yolanda” believe that serious reconstruction problems can be explained by Jesus’ words, “Do not pour new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22). The new wine will burst the old wineskins, and the wine will be lost. The Philippines has attempted to pour the vast, unprecedented chaos created by Yolanda, the strongest storm in recorded history, into the old wineskins of our present laws and government apparatuses, expecting a good resolution. Despite the heroism of many people, the government in the most seriously affected provinces was overwhelmed. The wineskins were saved from bursting by aid from the rest of the country and from overseas. At best, it is bare survival.

We need new wineskins that focus the attention of our elected officials on the needs of the people, and not on the next election or other personal goals. There should be a provision for the appointment of new people who will have the power to cut through the red tape and rivalries that delay relocation and job creation. There should also be room for special provisions in law that will guarantee that poor people are treated fairly and are involved in decision-making in matters that affect their lives.

For the elected officials, the new wineskins can take the form of a change in their terms of office. Once a disaster is declared, the elected officials of the area involved will have five years added to their terms, during which they will not have to worry about elections. At the end of the five years, they must step down and stay out of politics for some time, for two years perhaps. They will be awarded a generous lifetime annual bonus, provided the people they represent vote in favor of their receiving the bonus for their good work during the reconstruction period. If they do not get the people’s vote, they cannot run for office again. Such steps, or similar steps, can help direct an official’s activities to the great work at hand and away from personal gain.

We need, as previously said, persons appointed to make the final decisions in all land disputes. And we need a person in each affected province to look after the needs of the poor. These persons will have the authority to remove people from office who do not treat the poor justly and effectively.

These suggestions may not be completely feasible, but at least they point to the need and possible nature of the new wineskins.

James C. Scott writes in his “Two Cheers for Anarchism”: “Perhaps the greatest failure of liberal democracies is their historical failure to successfully protect the vital economic and security interests of their less advantaged citizens through their institutions.”

The people of Eastern Visayas, where we work, prove those words: They had always been poor—50 percent lived below the official poverty line before Yolanda—and they are poorer now, having lost homes, jobs and loved ones. They will become still poorer unless the government does a better job of helping them.
We suggest that early on in the reconstruction work, the President meet with representatives of all sectors of people, province by province, and spell out in some detail what the reconstruction hopes to accomplish. Will the end result, for example, include land reform? What are the nourishment goals for the children? What jobs will be restored or created so each family will have an adequate income? Will the schools be improved, and how?

I believe the people would welcome such a meeting with the President.

In a way, disasters are a chance to begin over and, as the slogan says, “build back better.” Most importantly, we need people who will work with the poor. We need people who will talk with the poor, visit them, find out what they want, and help them as best we can to come together and organize. This would seem to be work that comes very naturally to the churches, especially the Church of Pope Francis.

It is good to have legal steps in place in the hope that we can, in that way, improve reconstruction work. But it is more important to create in our people a “fire in the belly” passion for justice and a better life for all.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Umbrella Walk for UDHA Amendment

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


TFUA umbrella walk calling for UDHA Amendments at Congress.

05 May 2014. Task Force UDHA Amendments composed of Urban Poor Associates (UPA), Community Organizers Multiversity (COM), Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies Inc (Philssa), Peoples Alternative Study Center for Research and Education in Social Development (Pascres) and various people’s organizations from different cities gathered today in front of congres, senate and other places to push further their call to amend UDHA.

Urban poor groups brought with them umbrella labeled “Amend UDHA Now! Promote Housing Rights!” The mobilization is a peaceful rally reminding the legislatures that the poor are closely monitoring all developments under housing and urban development.

Celia Santos, UPA UDHA Advocacy Officer said, “Umbrella is a symbol of shelter for most of us. It keeps us dry from rain and keeps us from too much heat. Our urban poor advocates wanted a constant reminder that they are bent in pushing UDHA amendments and they thought that there is no other best way but to use their umbrellas labeled with phrases of support UDHA amendments. This umbrella is their walking advertisement to the public to join them with their endeavor.”

The proposed amendments filed by COOP NATCCO party list Rep. Cresente Paez and Camarines Sur Rep. Leonor Robredo House Bill 2791  and Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino, Senate Bill 1874 will ensure that the rights of the poor for decent housing will be given a priority.

This bills aims to further secure the urban poor from eviction and demolition of their homes and from relocating them in distant places lacking basic services and livelihood opportunities, thus clarifying the definition of “resettlement areas” that it must be within and/or near city areas.  

It also calls for proper technical study and public consultation before declaring areas as danger zone/high risk area.

This measure will mandate government to set-up a Socialized Housing Commission with quasi-judicial power and authority with all issues arising from the implementation of UDHA law.

Marlon Quirante, President Exodus Homeowners Association , “For the past nine years that we have been pushing for the amendments, this is by far the most number of supports we had from the law makers. The implementation of on-site and near-city resettlement was also given priority. We are also hopeful that our people’s plan for on-site housing in Taytay, Binondo and Caloocan will be granted. We believe that through our proposed UDHA amendments we will secure that poverty alleviation and risk mitigation can be achieved by implementing socialized housings that agreeable among the government and poor people affected. 

Santos concluded, “We urge committees to continue to hold hearings as it move forward having the law amended.”

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