The real scandal

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A Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) pastoral letter describes poverty in the Philippines as a “social scandal” for which government bears responsibility. But it declares that “we cannot just blame government. We need to understand our role in it, our personal responsibility for it in our individual lives and shared cultures.”

What can “we” do? CBCP President Socrates Villegas said what was needed among the Catholic faithful was “a change in attitude” and implied that they have to share what they have with their poorer brethren. He also asked the bishops to be socially active: “If contemplation does not lead to action for justice and charity, it might have really become the ‘shabu’ of the bishops, an addictive flight from reality.”

Since many if not most Filipinos are poor — current estimates range from a low of 30% of the population to a high of 50% — was the CBCP, first of all, addressing only the middle and wealthy classes rather than the poor themselves? It’s obvious enough, the poor who have little or nothing to share, being, in the CBCP view, the recipients of charity rather than its givers. If anyone must change their attitude, it is the more fortunate as well as the corrupt who have enriched themselves by plundering the public treasury for decades — or so says the CBCP.

But is it the lack or shortfall in charity, or the refusal to share one’s wordly goods with those who have little or nothing at the heart of the persistence of poverty? The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says that among the causes of poverty despite relatively high economic growth is “high and persistent levels of inequality in incomes and assets which dampen the positive impacts of economic expansion.” (The ADB, incidentally, also mentions the country’s high population growth rate as a factor in the persistence of poverty in the Philippines.)

The ADB doesn’t say so, but the basis of inequality is the skewed system of wealth distribution that’s not only based on the archaic land tenancy system but which over the decades has also assigned much of the corporate wealth to a handful of elite families.

Social inequality, as one of the prime determinants of the poverty that afflicts millions of Filipinos, can’t be addressed through charitable works, and is a matter only government can address through the crafting and implementation of appropriate laws, such as, for example, a law abolishing land tenancy altogether that will brook no exceptions. But the country’s legislative bodies have made sure over the decades since 1946, and despite the opportunity offered by EDSA 1, that any law addressing the land problem would either be so full of loopholes or shot so full of exemptions it would be practically useless.

The primary reason lies in the character of the Philippine Congress and the rest of the government, which is dominated by landed members and their representatives, particularly the political dynasties whose members have been merrily exchanging among themselves seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Executive Branch and local governments for years.

And yet there’s a Constitutional provision (Article II Section 26) banning political dynasties: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

The catch is that an implementing law has to be passed to define political dynasties — by the very same Congress where the dynasties reign. In the absence of such a law, and as a result of the introduction of an anti-dynasty bill in the House of Representatives, the politicos who’re members of such dynasties have been going to town providing their own self-serving definitions of it.

Senator Nancy Binay, whose sister Abigail is in Congress, whose brother Jejomar Jr. is mayor of Makati City, and whose father Jejomar is Vice-President of the Philippines, argued, somewhat disingenuously, that an anti-dynasty bill “may limit what the Constitution says about who can run. It may also go against the principle of Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”

The point of Article II Section 26 is that the existence and dominance of political dynasties have prevented others who are not members of political dynasties from running for office. While a ban on political dynasties would conceivably bar certain of their members from running, it would widen the field of choice for the electorate rather than constrict it. The argument that it would “go against the principle” of “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” on the other hand, is incomprehensible because totally irrelevant.

And then there’s Senator “Bam” Aquino — whose cousin Benigno III is President of the Philippines, whose uncle Jose Cojuangco is a former congressman, and whose aunt Margarita, Jose’s wife, was a congresswoman (both are in other capacities in government), Aquino had his own definition of political dynasty when he ran for the Senate and won in 2013: “If you look at a dynasty as a family with a vested interest, which has a territory it protects, I don’t think we (the Cojuangcos and Aquinos) are not a dynasty.”

Every political family has some interest to protect, whether it is Hacienda Luisita or some other source of wealth and lives of ease. As a system of inherited power, the dynastic order in the Philippines makes sure that those interests are protected and even enhanced by the succession of the political dynasty’s members to positions of power, whether in Congress, local government, or the Executive Branch. That’s why, in the first place, they’re in government and cling to various posts like barnacles: they went into it to protect those interests, and remain in government for that same purpose.

As a result, no attempt to change anything that can challenge those interests prospers, whether in Congress, local government or the Executive Branch, precisely because the members of the dynasty guard those interests through their exercise of the prerogatives of their respective offices. Despite appeals from House sponsors of the anti-dynasty bill, not surprisingly, for example, has Benigno Aquino III refused to declare it a priority measure.

Poverty may be a social scandal, but the monopoly over political power by a handful of dynasties to the exclusion of other men and women equally or even more capable, and what’s more, have no established interest to protect other than the public’s, is the real scandal.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
January 30, 2014

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