Government can’t hide poverty, but not for lack of trying

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If, as Jordan Belfort (the real life anti-hero of the Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street) declares, there is no nobility in poverty, neither is there any justification in hiding it. And we have it from an authoritative source — from no less than Corazon Soliman, whose tasks as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) presumably brings her in frequent eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the country’s poor — that “we,” by which term she means the government, can’t hide poverty.

Soliman was reacting to claims — incidentally made in two separate articles by the United Kingdom’s (Daily) MailOnline and the US’ Time Magazine — that her department swept clean of street children and other yagit (trash) those parts of Manila through which Pope Francis was scheduled to pass during his visit, ironically to hide the poor from a Pope whose main advocacy has been the mitigation of poverty.

It’s certainly true that one can’t hide poverty — but one can always try, and if there’s one thing members of Philippine officialdom is expert at, it’s in their dogged determination to pretend that the country is not poor but rich — an economic “tiger,” in fact — and that there’s no poverty worth talking about, much less getting so much as a glimpse of.

It’s an old and time-tested tactic to make it seem that things are better than they really are. Ferdinand Marcos and his Human Settlements Minister (his wife) erected whitewashed walls to conceal Manila’s slums from foreign visitors during the Miss Universe pageant in 1974. But part of that relentless effort has always been getting street children off the streets and into so-called Reception and Action Centers (RACs) run by the DSWD every time the country hosts visitors from other countries, only to release them back into the streets once the visitors have left.

Some street children, says Father Shay Cullen of Preda — a nongovernment organization that describes itself as “a Philippine human rights social development organization” focused on enhancing and defending the rights of children, women, the poor and the marginalized — have been picked up, “caged” in RACs (these centers have bars on the windows and locks on their doors), released into the streets once the guest departs, and then picked up again when the next international event occurs.

A photo of one of RAC’s guest children in fact went viral over social media in October last year, seven months after he was plucked from the streets and brought to the Manila RAC. The photograph shows the child — whose real name no one knows but who’s been named Frederico after the policeman who found him — naked, all skin and bones, more dead than alive, and curled in a fetal position on the bare concrete floor.

An online news site said the nongovernment children’s rights advocacy group Bahay Tuluyan posted the photo online and sent copies to President Benigno Aquino III, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, the Department of Justice, the DSWD, and the Commission on Human Rights.

That same photo found its way into the MailOnline article by Simon Parry (“Children CAGED to keep the streets clean for the Pope: Police round up orphans and chain them in filth during pontiff’s visit to Philippines”). The Parry article included equally horrendous photographs of the “caged” children, courtesy of Preda. (Several showed children handcuffed to poles, eating off plates on the floor, and detained with adult prisoners, which, say Bahay Tuluyan and Preda, exposes them to exploitation and further abuse.)

The DSWD has described the photos as “old” — if one can describe a four-month-old photo as “old” — without, however, denying the authenticity of the photographs, which, whether old or recent, are graphic indicators of how the DSWD treats street children, and raise the question of whether the RACs have been cleaned up and if the revolving door policy of getting street children off the streets and on again still applies.

However, rather than put some 500 individuals (street children and their families) in RACs, this time the DSWD put families from Pasay City, Parañaque and Manila in a plush resort, apparently because they can’t put entire families in RACs. The official point was to acquaint them with such amenities as doors and flush toilets, but which kept them out of sight during the exact same dates when the Pope was in the Philippines.

But what was the DSWD thinking? To what end did it vainly try to put a pretty face on the Manila of homelessness, street children and some of the most horrendous slums on the planet by attempting to conceal the poverty that dozens of foreign journalists have noted and decried — and with which presumably the Pope was all too familiar?

Manila is incidentally being considered as the site of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. Will the DSWD pluck children and their families from the streets again for “training” in plush resorts?

Almost everyone who’s heard about the DSWD’s putting street children and their families in a resort during the Pope’s visit agrees that trying to hide poverty by hiding its victims is a pointless exercise in futility. No one, however, has noted that making the poor aware of their deprived state compared to what others enjoy is the one quick way to inspire aspirations for change.

It doesn’t require any special capacity, only common human understanding, to realize that, whatever the DSWD’s motives, bringing people who’ve been sleeping in the streets to places with real beds, running water and flush toilets is at one level cruel and mean, and at another level provides those who have had to do without even the basics of existence a profound insight into an alternative to the lives they live, and practically invites rebellion.

Revolutions happen when the objective factors of economic want and social injustice that make change necessary converge with the subjective readiness to make change happen. About the existence of poverty, injustice and inequality independent of human perception there is little that can be debated. It is the subjective factor — awareness of those realities, and the mass willingness and determination to achieve the necessary transformation of Philippine society — that has not been fully realized for over a century.

Slowly, however, and bit by bit, such acts of State mindlessness as the DSWD’s decision to acquaint those who have nothing with another world and other possibilities are helping bring closer the coming of that day when the objective and subjective factors will come together.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
January 29, 2015

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