Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Scanning face of PH poverty at our dzRH program, Fr. Nebres S.J. cited studies opining that English-speaking upper-crust Pinoys can relate more to CNN stories about US hurricanes than to Ompong's fury. A palpable disconnect among our people.

Mother-child health in ARMM
Poverty Alleviation Program

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 14, RM Awardee for Theater Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I interviewed Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., a Ph.D in Mathematics from Stanford University, former Jesuit Superior in the Philippines (1983-1989) and President of the Ateneo de Manila University (1993-2011), on the deepening poverty in our country.

Initial discussion of this topic came a week earlier, during the observance of the first death anniversary of  former Jesuit Superior Romeo J. Intengan at the Jesuits' Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches. Over lunch, Fr. Nebres observed that poverty is most prevalent in class D with its whopping 60% of Filipinos and class E at 30% , whereas wealthier classes A, B and C constitute only 10%.

News headlines back up these statistics, with Inquirer asserting that "Majority of Pinoys say they are poor."  PDI columnist Mahar Mangahas also cited that the SWS survey showed that from a low 42 % declared poor in March 2018, the percentage of Self-Rated Poverty rose in the third quarter 2018 to 52%, or 12.2 MILLION FAMILIES FEELING POOR (emphasis BOC's)."  As Mahar points out,  that's 12.2 million families feeling poor out of a projected base of 23.3 million families in the Philippines---a heck of a lot of poor families.

On the other hand, the impact of inflation, aggravated by the sharp rise in fuel costs, is now affecting even middle-class Filipinos, forcing government to recently suspend the excise tax on fuel.


I invited Fr. Nebres to continue our discussion on poverty in yesterday's episode of our weekly Sunday 6 pm. "Radyo Balintataw" program over nationwide dzRH---in order to help raise our people's consciousness about it. At the Jesuit Residence in the Ateneo  Fr. Nebres showed  us a short video film by Kara David about the family of a fisherman in Mercedes, a poor fishing town in Camarines Norte.  It showed a mother feeding her three children with bits of fish and shellfish distributed over three meals per day, as they awaited the father who had gone fishing for a few days. He had left his wife 40 pesos for the family's subsistence over the next days.

It was a heart-wrenching film showing children crying for more food amid the helplessness of the mother. As Fr. Nebres pointed out, that's a typical situation in that small fishing village, as poverty is most severe among fishing communities throughout our archipelago. Climate change as well as the destruction of coral reefs have severely affected fish catch, forcing fishermen to venture  farther and farther from the shores---and leaving their families in near-starvation. .

I shall show this particular film in my FB page after I share our interview with Fr. Nebres. Prepare to be perturbed.


As Fr. Nebres explained, from 1995 to 2015 poverty was very much the center-point of the Millenium Development Goals, aiming to reduce extreme poverty and hunger in 1995 to only 26% by 2016. Data comparing us with our neighbors in SEA, however, show PH clearly lagging behind. Indonesia's poverty level is now below 10%,  Once war-torn Vietnam's level used to be at 50% in 1995; now it's below 15%, while Laos is on track, according to the UN.

Here at home Eastern Visayas is among the poorest, and while the whole Mindanao has lagged behind, it's the ARMM that's worst hit, undoubtedly also owing to the political instability in past years.


Zeroing in on the school population across the country, Fr. Nebres cited the verdict of teachers all over---many children are going hungry, some worse than others. In nearby ParaƱaque, students said they take turns eating in their families; in Valenzuela, Bulacan, there are students who felt satiated ("nabusog") for the first time in their lives when the feeding program began there.

After Yolanda struck Eastern Visayas, Gawad Kalinga's Tony Meloto wanted to put up housing units there, but folks argued that by the time those units are finished, "baka patay na kami." It's the hunger stalking innumerable places in the country that appears to be the primary problem---not just malnutrition but hunger itself.

Gawad Kalinga  (GK) responded with what it has, in the Yolanda-stricken areas as well as in Mindanao, such as Basilan and Tawi-Tawi where some 5,000 schoolchildren are fed everyday---just part of the  estimated 100,000 being fed by GK all over the country daily. Some tycoons are helping to address the severe malnutrition. Other countries have also come in to help GK: in Bgy. Holy Spirit in Metro Manila, a group from the United Kingdom is helping out.


The Ateneo set up its Center for Education and Development which delves not only in brain development but also in problems of hunger, health and extreme poverty, such as in Payatas.

 Fr. Nebres spoke about the importance of nutrition getting to the impoverished mothers during the FIRST 1000 DAYS OF PREGNANCY onward to about 2 years of the child---so as to prevent growth-stunting and brain damage. To him, the problem is multi-faceted and the components cannot be separated: malnutrition arising from poverty that affects the child in its first 1000 days will haunt it all through its life. WHO statistics bear out the stunted growth of Filipino children.


What heartens Nebres nowadays is the growing involvement of local and provincial officials with these very real problems of their constituents from the poorest sectors. He cites Valenzuela in Bulacan under Rex Gatchalian which is feeding 16,000-18,000 poor children, constituting 13-15% of the population.

There's Compostela Valley in Mindanao under Gov. Tyrone Uy, where feeding kitchens have been set up. In the ARMM area there's Gov. Mujahiv Hataman while in Nueva Ecija, Dep-Ed officials are in the forefront of combating hunger and malnutrition.

There's also the "Pagkaing Pinoy Para sa Pinoy," a program filed by Sen. Bam Aquino and supported by fellow senators Grace Poe, Gatchalian and Chiz Escudero, that has allotted P3B in funds for day-care centers. In the House, Rep. Raul del Mar of Cebu supports the counterpart program.


Appeals are being made to the private sector to join the campaign to eradicate hunger and malnutrition especially in poorer Pinoy children's first 1000 days of existence, as this has a direct bearing on their brain function and stunted growth. There is, however, some indifference among the private sector---social classes ABC--- toward recognizing and acting on this problem.

Fr. Nebres cites an interesting theory about this disconnect of the upper classes with the problems of the broad masses. As an educator from the UK pointed out, it may be because the Filipino upper classes, especially the younger generations, speak in English and not in the national language, Pilipino, and the local dialects.

In contrast, he notes that in Indonesia there is only one language, Bahasa, the medium of instruction as well as the language of various tools of communication and culture such as newspapers, TV and radio.


Thus, as a result of this linguistic disconnect, many upper-class Filipinos tune in more often to CNN than to local stations---so that they are more familiar with the terrible effects of the hurricanes in the US rather than the typhoons in Eastern Visayas and Northern Luzon.

There is indeed real basis to be troubled by this reality-disconnect, and I for one plead guilty. I raised my children in English as I thought this would facilitate their entry into the world of education, business and commerce,  and now they, in turn, raise their offsprings also in English. Thus is the great divide among our people.

Enormous food for thought.