An accident of birth

By Jose Ma. Montelibano

Poverty-boy-cradling-a-brotherI am aboard an airplane bringing me home to Manila after two great days in Iloilo province. It seems that being busy and able to help Yolanda victims somehow mitigates the growing frustration that even I, an active member in the humanitarian work of Gawad Kalinga (GK), have been feeling these last two months. I wonder about those who were devastated, emotionally and materially. I wonder about the needy among them, how being born in the wrong side of the fence can still deserve salt being rubbed into the open wound of poverty.

The first stop was the municipality of Concepcion where a convergence of generosity will establish a new GK village. A landed woman of substance from the town and the Religious of the Assumpta combined their donation of land and funds. Then, Gawad Kalinga provides a vision, a community development template, and a heart ready to embrace the challenge of holding hands with the marginalized towards their freedom from a historical curse. The fruit of this collective endeavor will be families finding security of tenure and decent homes for the first time in their lives, and the first time in their lineage of several centuries.

There was a short program, a groundbreaking, the burying of a time capsule, and short talks by the key players who are making the building of a new community possible. Even I was asked to give an inspiration speech, and I accommodated as representative of GK headquarters. When I stood there, I knew the others who spoke before me had already mentioned the most important features. I really had little to add, and thought of just saying thank you to the donors of the property and the funds for the houses.

As I was standing there, though, I saw the future homeowners who had been listening intently to everything that the VIPs had to say. Quick thoughts flashed in my mind, thoughts that focused on their painful fate for having been born poor. And I quickly knew my fate was a sharp contrast, dictated by circumstances of birth as well.

The next day was our second stop, this time to an island barangay in the municipality of Ajuy, Iloilo. We were scheduled to turn over 55 motorized fishing boats to replace those which Yolanda destroyed last November. The turnover program was short and sweet, with the mayor of Ajuy and barangay chairman of Punta Buri extending their gratitude to the donors of Gawad Kalinga for their new fishing boats. But when the wife of one of the beneficiaries spoke in response, she mentioned that the fishing boats and the hard work of their husbands represented the future of their families, that the fish they caught enabled them to send their children to school, to one day become professionals and forever change the history of their lineage.

Again, I was confronted with the harsh reality who were born from the wrong side of the fence, the vast majority of Filipinos who have had that fate since the colonial times almost 500 years ago. Again, I wondered about the sharp contrast of fates – mine and theirs – all because of an accident of birth.

Does it have to be so? Does it have to continue to be so? No, it should not be so, it should not stay so, and it must not stay a day longer than necessary. An accident of birth cannot condemn tens of millions into poverty. I concede that there will always be differences between people, be it in looks, in talent or families they are born into. But the differences have no right to cast people into poverty, not by circumstance of birth. Not in the 21st century, not in the Republic of the Philippines.

Inherited poverty from inherited landlessness. A historical crimes that begs not only for justice but even just mere recognition of a horrible wrong committed against an innocent people. How can a government afflicted with amnesia ever get to rectify a wrong that they are not even aware of? Instead, like me for a long time, we preferred to believe that it is just an accident of birth, that those who have so much were just lucky to be born into that state, while the vast majority were just too unfortunate to be born poor. Because we believe in the toss of a coin to define wealth or poverty, the issue of justice or injustice is not even considered.

It now dawns on me that it is worse than malice or greed that has brought great misery to the majority poor who, with the OFW phenomenon, will still be close to 80-90% of the population. More than the evil in man, it has been his ignorance that has enslaved so many millions in the prison of historical poverty. He just did not know it was wrong to have so many poor in a country so blessed with almost everything. He did not know because he did not care enough to be curious. Then, why would the advantaged rush a social, economic and political reform in order to lose an advantage?

History as it happened must become the most important subject in school. A false history builds an unjust foundation and evolves a crooked values system. By simply extending an accepted assumption that an accident of birth can actually condemn the lives of most Filipinos takes ignorance to the point of stupidity. No, all Filipino children must be taught that right is right, and wrong is wrong, whether it happened in the 16th century or is happening now in the 21st century.

Our poverty is rooted in landlessness, our landlessness is rooted in a landgrab by a Spanish king, the landgrab becomes a forgotten piece of history, the forgetfulness begets the superstition that poverty is an accident of birth, and we cannot resist stupidity from converting a superstition into a fundamental basis of justice?

Wow, naman.

5 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Mind- boggling indeed …unbridled population growth , irresponsible parenthood account to the great poverty in the PH as well as corruption , graft, etc. Prevention of pregnancy NEVER abortion though. God please help our Philippines as the Filipinos do theirs. Amen.

  2. ben oteyza says:

    At least, in this article, where is Jose Ma. Montelibano coming from !?!
    Is he advocating, obliterating TRUTH and banishing poverty by the stroke of his PEN?
    No one wants poverty, and may merely WISH that it go away ! But that is being UNTRUE! Just as there is poverty, there is the BETTER OFF ! This is true even before Spanish colonial rule, or when the America granted independence to the island.
    I hate to compare myself. I was landless and homeless when I left the Philippines to come over to USA in 1956. But I have my diploma as a medical graduate. I had $100 in my pocket — that is it ! After internship and more training, I earned a medical license to practice medicine. I am now 83 years old with 6 children and 13 grandchildren. Including myself, and the whole family. no one has an hacienda, but we are assured a life of independence, paying income taxes, upon taxes and not on welfare!
    One, like everyone else, has the gift of life and talent to carve out a life among millions or billions of others, and make something — anything, out of life! Jose Ma. is not starving! He is not on a dole, and has made a life, he can be proud of! His children, must be following in his footsteps.
    I did not inherit a windfall … it was zilch ! Maybe Jose Ma did ! That is a bonus.
    One must not depend on anyone, or any government to enact a law that takes away from someone to give to anyone, unless that one worked for it. What one needs is the fair chance to earn whatever one works for !

  3. Mac Flores, Jr. says:

    I agree with the author – an accident of birth, yes on the wrong fence – why being POOR.

    Having been born poor to poor parents is already a disadvantage, more so if the parents lack education.

    If one is educated and supported by capable parents when young but become poor, nobody is to blame but himself/herself.

    The government and other concerned entities (i.e. religious, charitable & non-profit orgs) have big responsibilities to help the poor improve their lives through its continuous well-funded programs for this purpose, such as employment, education, skills and livelihood training, among others.

    But, why, despite the government programs we know and the presence of helping HANDS here and abroad, our poor bro and sis are still poor and some even become poorer? I leave to one’s imagination how the PHL government uses the people’s fund as one of the reason why the poor remain poor.

    Another reason why the poor remain poor is because of lack of will to rise above the challenges and limitation in life, assuming the person is physically able, plus the most important, in my opinion, trust in GOD through prayers for guidance and self-discipline to get there

  4. Guy Camacho says:

    Is Montelibano’s argument in blaming the Spanish land grants as the root cause of poverty, correct?
    While it is true that the Spanish enconomienda system created the friar lands and other land grants, it is equally true that the resulting haciendas introduced irrigated and scientific farming that efficiently fed the growing number of natives under the care of the encomenderos. This feudal nature of things was true not only in the colonies but even in Europe itself. We simply cannot single out that the Philippines historical experience as a unique case of colonial exploitation.
    Then the Americans came and put up secular and universal education which afforded the promising youth liberal education by establishing the University of Philippines and also revamping the Ateneo de Manila by kicking out the Spanish Jesuits and replacing them with American and German Jesuits. Other schools were also established. Santo Tomas Pontificate University was spared from the purged upon the intervention of the pope.
    Push forward 75 years later. From what schools are these political leaders, economists and jurists who dominate the government come from? Let’s name them – Marcos and his cronies, Macapagal-Arroyo and her pork scammers, the impeached C/J Corona and resigned Ombudswoman Gutierrez, to name a few. From UP and Ateneo of course!
    Why does Montelibano talk about the Spanish land grants without taking in account the performance of the government? Hadn’t country been subjected to land reform during Magsaysay’s time, then under Marcos’s New Society rule, then under Cory’s Agrarian Reform, up to Macapagal-Arroyo’s stolen presidency which budgeted billions to deliver the land to the landless?
    The sad fact is all these untold monies spent in the name of land reform were wasted and absconded by the corrupt bureaucracy of the departments of Agrarian Reform and Agriculture. Moreover, billions were supposedly poured into the construction of dams and flood-prevention irrigation dikes, for better production seeds and farming equipment, for extensive farm-to-market roads, etc. All these were supposed to make our farmers productive, much like the farmers in Taiwan or South Korea.
    But sad indeed. The two favorite milking-cow departments are now being exposed in relation to the fake Napoles NGOs which will likely indict half of the Senate and the lower house.
    Eradicating corruption in government is the key to solving poverty. Kung walang kurap, walang mahirap! Kailang ituwid ang daan. This is the more relevant discussion.
    Historical scapegoating by blaming the Spanish land grants for the poverty of landless Filipinos is off-tangent to the poverty issue, and counter-productive.
    // Guy Camacho

  5. apollodr says:

    Right on the money Guy Camacho. Having worked in the US for most of my productive life, the difference between the two countries (US and PH) is like night and day. In my 24 yrs, I have bought and sold several real estate properties …houses, vacant lots, gas stations, apartment buildings and not once did I have any problem that required a property court hearing. I can buy or sell a house in about two weeks without even knowing who the other party is. It is all handled by a neutral entity called escrow. In fact, I’ve never known anyone who ever went to court for any type of property dispute not unlike here in PI where the courts are overflowing with property dispute cases. Worst of all is the Gov’t endemic to these problems and lawsuits appear to like it this way. For instance two overlapping properties are both paying taxes to the same property and the Gov’t keeps accepting both payments something unheard of in the US. Until we straighten the problems of our Gov’t in issuing Titles, Tax Declarations and collecting taxes and keeping accurate records will we even begin to scratch the surface on a solution to our problems.

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