“Why do the poor choose to remain living under bridges, alongside waterways or railways, in the streets, in parks, cemeteries, and elsewhere even though they are very much aware that it is dangerous, dirty, smelly and in short, ugly? Who would want to live in this kind of place? Even we, ourselves, do not want to. However, we are powerless because this is all we can afford—and most importantly, these informal settlements give us access to places where we can earn our livelihood. Here, even if you have not finished school or had any education at all, you will manage to survive. Now about the people whose homes are demolished, why do they really come back to the places they were taken away from? What is really wrong with what the government has done that was intended to improve their lives? Certainly, the government wanted their lives to improve so they transferred them to a decent place. But if you really look at the lives of the relocated people, did they prosper, did their lives become better?” —Raul Detona, community actor in ATD Fourth World’s participatory research
Mr. Detona’s questions were among those that launched a day-long dialogue this week co-organized by UNICEF and ATD Fourth World. It brought together many civil society organizations, and members of the Filipino cabinet and other government officials—about 100 people in all. Undersecretary Francisco L. Fernandez, of the Department of the Interior and Local Government spoke of the vast challenge being addressed by the government: for their overall flood management plan, they have identified 104,000 families living in informal settlements considered “danger zones” along the capital’s waterways. The president plans to support relocating all of these families by 2016. Mr. Fernandez added, “Our economic growth has been very strong, but it hasn’t trickled down and poverty has remained the same here for two decades now.” The plan is for some of this economic growth to support fighting poverty and relocating families to places where earning a decent livelihood will be possible.
Undersecretary Jude H. Esguerra III, of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, spoke of the government’s humility in the face of this challenge. He referred to families who were relocated two years ago following a typhoon. “Today we have realized that even two years later, their children have still not been able to return to school. Some of their young people have turned to prostitution. And the local population in the area where they were rehoused was resentful of them for the overcrowding. We need to formalize our promises to the poor and to strengthen their voice in the president’s cabinet. Our agencies need to be more accountable.”
UNICEF’s Chief of Social Policy, Augusto Rodriguez, presented findings from an ongoing UNICEF study about Filipino children suffering from various dimensions of poverty. UNICEF co-organized this workshop with ATD Fourth World to create a venue where programs addressing poverty could be assessed with the input of their intended beneficiaries to help ensure that they really improve the lives of people in poverty.
Another of the community actors in ATD Fourth World’s participatory research, Charlene Igano, spoke more about the question of livelihoods: “Whenever we ask about livelihoods in the relocation sites, they tell us to learn how to fish. Do they think we are lazy? We have our means of livelihood: as street vendors, rain or shine we are selling in the streets. Some scavenge or collect trash to earn for their family. Here, even if we have not had any schooling, we earn somehow. But if we are transferred to relocation sites, what will our livelihood there be? If we ever ask questions or give ideas, nothing changes in the laid-out projects, the original plan is what is followed anyway.” Marilou Villota, another community actor, added: “I wash clothes for a living. My husband is a rust-remover for fishing boats. But no matter what our efforts are, often our work is forbidden. For example, to sell the paper we scavenge, we need to dry it well so that we can sell it at a good price to junk shops—but we are forbidden to dry it in the streets because they say it is not a pretty sight!” Other crucial issues addressed throughout the day included: what constitutes genuine participation in relocation programs; stigma and discrimination in school; and the issue of school fees and Conditional Cash Transfers intended to address these costs.
One of day’s co-hosts, Nina Lim Yuson, president of ATD Fourth World and of the Museo Pambata where the event was hosted, summed up the events this way: “The Philippines do not lack for people’s initiatives and organizations. The gathering of the UNICEF-ATD event at the Museo Pambata showed this. The Open Forum was too short as many voices wanted to be heard and questions posed to the civil servants (from education, local government, housing, social welfare, National Anti-Poverty Commission, etc.). That the poorest do not have a venue to share their own worries, concerns and daily struggles was a recurring thought, especially during the break-out session. Cora de Leon, former Social Welfare Minister, who was present told me that we must have more of these conferences with the poorest in the forefront. I also liked that Mary Racelis, moderator for the day, made sure that the English portions would be translated in Tagalog. The due respect and acknowledgment of the poor was there. I have not attended such a session before with the poorest in session, civil servants and persons working along with the poorest who had clearly come to learn from one another. It was a day to be well proud of!”