By Fr. Shay Cullen
December 6, 2013

One image that haunts me is that of Edgar. One of the poorest of the poor and typical of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos is Edgar, a street boy, skinny, emaciated skeletal, the human no one wants to look at. He was found wounded on the street. He had in his possession one pair of shorts to cover his otherwise naked body. He had nothing else in this world.

The Philippines, with its towering condominiums, wealth and opulence of the ruling elite is the poorest nation of Asia for its population size. It is the one country that has not made progress in reducing poverty unlike other Asian countries despite economic growth that only benefits the rich.

There are 29 million Filipinos living below the poverty line based on figures released by the government statistics office. The population is more or less 105 million and 27.9 percent in 2013 are living below the poverty line. This is almost the same as it was four to seven years ago.

The Philippines has not made any such strides and the roots of poverty are found in the concentration of economic and fiscal power in the hands of a few powerful families. Debt is a tool of control. The Philippines has remained enmeshed in the debt trap and makes no effort to throw it off. The Philippine government and their backers are clinging to an economic ideology that allows multinationals to exploit the economy and natural resources and makes them all richer and the rest of the nation poorer. The Philippine Congress passed mining laws for example, that gave the international mining corporations unprecedented privileges that many claim are unconstitutional. They destroy the environment with open pit excavations, cut forests causing landslides and disasters and entire villages and communities are uprooted and driven into poverty.

The poor are driven from the impoverished countryside to urban slums where their children, some as young as 13 years old end up in the sex trade exploited by local and foreign sex tourists with government leaders allowing it and profiting from the outrage. Tourism is more fun in the Philippines, they say.

Poverty is allowed to grow by the greed of the dynastic families that hold a monopoly of political power backed by the military. They passed laws that allowed members of Congress to have huge lump sums of money from the national treasury for their so-called projects in their constituencies. However, most of it was siphoned off into their private accounts through fake projects. The scandal has dominated the headlines for months as one sordid revelation of corruption at the highest levels follows another.

Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to meet the UN millennium goals to reduce poverty, the government has been implementing the Conditional Cash Transfer Program. This hand out project, despite its shortcomings, is helping to prevent poor urban families from falling into abject poverty. It’s a temporary life jacket to keep them afloat in an ocean of deprivation and hunger. What is needed is a pro-poor economic policy change that will put job creation for the poor and land distribution (with support), at the center of economic policy. The Philippines will remain among the most backward and poorest of nations unless there’s a dedicated pro-poor government in power and that is not likely in the foreseeable future.