Q: Describe the persistence of poverty in your neighborhood or region. What is the most important thing you can do to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty? Find at least one other person with whom you can take action that makes a positive difference. Describe what you’ve done and why it matters.
A: In the Philippines, 27.9% of the population of around 95 million falls below the poverty line. This is considered high, especially when compared to other countries that were in similar circumstances as the Philippines in the 1980s like China, Thailand, and Indonesia. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_Philippines). There are many probable causes, such as corruption. However, I’d like to focus on just one aspect (though still related to corruption, which seems to touch all aspects of the Philippines). Jeffrey Sachs (Common Wealth, Economics For a Crowded Planet) describes economic development through four basic stages: subsistence economy (mostly agricultural) to commercial economy to an emerging-market to technology-based economy. In the Philippines, one will find all four in various stages and sectors.
I was particularly struck by Sachs’ emphasis on agriculture as a starting point. He cites the Green Revolution in poverty alleviation (case study: India versus Africa). I disagree with certain aspects of Green Revolution: the use of pesticides, the potential over-use of fertilizer and the disastrous outcomes of mono-crops. However, I did see the point of poverty alleviation starting from the basics: moving beyond subsistence.
In the Philippines, land reform has been a failure, starting from the original Comprehensive Agrarian Reform (CARP) in 1986 under President Cory Aquino and the Extension with Reforms (CARPer) in 2009 under President Gloria Arroyo (source: http://bulatlat.com/main/2010/01/01/agrarian-reform-in-2009-more-of-the-same-failed-program/). In fact, Arroyo herself is linked to diverting funds intended for smallholder farmers to her political campaign in 2004 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertilizer_Fund_scam). This failure of land reform has led to the rising migration from rural areas to the cities, merely transferring poverty from the provinces to urban areas (source: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/38217/agrarian-reform-failure-has-led-to-squatter-problem-in-cities-says-urban-poor-group).
So what is one thing I can do as an ordinary citizen that can make a difference in this scenario? It takes more than just one other person. It takes a community of like-minded people. Recently, I joined a group called Good Food Community (http://www.goodfoodcommunity.com/about_us/how_it_works). The idea is to support smallholder family farms by buying their produce in advance. It helps farmers go through the trouble of learning and applying organic farming techniques while they are assured of a market that will buy their produce. This isn’t based on Esther Duflo’s randomized controlled trials (RCT) for the best use of the money that I am investing in this initiative. But what I do know is I am making a difference in a very basic stage of the Philippines’ development: agriculture. It is a small step. But as Pranab Bardhan says in his paper, Little, Big, Two Ideas About Fighting Global Poverty, “there are no general recipes or quick fixes for poverty. In their (the micro-experimentalists, aka J-PAL or Jamal Poverty Action Lab and RCT-proponents like Esther Duflo) judgment, small transfers and nudges can make a difference.” I agree. I’ve joined a small citizen-based initiative for now. But this model is replicable and actionable. I think, with a little more time and a lot of social sharing, this is a step towards poverty alleviation in my country.
Note: I am currently taking up a course boldly called How To Change The World offered by Wesleyan University (offered for free through Coursera.org) and taught by Wesleyan University President, Michael S. Roth. It tackles major issues facing humanity and it is based on discussions brought up during the 2013 Social Good Summit in NY. I am putting up all my assignments on my blog as well.