Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Social Justice and the Dignity of the Poor

In The Filipino Search for Meaning (1974), Fr. Vitaliano Gorospe, S.J., poses this fundamental point of inquiry: "How many Filipinos are really free to take into their own hands their own development and destiny and achieve by their own efforts the full human life to which they aspire?" (p.427) This question above is crucial in the issue of social justice. The ideal of social justice, as a matter of principle, is "based on the dignity of the human person", and incontrovertibly, includes "the relationship of the person to the material world and to the socio-economic structures of society." (p.438)

The 2013 National Budget proposal of the present administration allocates 45 billion pesos for the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program, otherwise known as the Pantawid Pamilya Program. Before anything else, let us mention the purpose of the program as envisioned by the Department of Social Welfare and Development:

"The Pantawid Pamilya is a human development program of the national government and a social protection strategy that invests in the health and education of poor children age 0-14 years old. This year, 7.5 million children under the program are provided with cash assistance to support their health and educational needs for as long as their households meet the conditions of the program. The conditions of the program include pre- and post –natal visit of pregnant women, regular health checks for children, attendance to family development sessions (FDS) of parents, and minimum 85% attendance of children in school." (

It can be argued by the PNOY government that making the CCT program work should help guarantee the most basic entitlement of people under any democratic system – respect for their humanity. The CCT can be construed as a matter of right, i.e., the right "not to be hungry", to borrow from Amartya Sen. It can be said that numbers or the many economic assumptions may be very ambiguous at this point. The right thing to do, in this regard, is to introduce people, especially the very poor or the poorest of the poor, to fundamental opportunities that will ultimately untie them from the fetters of poverty.

The program is good, but there are serious doubts about it. The problem lies in the fact that the Pantawid Pamilya Program does not address the root cause of poverty - our unjust and inequitable economic system. At the outset, critics will say that it is more prudent to use this budget to fund the construction of schools, hospitals, roads and many others. Basically, the argument against it is built upon the standard idea in development theory that income is not equal to "well-being achievement". Simply put, the idea is that the CCT is a "butas na balde", metaphorically suggesting that the CCT can be money down the drain, for it teaches people dependency. In short, it does not really empower them.

But the CCT is not really wrong. However, the thing really is that it will not solve the problem of poverty. The informational basis of human welfare remains crucial in this regard. Theorists like Albina Sakire (2002) of Oxford and Des Gasper (2004) of the Dutch Institute for Social Studies argue that development means that people need to be empowered, they need shelter, and many other bundles of social goods. Martha Nussbaum adds the need for "imaginative thought", "rational decision making" and "human creativity" in order to secure the good life. The CCT, it seems, does not address even a modicum of these requirements. In addition, there are problems linked to CCT programs worldwide. The World Bank, in a report about the program, for instance, says that:

"Much exclusion was due to remote communities' inability to access schools or clinics. Many such communities fall into developing countries' most poverty-stricken populations but cannot follow through with conditionalities since the transportation costs to attend schools or hospital visits outweigh the benefits."

Upholding the dignity of the poor

The spirit of democracy calls upon the basic institution of government as a fundamental principle to uphold the dignity of the poor. While our economic circumstance can be a very strong determinant in the moral choices that we make, what is basic here is that we need to address the situation and rise above our individual selves and consider the plight of the least advantaged. But does the CCT uphold the dignity of the poor? It does not. It only provides a palliative and temporary relief to their miserable lives. Instead, the question that we must reflect on, to quote Fr. Gorospe, is this:

"Is the ordinary Filipino really free to choose a job which will provide for him and his family a decent livelihood and the opportunity to develop fully as a human person?" (p.427)

The problem really is that in our pursuit of the good life, the basic structure should not allow the kind of situation wherein people, especially the poor, are controlled or dictated upon by coercive systems and manipulative arrangements in the economy. The CCT does not in any way address the more fundamental problem here - economic injustice in Philippine society. In addition, the CCT also does nothing to morally empower the poor. It is rather an admission that the government cannot really do something to make economic arrangements more equitable and pro-poor. Think, for instance, of oil deregularization, labor contractualization, and the commercialization of education as impediments to the real and all-inclusive growth of household incomes.

The program against corruption, while fundamentally important and laudable, is not expected to generate immediate results and considerable impact in the well-being of the poor. That the government is corrupt speaks of the lack of empowerment of its people. Still, the issue is power. Those people who occupy high positions influence the judiciary. They can hire the best lawyers, pay judges, and delay the delivery of justice on technical grounds. The poor do not have anything within their means to change this.

Social justice mandates that people who live in extreme poverty should be considered as a moral burden. From the point of view of the family as a basic unit of society, recognizing the value of human life begins in the affirmation of parents of their moral responsibility to their children. Love and commitment need to be translated into concrete terms, e.g. the education of children. The Pantawid Pamilya Program can be of assistance, but it is largely symbolic. This is because it cannot have an influence on parents in a very huge way for them to realize their moral obligation to their children. In short, it will not change the lives of the poor.

Does CCT serve the role of justice?

It can be said that the CCT program, beyond any theory for that matter, intends to bring the government directly to the people. The motive is for implementing the program, from a practical end, is to help targeted recipients who have no means otherwise to survive the calamity of extreme poverty.

Before we address the problem at hand, let us first elaborate why poverty is a moral issue. The argument is that poverty is a scandal to any democracy. The very foundation of the moral ideal of democracy is human happiness. The poorest of the poor, being human, are entitled to just and fair treatment for them to be able to enjoy the good life. This is because the human person is at the core of the moral good. To quote from John Rawls, theoretically, the subject of justice, is concerned with "the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties”, including, Rawls states further, the need to “determine the division of advantages from social cooperation”.

But Thomas Nagel is right, "we do not live in a just world." On a personal note, this should not mean that we mustn't do anything to change the lives of the least of our fellowmen. The poverty of our people calls upon us to act collectively. This collective sense of duty means Filipinos going out of their private lives in order to recognize the need of millions of poor families. It is not a matter of fate that opportunities for the poor to live better lives don't exist. We are all a party to this crime against their humanity. Matthew 25:40: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me".

From the point of view of the basic structure, beyond the mere pragmatic end of uplifting the standard of living of people, the real goal of any government should be the emancipation of its people from the chains of poverty. The rights of others not to be excluded from development, more than anything else, mandates that our basic institutions must work for the full realization of the happiness of the least advantaged. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, puts it this way: "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others."

Indeed, equal justice for all, should be the core principle of any just government. The poor should not be reduced into that expendable collateral for and in the name of progress. A decent life for every Filipino means recognizing their basic entitlements which must be translated into real programs. This urgency is brought about by the fact that, as suggested by Jeffrey Sachs (2005), "growth may enrich households linked to good market opportunities but it may bypass the poorest of the poor...because they lack the requisite human capital - good nutrition and health, and adequate education."

But the undeniable fact is that the elite sector in Philippine society controls, abuses and manipulates the poor for their own selfish ends. How can our social institutions then act in such a way that they will finally contribute to the well-being of each person and not just for the very few? While it can be said that the CCT is window of opportunity for the poor, it will not really free them from the fetters of material insecurity. It does, for a day or two, but our real concern really is the future of our people. There can be no true liberty without justice in society.

While common sense tells us that social institutions should have, as a fundamental role, the preferential option for the poor, the CCT is like putting some bubble gum to a pipe that is about to explode. In our effort to create a more egalitarian world, we do not simply have to be compassionate, we also have to be intelligent and strategic. While it can be asserted that the CCT, as an instrument to realize the meaning of social justice, makes manifest that social institutions are not "heartless", the point is that it will not be sustainable in the wrong run, for we expect the population of the poor to balloon to considerable levels. While human development programs must show forth the care, love, and moral concern of the government for the people and that poor families must never abandoned in the name of efficiency or numbers, economic growth should come from innovation, competitive markets, and just wage structures.

While there is nothing wrong in saying that the CCT respects the poor, the greater meaning of this respect must be by giving them protection from the ills of unemployment or lack of education. Justice, which is realized in the judicious performance of the functions of the institutions people create to establish order in society, is made manifest in the way basic institutions fulfill its functions. Our government fails in this criterion.

Thus, valuing equality should not only mean addressing the immediate assistance needed by the sick, the street-child or the hapless victims of human poverty. People can consider CCT as a gift of love. But the enemy remains in the horizon - our unjust and unfair social, economic and political arrangements. Unless every poor kid will have that opportunity to finish college from a good school, be voted into office, and thereby implement programs that will address the concerns he had before, then we are far from being the kind of society our great men and women have envisioned this country to be.