Yesterday morning, we heard the bands playing. This is not unusual in our town: A lot of funerals hire bands to march with the departed to the cemetery, and since the Palenke (open air market) burnt down last year, and many of the shops moved to the sidewalks of the main streets a block away, we get a lot of traffic around our house.

But this wasn’t a funeral, it was a parade: A small one, with bands playing cheerful songs, and some floats with  the usual beautiful girls, sitting under small traditional thatch roofs. Some floats had small traditional huts, farmers with water buffalo, farmers carrying trays of rice seedlings, and one float even had the “mosquito spray man” who sprays irrigation ditches to stop Dengue fever, a major problem here.

Along with the bands and floats marched the civic groups, wearing the usual work clothes: teeshirts with the logos of their group, and jeans. Maybe in Malaysia and other tourist areas people still wear colorful costumes, but here except for fiestas, the usual dress is jeans and teeshirts and rubber thong sandals, usually from China, that are washable, durable and cheap.

The teeshirts proclaimed the origin of the marchers: they were farmers, and some had the logo of San Isidro (the patron saint of farmers) the name of their neighborhood, and some with the logo of the Microfinance bank.

How does one fight poverty?

When I was in college, Marxism or socialism was supposed to be the way to do it, and so the naive supported lots of “wars of liberation” and condemned big companies. Ah, so easy. Utopia tomorrow. Well, fifty years has shown that these easy answers that don’t seem to work well when they have been tried.

Of course, with the latest economic downturn, globalization may not be a panacea either, but nevertheless for most countries (excepting the countries run by tyrants or those with civil wars) the average person today is a lot less destitute than in the past. One doubts thateven a major depression will approach the starvation level poverty of the 1930’s that my husband remembers.

But capitalism and globalization, which has lifted many countries out of poverty, has one side effect of making opportunities for the middle class to prosper while leaving behind the poor, those in rural areas, and the traditional farmers. So how does one try to improve their lives?

Improving the infrastructure is one: concrete roads that remain passable in the monsoon season, electricity to villages, cellphone towers so people can text, and maintaining the irrigation system so farmers can plant two crops a year. Improving schools is another. Land reform is a third way, so that small farmers can own and get a profit from their own land.

But then what?

One answer is microfinance. This allows farmers and small entrepeneurs to get low interest loans to expand their businesses or to improve their farms or to cover other expenses such as school fees or funeral expenses.

Traditionally, in the Philippines, if one needs money, you borrow from family and friends. Often the entire family is able to improve their standard of living because one of the girls goes to work as a maid in HongKong, or a nurse in Saudi. Western Union has shops all over for such money transfers, and a lot of banks allow deposits in their foreign office to be transferred here to local offices so that the family can easily use the ATM when they need cash.

The second alternative is pawnshops. Pawn the cellphone or the earrings for some money.

Or you can go to the high interest money lender.

Microfinance gives another alternative. The Microfinance office is down the street from us (we live in the center of town, not in the newer gated communities). Usually it is crowded there in times before planting season, so farmers can get loans for fertilizer, hybrid seedlings, high quality seed, or to buy or repair their handplows, which are large rototillers that have largely replaced the picturesque waterbuffalo to do the hard work of preparing the rice fields for planting.

There are even mobile microfinance vans, and cellphone money transfer offices that enable more isolated villages to be part of the financial system. (In developing countries, it is cheaper to build a cellphone tower than to string wires, and cellphones are cheap enough that here even farm families pool together to buy one. One unreported story is the proliferation of cellphones and how it has changed village life).

We are in the rice growing area, but with globalization, often rice from VietNam or other countries underprices the local product. As a result, one of the big projects that the government is encouraging is to grow vegetables and fruits for the growing population in Manila. Another project is using green houses for seedlings, plastic mulch instead of herbicides, and irrigation in the dry season to grow organic vegetables for the growing middle class.

This doesn’t even include the “small business” improvements helped by investing in small shops: we have a “one town one product” idea, and our town produces sandals of all shapes and sizes, especially high fashion sandals for women. They are a bit more expensive than the cheap rubber “flip flops” used for every day,  but cheaper than the alternative, which is imported sandals from Korea (which I have to buy, because my feet are so large).

One of the ironies of course is that where there is money there is graft, and right now, despite pleas from the President to stop playing politics and pay attention to the economy, the big scandal of the day is the fertilizer scandal.

It seems that in 2004, the Secretary of Agriculture took/borrowed/diverted 728million pesos (about 14 million American dollars) from the fertilizer fund right before the important election, which included electing the President, and gave it to a lot of politicians.

A lot of people suspect the money was diverted to fund their reelection campaigns, but the details are missing since the culprit hightailed it off to the US and only recently was extradited back to testify. He is now back and claims the President had no knowledge of the funny transfer, which is why the President is trying to get Congress to work on more important things.

It was a typical scam, mixing good with bad: The Secretary of Agriculture gave money to government officials to buy and distribute fertilizer. A lot of the money was never accounted for. Some politicians actually bought fertilizer to distribute, but bought it at a huge overprice from “organizations” and got a kickback of the difference. Some who got the money came from cities who couldn’t use fertilizer, and presumably used it for local improvements not authorized under the funds. And some just got the liquid fertilizer, and had their staff distribute it to farmers in their district (benefitting the farmers, who then of course would vote for the politician who helped them).

That is why I am always cynical about politicians asking government to government transfer of money to aid poor countries: you have to remember that sometimes the money wanders away from those you think you are helping.


NGO’s and church charities are much less likely to steal your money, and make sure it gets to those who need it. Even if it only goes to a “church” that uses it to preach, remember, often these churches help in various ways, such as schools, small projects, and teaching morality(thou shalt not steal) to a growing middle class.

Here in the Philippines, society is changing from a feudal economic system, where families run provinces, to an economy run by the growing middle class.

There are many ways to break into the middle class: The most common one, alas, is to work overseas, which is why there are so many Filipina nurses all over the world. But with seed money, from microfinance, or from relatives, the entrepeneurs are starting to thrive.

There are business groups that teach business techniques and discuss marketing, and there are groups, both civic and church organizations, that stress the importance of honest business practices to the growing middle class. Perhaps in another generation, when the older feudal families are replaced by entrepreneurs, graft will get under control and the Philippines will be able to use it’s workers here instead of exporting them to Alberta or Dubai.

In the meanwhile, despite corruption, one has to remember that most of the government officials are working hard to help get people out of poverty, despite the small graft gifts that help lubricate the economic system and despite the small number who abuse the traditions of gift giving.

So how does one fight poverty in a large, multicultural country?

One person at a time, at many different levels, by encouraging hard work, honesty, investing in infrastructure so that people can get their goods to markets.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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