(First published in the March 26 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer)


As we commemorate Christ’s suffering this Holy Week, I am led to revisit anecdotes I have written in past articles on the wisdom one can find by talking to those who suffer the most from our society’s inequities. Through the years, I have found some of the richest insights in conversations with common folk expressing their aspirations in ways that made me see their plight more clearly, and rethink old preconceived notions and ideas shaped by ivory-tower analysis.



My favorite such anecdote is about a visit some years back to Barangay Lopero, high on the hills of the town of Jose Dalman in Zamboanga del Norte. My team was visiting some of the poorest communities in the country, and Lopero was one of our poorest barangays on record then. The only way we could reach the place was partly on foot, partly by  habal-habal, motorcycles modified to accommodate as much as 6-7 riders in tandem (the word itself comes from the Visayan term for the reproductive act of farm animals, which the position of the riders is reminiscent of). Having been in government once upon a time, I like to ask people what would be the one thing they would request from government, if given the chance to ask. The answer I got from an old man: carabaos. With carabaos, he said, they could till the fertile land around them, which I noted to be cultivable yet idle in an area where rainfall comes evenly all year round. I pressed on and asked what they were getting from government. His answer: fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Asked what they do with them, he replied: “We have no use for them without the carabaos, but we take them anyway and just try to sell them.”



With us was the local government extension worker, an energetic and highly motivated young lady who worked closely with the community and clearly had their best interests at heart. Asked if she had not communicated the more prior needs of her client communities to her superiors, she insisted that she had done so countless times, but her calls seemed to fall on deaf ears. “These programs all come to us from Manila, and they had already decided that it’s fertilizers and hybrid seeds they want to give,” was her almost tearful reply.

On another trip, I was with a group that took a tortuous ride through several kilometers of what would hardly qualify to be called a “road” winding up a mountain in Sarangani to a small upland farming community surrounded by lush forests. I posed my usual question to the barangay captain, a farmer. Given our difficult trip to their village, I was almost certain that he would point to their access road that was badly in need of repair. But I was surprised—and wised up—when he simply replied: “Horses. We could use a few horses to bring our produce down to the market.” The wisdom in his answer quickly dawned on me. First, he entertained no illusion that money would be forthcoming to fix a few kilometers of a narrow mountain road to a tiny farming community with too few voters to matter. Second, he must have realized, as I did, that fixing their road would only help put the still lush forests around them within reach of loggers’ trucks—and the forests could be gone in no time.



On a tour of island barangays in the capital town of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, our group met “Barrio” (the customary title for barangay captain) Julficar Ladjahali of Barangay Pababag, who led the “Bantay Sanctuary” effort in his barangay fishing grounds. His steadfastness in safeguarding the sanctuary was truly admirable, in the face of initial strong resistance and resentment from the local fishers, many of them his own people. And yet he and his volunteers remained firm through the years. Their efforts have paid off well. The sanctuary has clearly helped sustain and multiply the fish population: the average catch per fisher of 1.5 kilos before the establishment of the marine sanctuary some six years ago has since tripled to 4.5 kilos.



I asked him my usual question. His reply: buoys. He would like to be able to clearly mark the boundaries of the marine sanctuary that he and his volunteers are tasked to protect from fishers, to remove any doubt when apprehending encroachers into the protected waters. How much would they cost? Made from discarded liter-size plastic soft drink bottles and nylon rope, they would cost about P21 per buoy, he said, or about P15,000-P20,000 in all. My companions noted that it was just equivalent to the cost of convening a typical interagency meeting. And yet, Barrio Ladjahali found no support from any government entities within his reach.



Since then, I have constantly pointed out that meeting the needs of some of our poorest communities need not be costly. In certain situations, the appropriate technology could be the cheapest ones. It seems to me that all we need to do is listen more. Our poor communities know what they need only too well, more than any well-meaning government or NGO worker, and certainly more than any bureaucrat sitting in an air-conditioned office in Manila. And yet, despite all the lip service for devolution, decentralization and subsidiarity, detailed decisions affecting the futures of even the remotest poor are still made in the central offices of government agencies. And in so doing, the fixes that have invariably been favored are those involving large procurements, for such things as subsidized fertilizers, imported hybrid seeds, piglets, goats and, yes, farm-to-pocket—er, -market—roads. And we all know why.



If we truly want to help the poor, perhaps we simply need to listen to them more. They are much wiser than many of us tend to think—and indeed wiser than many of us, period.




No Free Lunch is the author's column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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