Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

a theoretical model for development workers


I don’t really believe that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have a similar saying: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”

But it has some validity, for short term purposes.

The reason I am not completely sold to it is that our view and judgment of history are too short. We believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt made democracy triumph over authoritarianism and fascism. Well, yes and no. History is cyclical. This period, tight pants are in vogue and suddenly, baggy pants are back again.

Capitalism and democracy are in vogue today and has been for a century. But the next century, I doubt if anyone would look back at Roosevelt with the same grateful admiration. For now, Roosevelt’s achievement really worked in our favor because of our peculiar socio-political milieu.

But for our purposes, for the purpose of our short-term analysis, those who fail to learn from history are really going to be in a mess. And this is how.

In the painful era of the Great Depression, the world struggled to survive. Germany like many other nations, found the easy path: dictatorship, fascism and state control. It was logical and it gave the hope that random and chaotic democracy could not even promise. When we compare the future outcome of a society where all have a say versus one where a benevolent absolute dictator decides everything, the bet is on the latter.

It was Roosevelt who held on. And without him, we would not today be where we are. We owe to him our freedom, the choice what to eat for breakfast, what work to engage in, what place to reside, etc. all these personal choices were preserved for us by a staunch defender of democracy and the rule of law, despite the odds (that logic really shows it is better and more efficient if just one man decided it all for everyone).

As a footnote, some experts don’t think it was Roosevelt’s programs that solved the Great Depression. He attempted many things (his favorite slogan was to try and if it did not succeed, try one more thing). Some believe that what really solved the Great Depression was the Second World War.

Of course, we continue to learn today the sad lessons of Roosevelt’s triumph – in the accursed Banana Republic. The Philippines is a democracy unfortunately run by monkeys, leaders voted by the ignorant masses who are swayed more by celebrity than by reason.

This is the fault of our first President Manuel L. Quezon who when trying to persuade America to give the Philippines independence, told the Americans, I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than like heaven by Americans.

When faced with the overwhelming challenges of the Great Depression, Germany turned to Hitler and the Nazi regime to take the helm of society and make Germany great again. And the rest is history.

Trump says the same thing: Make America great again!

And those who voted for Duterte have the same nostalgic feeling: if only we have a dictatorship that would made quick decision for all of us our country will become great again.

We are so fed up with the snail-paced justice of our country. We want short cuts just like those who voted for Hitler wanted quick solutions.

The solution to our big societal ills (they say) is an absolute dictatorship.

But we have to contend with a fact of life, that was eloquently described to us by Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate for economics: simple solutions to life’s complex problems bring about only more harm.

The solution of quick easy answers or short cuts through fascism or dictatorship for life’s complex problems only got the Germans into more trouble in the end.

And it will also be for us, Lee Kwan Yu notwithstanding (the Singaporeans have a social compact, that the people would surrender their individual rights and freedom for economic prosperity through benevolent dictators like Lee. China has copied the same formula, after all, Lee was one of their coaches).

What is at stake here really is our ultimate sustainability. Will China become more sustainable than America in the long run? How do you define sustainability?

Sustainability is really about what will work and what will last.

Certainly, a Germany ruled by Hitler with citizens who have given up their individual rights or freedom, is not sustainable in the long run. Perhaps I am talking from a short perspective here (who knows, may be in the next 200 years, because of development in science and economics, the Bill of Rights may already become obsolete, just like watching movies or reading books have become obsolete).

China is a good model to study. For decades, experts have advocated for the idea of sustainability beginning with financial sustainability. Thus, we will not resort to dole-outs for the poor. We will give them fish but we will also teach them how to fish. Money can be given to them but they have to learn the costs of money, learn to pay loans and become productive.

But in time, financial sustainability proved inadequate as more and more businesses built factories on river sides and polluted the waters, loggers decimated entire forest, and fossil fuel emitted million of tons of carbon dioxide destroying the ozone layer and causing the greatest crisis our world has ever known, global warming.

Financial sustainability thus had to be coupled with ecological sustainability.

And so, the concept of sustainability grew and expanded.

In time, sustainability grew into a complex multidimensional orb, with many facets. From financial sustainability, it has included ecological sustainability, political sustainability and even social sustainability.

China with its vast financial surpluses but without individual freedom will certainly not become sustainable in the long run. Individual freedom is what unleashes the genius and creativity of people. Competition makes economies improve and become more efficient. My bet will always be on capitalism to take us into the future. But before China can use the tool of capitalism, it has to confront issues of human rights.

But again, capitalism will not last long unless it also becomes more humane. The rat race is just precisely that… no matter who wins, is still a rat. Capitalism is killing all those who cannot endure the rat race, killing all the brokenhearted people of society.

As capitalism hones, it has decided that the future belongs to the strong. The survival of the fittest. The weak must die. Hitler said this too.

After political sustainability, there is social sustainability and it involves empowering people. There is a need to transfer the center of power and decision making or the resources from the service provider to the weak and incapacitated beneficiaries, to help them to mature and become self-actualized. It is not good that others decide for them always.

The PPPP or conditional cash transfer works on this principle. Experts have realized that between giving the poor rice or deep well or fertilizer, and giving them cash, the later has as observed over many decades, worked better, was more sustainable in the end. The poor surprisingly knows more how to manage their finances than the technocrats do. Top down management is not sustainable.

This is a dynamic and ever evolving idea of sustainability, a multi-faceted orb model. It is not static (which sees on a fixed perspective from a certain principle only, such as psycho spiritual, or anthropological or other views about how development is to ensue).

In short, as time pass, more facets will be added.

The goal is to find the Holy Grail of development, what will work and what will last. Capitalism will work but will not last obviously. Capitalism needs to rein in its excessive consumption as well as needs to become more humane. It is really a run away train speeding to its doom. Almost all cities that have reached its apex through capitalism have either self-destructed or modified into partial socialism (the Scandinavian countries are partly socialism and partly capitalism). Those that have self-destructed have become cease-pools of inhumanity, with an uncontrolled rise in substance abuse and addiction, divorce, depression and suicide.

The Scandinavian countries are a good model we can use to compare with Singapore’s social compact arrangement. The Scandinavians have kept their individual freedoms and became more creative and productive. The Singaporeans have become more robot-like, feeling trapped in a system that if they complain too much, could quickly crumble and fall apart.

What will work and what will last may be debated for centuries. But what is clear is that more and more development experts are embracing the idea of a complex multidimensional evolving orb. Ostrom it seems is right. Complex social problems like poverty, global epidemics and migration all need complex solutions (not simple ones). Short cuts are a no-no.

The Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug watched helplessly as North India deteriorated as a result of its success in the green revolution. When Borlaug’s idea was introduced, the North Indian states turned into net exporters of rice in just a decade(from being for a long time net importers of rice, with intermittent bouts of mass starvations). These success stories, turned into nightmares as rice were planted very close to its other, requiring massive supply of water, depleting the aquifers, a lot of fertilizer as well as, pesticides. After several decades of abundant rice production these states have also become the states with the highest incidence of cancer due to the pesticides. Water also became scarce. The whole ecosystem crashed. Borlaug must be turning in his grave today.

The Holy Grail continues to elude us (what will work and what will last). Sometimes we are deluded and think the answers or solutions are just at the corner. We reach out and grab for whatever it is (in our delusion) and it turns out to be Trump (or in our case, Duterte). In the case of the Germans in 1935, it was Hitler. Hitler gave so much promise to a people sick and tired, hungry and lost. People who voted for Trump or Duterte were not voting for a president but really, were looking for a Messiah.

But only Jesus is the Messiah. In time, we will realize that what will work and what will last also requires righteousness, and most of all, it requires Jesus.

People may survive and grow filthy rich but end up in hell. Jesus said, what is the use of all these surpluses and barns in which you have stored your produce if today, God will require your life from you?

The Kingdom of God in the bible includes Jesus, yes, but it also includes justice, human rights, empowerment, financial stewardship, etc.

There is no magic in the kingdom. The God who made this world is bound by the same rules of sustainability. He created sustainability. So, in the end, sustainability will look like the shalom of the bible, characterized by harmony in three levels: peace with God, peace with men and peace with creation (some add, peace with oneself). Peace with or among men may not be the Western democracy that China is staunchly resisting, it could be the Lee Kuan Yew model.

Shalom, the biblical shalom is our Holy Grail. It is a multi dimensional orb that is ever evolving (expanding), a concept of development in whose center is Christ.

The Kingdom has a King and when He comes to rule the earth, all men will bow to him. All will worship Jesus.

In the end, what can Christians do?

The most frequent struggle is with the idea of what will last. Most evangelical Christians are in the words of C. S. Lewis, too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. We always think that everything will be burned by fire when the judgment happens when Jesus returns.

There seems no point in building anything since nothing will last. This is the reason many evangelicals have withdrawn from politics or have no concern for the physical or materials world. They also have no desire to help the poor or the starving. They just want to convert people so that when they die they will go to heaven. The rest are not important.

But we know this is wrong. And yet, we don’t really know what will last,meaning what can we bring to heaven with us. The bible gives us some hints but not categorical and express guidelines. I offer this tip: that everything good that we do will last and will not be burned. In short, we will in effect bring them with us to heaven (although it is not true we will go to heaven, because, it is heaven that will come down to us, this is another fallacy in the evangelical faith).

If we build a cooperative for the poor or a school for the poor children, these will last into eternity too. It is not true that only the souls of men and the Word of God will last. Our good works will also join us into eternity. The thing to remember is that in heaven the cooperative or the school will not be in the form that we used to know them while here in this life but we will most certainly still recognize them.

Whatever we do that is good and we built it in prayer in the name of Jesus will last.

The good things we have done, we have built will be the precious stones embellishing the crown on our heads as we rule with Christ in His kingdom.

There are some very queer Christians who think that their partnership with unbelievers violate the injunction in 2 Corinthians 6.14 – do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.

This is an important objection. Most of our work as salt and light is amidst unbelievers or in partnership with pagans.

Joseph worked under an unbeliever Pharaoh just as Daniel did and many others in the bible. We are to work to make the world a better place and that could also mean helping unbelievers like the Pharaoh become successful.

Many Evangelical Christians don’t like this. They think it is a sin to be partners with unbelievers in a business or work. They don’t want a born again person to work among Catholic Jesuits for example, to make the Jesuit school successful because it would be promoting the wrong theology of the Roman Catholics that they hate so much.

But the Kingdom we are building does not care. We are building the whole world. Abraham Kuyper said it powerfully: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Whether we work in our own exclusive Evangelical Christian country or in a completely pagan country, our work is the same. We are to proclaim Christ and live out Christ so that the whole world, all those around us will believe. This is the lesson we get from Daniel who served under 5 kings. The last pagan king finally realized that indeed the Living God was with Daniel. He thus issued this decree:

25Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth:

“May you prosper greatly!

26“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For he is the living God

and he endures forever;

his kingdom will not be destroyed,

his dominion will never end.

27He rescues and he saves;

he performs signs and wonders

in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel

from the power of the lions.”

28So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrusa the Persian.

As a postscript, I would remind would-be development workers, those who work among the poor especially, to concern themselves in a significant way, about the use of theoretical models similar to that discussed here. A theoretical model is very useful for several reasons. One is that it helps us to be more holistic. It also forces us to be integrated, to create a more rationale or cohesive whole versus the hodge-podge cut and paste approach that many are doing.

We cannot just jump into the fray without a strategy born out of a holistic and integrated model. We cannot disciple too without it. Our worse sin is to try to read the bible without it. We think the bible is the great model and we don’t need a model to read it. But we actually do use a model, except we are not aware of it. We often read the bible from the western capitalist perspective (that is the model used by most evangelical Christians).

The first task really is to make conscious that model we already have, verbalize it and acknowledge it. Then review it in the light of biblical tenets. As we enter the bible, our eyes are also colored by our present or historical cultural social political and geographical milieu. This is why we need to learn to exegete not just the Word but also the world and ourselves.

After studying various theoretical or theological models, we need secondly to major in history. Without history, we are simply adrift in a vast ocean of ideas and contrary thoughts. History can give us perspective and continuity.

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