Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

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Not All Slums are Poor, Some are Richer than Me


Poverty is of varying degrees of severity. It is wise to know the distinction especially in a country like the Philippines where poverty cuts across the entire population. Some slum community dwellers are in fact wealthier than I am. It is not enough to say that they live in the slums and thus, are poor. Most also have this stereotype picture of the slums, depressed, dingy, dark, muddy, houses are made of patched up pieces of wood or other materials obtained from construction throw-aways, little scrawny kids running around naked, playing in the mud, dirty, with running noses, and “tambays” just sitting, doing nothing.

I pay rent, taxes, insurance, expensive commute, and utilities – phone, electric, and water. In some slums, they don’t pay any of that. They are rent free; they steal electricity using jumpers and illegally tap water connection. They also sometimes occupy prime lots close to schools, highways, Malls, etc. After all my taxes and fixed costs are deducted, my take home pay is often smaller than those living in some slums.

The really poor slums are far away from the work site, the schools, and main transport, usually have no water and electricity and they end up paying three times more for their water and commute. It is important that we are able to identity and find the really poor communities so that we can strategize on the use of our manpower and resources.

The one thing the urban poor cannot live without is water. Not even drinking water, just water for cooking, washing, and bathing. Studies show that more people die from drinking dirty water than those who die from violent wars or guns. Despite that, what really deters people from living in the slums is the lack of general use water. They will tolerate drinking dirty water as long as they can wash, bath and cook.

Filipinos also have this peculiar penchant of always taking a bath. It is one of the little wonders of slum life, to see a troop of little kids marching out from the dirtiest slum, early in the morning, smelling so fresh and clean, with immaculate white uniforms.

The average water bill monthly for a family in Metro Manila is 600 pesos. I pay around a thousand pesos a month. This is tap water, which sometimes, in emergency, we can drink. It is piped into the house, to the sink, the toilet flush, enough even for washing your car.

The average in the slums, the really poor slum communities, is about three times that amount. The water is delivered by tanker and hosed on the side of the road where the slum people wait in line with big buckets. Sometimes, they hired kids to line up and carry the buckets to their homes and paid a token sum. A family of 5 generally needs two drums full of water a day. Each drum costs about 30 to 40 pesos to fill. That is roughly P1,800 pesos a month at least.

The worst part is not that the poor pay more for water than the middle class or upper class, but the water they have is also a carrier for many water-borne diseases. The water is stored outside the house in drums and when the youngest son goes out to move his vowels, he uses a dipper (tabo) to get water from the drum. In the process, he contaminates the dipper and when the dipper is dipped again in the drum, the entire drum is also contaminated. The e-coli that collects in the drum can multiply significantly to start a minor epidemic. The entire family is usually affected. The spread of disease in the slums is so rampant because of the way the water is stored. In fact, WHO studies have concluded long ago that the most effective intervention in the slums is providing running water or tap water.

Tap water does away with drums that are breeding ground for diseases. The use of tap water means the used or dirty water will flow after use down into the drain. This is the simplest and most effective way to help the poor. Tap water according to scientific studies can immediately eliminate up to half of the morbidity in the community. Sickness accounts for the largest portion of the expenses of the poor.

As we can see, not only is the water of the poorest of the poor expensive, it is doubly expensive because it carries also bacteria. This makes the poor even poorer. Charcoal or uling works the same way. the uling the poor buy is more expensive, less BTU and  more harmful to the environment. They prefer uling because they have no large disposable incomes to afford a tank of LPG which is cheaper, with higher BTU and less harmful to the environment. To make uling, you need to cut two forest areas, in one you collect the material for the uling and in the second area, you cut the wood to burn the materials which will be converted to uling.

There are also techniques for assessing how poor a slum community is. We call this the Rapid Assessment technique for measuring poverty in the urban communities. Many churches request our help to partner with them in ministering in the slums. They try to convince us that the slum community they have targeted is really poor. With the rapid assessment technique we have adopted we are able to tell in five minutes if the community is really poor or not. I tell my students when I teach this technique to walk around the community for five minutes, without talking to anyone, and make observations. I ask them, “What things should they be looking for?” What index or measure can we use to determine if the community is really poor or not? The answer is: the number of stores or shops or sari sari stores operating inside the community. Not more than 5 stores for 500 houses would make the community really poor. Usually, stores will survive only if there are buyers and buyers can buy if they have money and they have money only if they have jobs. So if there are many shops, then it shows the businesses can survive and therefore, the community may have many employed residents there.

Actually, the best way to help the poor is to provide employment. Only less than 10% of the people in any given community will qualify to be an entrepreneur. So, providing loans for business will only help this tiny group. 90% will still need jobs. Creating jobs through small businesses or loans for small businesses also in turn generate employment. Today, the SME or small medium enterprises provide 7)5 of the jobs in the country and most of these are micro-enterprises. 70% is so much bigger than what all the top ten biggest Philippine corporations generate for the country.

Water and jobs are probably the most reliable indices for measuring poverty.

There is however a big exception. Slum communities that grow around garbage dumpsites are an exception. In these communities, there could be hundreds of sari-sari stores and yet the whole community would still be very poor. The stores proliferate because of the large cash flow from re-selling recyclables. But living in the garbage exacts a heavy toll also, and they pay heavily in medical costs. I have seen the worse cancer and tuberculosis in dumpsites. I have worked in the Payatas dumpsite for eleven years. Our mission also works in the Montalban dumpsite and in two smaller ones, in the coastal road in Las Pinas and in Malinta, Valenzuela. Respiratory-track infections almost seem never to go away. Most of the income of the dumpsite residents are spent in medicines. It’s a very vicious cycle.

The other end of the assessment is to know where you are going. What is a description of a healthy slum community (this seems like an oxymoron but bear with me). It is not enough that we know what not a poor slum is. We also need to know what a good slum community is.

I used to visit a group of Franciscan priests in the slums in Talayan. I found the group while scouting around the slum community. They were doing their immersion and I would sit with them and let them teach me. The area was really composed of two slum communities, divided in the middle by the San Francisco River. The Franciscan convent was about a kilometer upstream. One community was very depressed, dark, and gloomy. The walkways were not paved, they were muddy and winding, and chaotic. The other community was orderly, walks were cemented and straight, they had mass electricity (DAEP or Depressed Area Electrification Program), and bright looking. The Franciscan students or novices had been living in that community, both sides, for several months already, as part of their training to become priests. I asked them to educate me about working in the slums. They asked me as a test, which side was more developed and which was more depressed. I said, the other side which was brighter was more developed. It seemed so obvious. But they said I was wrong. That brighter side, when the Franciscans call for a meeting there, practically no one attends. It was not organized (community organizing sense). The residents were very individualistic. The gloomy side was actually more organized although poorer. All the kids were involved in a cultural dance show in the national cultural center, running a regular presentation on how to protect the environment. I realized then that the riches social capital in the slums is their organized condition. When we measure poverty, we need to look also at social capital.

If you were thinking about how you can effectively help the poor, where you are absolutely sure it would benefit the poor, think about water. Both tap water and clean drinking or potable water are very effective interventions for helping the urban poor.

Although the most helpful intervention for the poor is really providing jobs, jobs however are hard to come by. This is why more than ten million of our country men leave for abroad just to find jobs. Otherwise, if we stay home, we will need to enter into the intricate and frustrating process of running a business.

I have also seen many groups do feeding programs in the slums. Some have conducted their feeding programs for years, for free. The problem with free food is that the people become dependent. It is made worse when the program is operated top-down, without organizing the community. The more organized the community the healthier it is. When they are organized they can access resources on their own. Every intervention we do must include the element of community organizing to make it sustainable. The main weakness of most Microfinance services is the fact that the ownership and control of the capital always remain with the service provider. If we know how to do community organizing, we will always attempt to make the beneficiaries independent, make them the owner of the loan capital at the end of the period, give them control over the decision-making for the programs.

Going back to the feeding programs to enhance nutrition among the children, what I have observed is that if the program is serious, it must take into account two things, the weight of the child before, during and after the feeding program; and also, the nutritional intake of the whole family of the child. A feeding program becomes a mere palliative without these two elements.

I have observed this process for many years. A very reputable NGO conduct it in the worse slum in Manila. A child enters the program and he is weighed each month and is entitled to food for three years at the center for free. Of course his weight goes up but then once released from the program, his weight dives down immediately to his original malnourished weight three years ago. But now he is no longer qualified to re-enter the feeding program because he already had his turn. This is because the NGO has not done anything at all to change the economics inside the home of the child. The total food or nutrition intake in the household where the child comes from has remained the same, the income of the family is still the same. Some feeding programs don’t even weigh the kids and no monitoring is done at all.

Many years ago, the Asian Institute of Management, one of the most respected business schools in Asia, did a study of the core poor or poorest of the poor. The study showed that the core poor actually had three jobs. At first, I thought it meant that therefore they were not poor. On closer look, I began to understand that for the poorest of the poor to survive, they need to do three jobs.

I saw this in Mang Emilio, one of our leaders in the squatter community at the back of Nepa Q Mart, on EDSA, Quezon City. He started work at 6 in the morning. He cooked peanuts and peddled them in his small cart, walking around the city. At noon, he boils corn and again peddles it in his cart around the city. At 6 pm he boils “balut” and peddles until midnight. Throughout the years I have known him, he has never risen out of poverty. He remains in his small squatter home, a small cave-like dwelling needing constantly an electric fan to provide ventilation. The poorest of the poor work the hardest of all just to survive. In this case, Mang Emilio worked 12 hours a day to earn less than minimum wage.

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