12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

A couple days to recuperate at Ian’s comfortable beachfront house on the shores of the South China Sea was just the tonic I needed. I had visited some posh hotels and resorts, but this was my first glimpse of gracious home life in the Philippines. For a few days, we did little more than chat, watch TV, and visit the beach while Ian’s staff tended to our every need.

Ian and his neighboring cousin Mario are well-known in the community, their mutual grandparents having lived in the nearby village of Aringay.  Aringay offered not much in the way of tourist amenity, not even a restaurant. Once again, the disparity between rich and poor was glaring, with some lovely homes standing next to ramshackle hovels. This time, however, we were hanging out with the well-to-do.

IMG_3476The beach was reasonably clean, but no resort. Here and there local fishermen with their ancient equipment traversed the grey sands and the adjacent waters in pursuit of their day’s catch. IMG_3434The surf was calm, muddy brown and piss-warm water streaming along the beach, separating the darker deeper waters a hundred meters offshore.  IMG_3466We walked to the mouth of the Ifugao River, discovering it as the source of the muddy waters, flushing the waste of untold upstream farms, families and factories out to sea. We decide to give swimming a miss.

IMG_3493IMG_3481The bus ride back to Quezon City was tedious, detouring to every hamlet and stopping every couple hundred meters, or so it seemed. An overhead speedometer reminded me throughout the seven hour ordeal that we rarely exceeded 30 kph on the 240 kilometer expedition.

Although after-effects of the flu lingered, I returned to work the following morning.

Our volunteer assignments are starting to take shape and make sense. I previously mentioned a major focus of our organization’s work was to help “informal settler families” — the polite way to refer to squatters in shanty towns —get into new housing. One of the many challenges this presents is finding or creating sources of income for the families to pay for their new digs. Frank and I are supposed to address this issue by helping establish “social enterprises”, generally cooperatives providing various kinds of livelihoods. This makes sense.

Sort of. Recently I came across the mind-boggling statistic that 45% of the Philippines’ workforce live in informal settlements. Think about that. In a country with over one hundred million people, more than four of ten workers have no legal right to live in their home. Our endeavors are dealing with only twenty-five thousand of these families — a bit over one hundred thousand people — a drop in the bucket.

How did it get to this? As an American raised Catholic, I see the fingerprints of unbridled laissez-faire economics combined with regressive social policies, particularly regarding birth control, all over it. Offhand I haven’t a thread of evidence to support this view.

There is ample reason for hope. Democracy and education are revered in the Philippines — arguably, also side-effects of the American and Catholic influences. Many Filipinos, expecting better, find it embarrassing to admit their country has a literacy rate of “only” 96%, with women out-reading-and-writing men by 1%. In fact, that is very impressive. While literacy measures are difficult to compare, the US Census Bureau reports the US literacy rate at 86%.

Over 90 million Filipino’s speak some English. Last year the Philippines surpassed India as having the largest of call center industry in the world. The Philippines’ economy has grown for seventeen years in a row, averaging 5% per year. Currently it is cranking away at over 7% growth.

If this country’s problems can be fixed with smarts, money and grit, the Philippines need only find the grit.

20160809_153948My contribution falls into the “smarts” category, having run out of grit years ago. I work with plenty of smart people, people smart enough to appreciate they have only the vaguest notion how to make a business succeed. Our coalition of NGO’s, as well as the poor they support, consists largely of clever, passionate and sometimes over-educated lefties, a category in which I am comfortable. A spare few of them have much commercial experience, acumen or understanding, though. The most passionate are determined to bring bright new futures into existence based on will alone, just like Mao, Stalin and Bush did. Yikes.

The cooperatives are run by boards of directors, mostly working people, who are volunteers. We often attend their day-long meetings, more than a few on weekends. I spend a lot of time being driven to and fro, stuck in traffic. I go nowhere without my laptop, and have learned to use the time as an opportunity for writing and relaxation. The meetings are conducted almost entirely in Tagalog, which I am getting better at comprehending, but cannot yet speak with any fluency.

One or two of the boards are impressive for their consistency in doing absolutely everything wrong, at least from a governance perspective. The possibility of corruption lurks unspoken below the surface of every carefully worded conversation. To me, the money in question is paltry, and even the more blatant acts appear to be driven by the desire to get things done without a fleeting thought that it might be considered inappropriate or illegal. It is never a good sign when the Treasurer bursts into tears.

Never have I met people so excited and pleased to hear from a CPA. I guess there’s a spare few CPA’s that identify themselves as passionate lefties. I was never very popular amongst fellow CPA’s, who resent it when I refer to audit fees as bribes. It is much easier to engender favor amongst these folks, despite my tempering their enthusiasm with commercial realities and the unforgiving nature of numbers. I am reminded of the old movies, where the most complex problems are solved with “I can play the piano, and my uncle has a barn — let’s put on a show!”

“The co-op can’t give a ten percent rebate if it only makes five percent.” (It is difficult not to sound condescending when explaining that ten is bigger than five.)

“Run entirely by volunteers? Does your informal settlement have a number of independently wealthy people? If not, don’t they need to eat?” (Okay, for me it is generally difficult not to sound condescending.)IMG_3490

Prior to current endeavors, I have spent very little time actually trying to help poor people, so this is all new to me. My voting record, on the other hand, has always favored progressive causes, as has my charitable giving, but even my charitable giving has decreased as I approach retirement. Truthfully, such efforts — votes, money, or actual work — always struck me as futile, like building sandcastles against the tide. Yet some of my happiest memories are of building sandcastles against the tide. So here I am, digging in the sand.


Frank and I have attended a couple concerts of the Manila Symphony Orchestra. They have been most enjoyable. I love a fine orchestra.  I was raised with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in my backyard, then subscribed to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the past twenty years. I require a decent orchestra to exist wherever I live as a prerequisite. They provide an oasis of civility, moments of uplift, and at least a good snooze.20160813_211316While the Manila Symphony may not be a “world-class” outfit, it can provide a more exhilarating experience than usually found with the world’s best. I compare it to minor league baseball. There are a few stand-outs, possibly future virtuosos. There are a couple of washed-up has-beens, impressively skilled in their trade, making it on their wits, but just trying to pay the rent. Mostly, though, they are enthusiastic local youngsters who love to play and excited just to be there. Less evident is the discipline and precision top-tier classical musicians impose upon themselves. An inexplicably exuberant violist or an overripe timpanist might steal the show with a lack of reserve not implied by the composer. I don’t think I ever heard an orchestra play so, well, loud. It was wonderful.

The well-heeled audience members were another story. Before a concert, then at interval, and again in the taxi queue afterwards, I have chatted with concert-goers.  Invariably, they ask “Why are you in the Philippines?” My explanation — “Volunteering to help informal settler families” — gets a shocked look, with a hint of disapproval, as if to say “I was hoping you were a CPA.”

Granted, the poor are not popular anywhere. Everywhere, the wealthy take credit for the tides, resenting the sandcastles and those that build them. In the Philippines it appears to translate to a particular dislike of squatters, or at least a strong aversion to being reminded they exist. The government’s Department of Labor and Employment is called DOLE without a trace of irony, perhaps because there is no dole, no social safety net. Even the almost-as-poor resent the poorest — sometimes witnessed when a housing development leapfrogs informal settlers over them into modern apartments.


For three weeks, I battled the flu. When it moved into my chest, I mentioned this to the volunteer hotline nurse, who calls to follow-up regularly.  She encouraged me to get checked out at the emergency room. This time, I went to the local, St Luke’s, which happens to have some claim to being the best hospital in the country. A chest x-ray and another zillion tests determined I had the flu, possibly with a chest infection. They gave me some antibiotics and sent me home. A hundred bucks, credit cards accepted.

Finally, on Monday I woke up feeling great. At work the previous day, I had made some real progress with a board, and for the first time I knew exactly what the next steps should be. A beautiful morning, I walked to work in a freshening breeze. “Things are looking up!”

Then I slipped on the office steps, executing a split like a female Olympic gymnast. Unfortunately, I am neither female, Olympic, nor gymnast. I don’t think I have ever before experienced such pain. I knew at once it was serious — this was no sprain.  For the third time in three weeks I ended up in the emergency room.