Great Living Filipino Thinkers, In Their Own Words 3: Forging a New Social Contract

EVERYBODY knows Sheila Coronel as the crusading journalist, the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and the Creative Communication Arts, and the founding director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

Sheila-Coronel-by-Clark-Jones

In electing her to receive the award, the RMAF board of trustees recognized her for “leading a groundbreaking collaborative effort to develop investigative journalism as a critical component of democratic discourse in the Philippines.”

Since 2006, she is also the inaugural director of The Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, and a professor at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/profile/31-sheila-coronel/10

In a 2006 feature, Columbia Magazine described her as “one of the most tenacious reporters in the politically turbulent Philippines” (of the 1980s).

Yes, she has done all that, is all that, and more.

I report, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, March 2005

(Find our where you can borrow a copy of the book, Coups, Cults and Cannibals, here)

Of all her works, however, Forging a New Social Contract, her speech before the University of the Philippines School of Economics graduating class of 2006, is the piece I love the most because I feel it says–in the most straightforward manner–just about everything that has to be said about this country. It also makes clear, to many of us Filipinos, the reasons why we should still believe in struggling, every single day, to live well and do right–even if, despite.

Here are excertps from that speech:

“LET me take a break from all these economists talking and let me tell you about the face that haunts me when I cannot sleep at night. It is the face of Christian Alvarez, a frisky five-year old I met on the streets.

Christian lives in Plaza Miranda. He and his family sleep on milk cartons near the Mercury Drugstore in Quiapo. Plaza Miranda is his playground. That is also where he and his family eat breakfast everyday: a bowl of lugaw given free by the feeding center run by a Catholic charity in Quiapo church.

Christian’s parents, Rowena and Lawrence Alvarez, are street vendors who make P150 to P200 a day. They have eight children, three of whom — all boys — live on the plaza. Three others are in the care of relatives and friends because their parents do not earn enough to feed and house them. Another was entrusted to the care of an orphanage. The last one, a girl, then aged two, disappeared on the plaza one night when Lawrence left her to fetch water from the Jolibee outlet near Quiapo church.

Christian is at the Quiapo church feeding center with his entire family three times a day.

The day I went there, after the noon feeding, the boy shared with his parents and brothers their only real meal that day: three cups of rice bought for P5 each and pinakbet sold for P10 at the Quiapo market. So at 6 pm, Christian lined up again at the Quiapo church, for another bowl of steaming hot lugaw that will at least ensure that he will not go to sleep on an empty stomach.

Unless the situation of the Alvarez family is much improved, the future that awaits Christian is a life on the streets. Like his two other brothers, he will most likely go through two or three years of schooling at the elementary school nearby. He will likely drop out before the third or fourth grade — in fact, nearly 30 percent of all Filipino school children drop out before finishing sixth grade. After that, Christian will scrounge for a living on the streets — scavenging for recyclables, perhaps, or selling cigarettes and candies like his father, perhaps the occasional petty crime.

I wish I could say that the Alvarez family is a particularly special case. But it is not. In 2000, the proportion of the population not reaching the food threshold was 21 percent. One in every five Filipinos cannot afford to meet his minimum food needs. In current numbers, that’s 16 million people.

The numbers, if we look at them, are dismal. Over 30 million Filipinos live below poverty, earning less than the estimated P200 a day needed to keep a family of six clothed, fed, and housed. That is why many families now eat only one full meal — meaning rice and cooked food — a day. As marketing expert Ned Roberto found out in his study on the consumption patterns of the poor, ulam for many families in the lowest income strata these days are: patis, soy sauce, pork oil, sugar and even Pepsi. Many of these families can eat real food only once a week.

Let me give you more numbers. In the 1990s, we (PCIJ) wrote about the PEA-Amari case, billed as the “grandmother of all scams,” where close to P3 billion were paid in bribes and commissions to businessmen and officials — including, it was alleged at that time, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

In 2001, the Office of the Ombudsman alleged that Joseph Estrada accumulated up to P20 billion in cash and real estate in two-and-half years in Malacañang. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were believed to have amassed up to $10 billion in the 20 years they were in power. Recently, it has been alleged that P1 billion recovered from the Marcos wealth by the Arroyo government was used to bankroll the president’s 2004 election campaign.

To me, the scandal lies not so much in the scale of the thievery. The real scandal is that while all these officials were helping themselves to the national treasury, the country was going to ruin and families like those of Christian Alvarez’s were going homeless and hungry.

When hunger stalks millions not because there is a lack of food, but because the social system impoverishes the multitudes while enriching a privileged few, then there is something that is terribly wrong. We are not the Sudan, where millions go hungry in deserts ravaged by war and disease. We are a middle-income country rich in natural resources.”

Read the of the speech rest here 

More about Sheila here and here.

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