Yesterday, I got an e-mail to participate in Blog Action Day on the theme of poverty in the Philippines. I couldn’t help but wonder what I can contribute to the conversation, being that I am no economist and therefore, cannot offer solutions based on expertise on economic matters.
The topic of poverty in the Philippines is also not a topic that touches me on a day-to-day basis in my urban, middle-class life in the U.S. It is not that I live in a bubble — it is that the realities of the problems of my homeland can seem very far away as I negotiate the ¬†personal and professional struggles in my life. Once in a while, though, the topic rears its head and I am forced to take a long, hard look at who I am as someone who comes from a Filipino heritage and who maintains close personal and political ties with folks back home.
Such as the time about a year ago when some Filipino-American colleagues and I presented a mini-workshop on the Philippines via Powerpoint at a brown bag lunch event. It was a lot of fun introducing our multicultural, American colleagues to things like folk dances, celebrities, tourist spots and other aspects of Filipiniana. But the light-hearted atmosphere was jarred a bit and turned serious when one of my colleagues asked why the Philippines remains a poor, Third World country. Doesn’t it have a democratic form of government, she asked?
I really didn’t have a sufficient and ready answer for her that would satisfy her curiosity. In hindsight, if she were to ask me that question now in a more thoughtful moment, I probably still would not have a ready answer that I could rattle off in five minutes or so and that would be satisfactory in explaining the situation in the Philippines to someone who is unfamiliar and not very attuned to Philippine history, society, politics and culture.
How do I explain the history of colonialism under Spain, Japan and America — and especially how the current relationship between the Philippines and America often replicate a colonial model where the hegemon has a tremendous influence in the internal affairs of how the politics and economics of how the Philippines conducts its business?
She mentioned a vague reference to corruption but how do I explain corruption that permeates every level of Philippine society — but do it in such a way that shows not every Filipino is corrupt? And in fact, that there are decent people working in government and business? And that focusing in corruption as the index to why a country is poor is itself, a poor model and explanation for poverty? There is, after all, corruption even in rich countries such as the U.S.
She mentioned democracy as if it could be a salve to what ails Philippine society. But how do I explain that the way she might recognize democracy through American eyes might be very different in the Philippine setting.
How do I explain that there are decent, honest people who are fighting to rid the Philippines of corruption, poverty and inequality — that a lot of them even have organized themselves into political parties and advocacy groups and networks? How do I explain that there are opposition groups who try to affect change in Philippine society through the political process, but any true expression of Filipino independence and self-interest will not be allowed to blossom to its full, logical conclusion by its former colonizer, the U.S., who sees the Philippines as being a strategic cog in its worldwide strategy of political and economic dominance. The U.S. has and always will back the elites who promise to protect its geopolitical interests, and will oppose any nationalist, democratic movements which seek to end this unequal relationship.
This is the struggle that I face as a Filipino-American living in the U.S. On one hand, like everyone else, I just want to get along with my colleagues and just go about my day-to-day business without too much hassle and stress. On the other, I am acutely attuned to the current climate of intolerance and heightened sense of national insecurity in American society. I do not consider myself a militant or even anti-American. But there is no way to really know Philippine history and society and the wider, systemic causes of why it remains a poor country without recognizing the role that American hegemonic dominance and how Filipino elites in politics and business appeal to and seek to ingrain themselves to that dominance so that they, themselves, will be the dominant group in their corner of the world.
So if one were to ask me why the Philippines remains a poor country I would have to tell them that the answer to that question is complicated. My idea on the way out of Third World status — it will be complicated as well. It involves Filipinos developing a sense of militant nationalism and a desire to better themselves and uplift the nation. But it will come at a cost of opposing the geopolitical interests of its former colonizer. My only hope is that the presence of me and millions of Filipinos already living in the U.S. can have an influence in the U.S. getting out of the way when a nationalistically-minded Philippines decides — united as a people — to pursue its own political and economic interests and thus, seek to shape its own destiny.
I certainly am no expert and being part of the diaspora, I know my perspective on Philippine affairs may be incomplete and limited. I welcome any comments and other feedback from folks who participated in Blog Action Day.