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SPEECHES: POST-PRESIDENCY
 

People Power vs. Poverty through Micro-Enterprise
 

AIM Conference Center
February 23, 2006 

On this day 20 years ago, Filipinos from all walks of life—including many of you here—trekked to EDSA in response to a call the previous evening from Jaime Cardinal Sin to form a human shield around Camp Crame to protect a military faction who had broken away from the dictatorship. Those who could not go to EDSA were asked to lend support to the troops and civilians whose lives were in mortal danger by way of prayer, food, water and other resources.

The overwhelming response—damayan on a grand scale—showed the Filipino people at their very best. Families brought sandwiches to share. Companies delivered sacks of rice, canned goods, juice and soft drinks. Womenfolk offered to cook. Others brought soap, flashlights, paper plates. Nuns, priests and seminarians toted their rosaries and prayer books. Devotees mounted statues of the Blessed Mother in makeshift altars. Celebrities entertained the throng. Car owners and bus drivers volunteered their vehicles to fortify the barricades. Homes nearby opened their doors to those who needed rest or relief. Most just came with their shirts, jeans, jackets and raw courage. What really mattered was not what one brought to EDSA but the act of caring itself.

The 1986 People Power Revolution was the high point in a process of awakening of the silent but discontented majority that began in August 1983. The assassination of Ninoy awoke ordinary Filipinos from the slumber of indifference induced by the long years under martial law. People Power built up during the wake and the funeral in a spontaneous outpouring of damayan. The momentum rose with the subsequent political rallies and carried  a ragtag band of opposition candidates to victory in the 1984 Batasan elections. There followed the flood of campaign workers and NAMFREL volunteers and the heroism of the computer programmers who zealously guarded the sanctity of the ballot during the snap elections.

And then came EDSA. Filipinos by the hundreds of thousands stood up for what was right and seized the moral high ground. They were ready to face daunting odds—to die, if necessary—because God was on their side.

The tide of euphoria and commitment carried us through the difficult transition as we strove to resuscitate our moribund democratic institutions. The government worked with civil society to empower communities and sectors at various levels. But just as our efforts were beginning to bear fruit, these were stymied by erstwhile tactical allies with a latent disdain for democracy—and nothing more than an opportunistic view of People Power. As a result, our revolution remained unfinished and much of our democratic institutions remain weak to this day. And millions of our people remain poor, unable to participate meaningfully in creating the prosperous nation we all long for.

Today, poverty and inequity constitute the principal threats to our democracy. These adversaries are far more difficult to vanquish than the Marcos dictatorship. It will demand the courage of our convictions over a sustained period of time. The threat to our lives may not be as imminent as it had been 20 years ago, but the impact of the dire social picture on the future of our children can already be felt. Social instability at the macro level is pushing wealthy and middle-class families to immigrate to other lands. Fathers and mothers are leaving their children in increasing numbers in search of employment overseas. While we rejoice in the relief that our overseas workers’ remittances bring to our economy, the social cost of the phenomenon is hard to measure.

Clearly opportunities for employment and livelihood have to be created here. We need to empower millions to take advantage of economic opportunities. We need to harness People Power versus poverty by mobilizing disadvantaged communities to help themselves with the empowering support of multiple sectors.

The Couples for Christ has been showing us an exemplary model of this new track for People Power. We are all familiar with the hugely successful Gawad Kalinga program that is reviving the Filipinos’ bayanihan spirit in the process of building 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities over seven years.

Today, we are gathered in this conference to explore the possibility of harnessing People Power vs. Poverty yet again—this time through micro-enterprise development.

Over the past year, I have been inspired by the noble work of microfinance institutions (MFIs) which have reached out to the entrepreneurial poor, giving them the means to uplift their lives through honest and hard work. To many of us, livelihood loans of P1,000 to P10,000 may not mean much, but to those outside the fringes of the mainstream economy, these are vital in tiding them over from day to day. The small but steady income from their micro-enterprises makes it possible for them to eat decent meals, to send their children to school and to nurture dreams of a better life.

All my visits to communities touched by microfinance have been humbling experiences. It is truly wonderful to see Filipinos, a great majority of them women, radiate so much hope and joy amid very modest circumstances, while many in mansions grumble so often about a hard life. Weekly collection meetings not only provide the group pressure and support that make possible an amazing 99% loan repayment rate. In the case of some MFIs, these are ideal venues for inculcating values like trust in one another, love of country and faith in God.

As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in his book, The End of Poverty, microfinance has proven to be a liberating force for women in particular. It has helped raise literacy rates and consciousness about women’s rights, while reducing rates for fertility and child mortality. In Bangladesh, where microfinance first took root, the fertility rate dropped to 3.1 in 2000 from 6.6 in 1975.

This is not to say that microfinance—which to date reaches out to some one million clients in depressed areas across the country—is the antidote to poverty. But it provides an excellent start by restoring human dignity and sowing the seeds of entrepreneurship among our disadvantaged brethren. Gradually, we hope to see more and more of these micro-entrepreneurs stabilize their sources of livelihood, grow their businesses to a point where they can create jobs in their communities and eventually graduate into small and medium enterprises. They are the base upon which we can build a strong middle class—one that would not only strengthen our economy but also pave the way for enhanced governance through better political choices and as a breeding ground for new leaders as well.

Hopefully, a well-oiled microfinance machinery would also enable us to respond rapidly to the urgent rehabilitation needs of communities ravaged by calamities, such as the tragic mudslide that overran a barangay of Saint Bernard in Southern Leyte.

The challenge for us today is how to make that happen in a purposeful and systematic way. Just as People Power achieved critical mass at EDSA on February 23, 1986, we hope that we can map out concrete steps by which to achieve critical mass in a concerted attack against poverty to be led by the private sector.

Some political theorists argue that victory came to us too easily at EDSA in 1986. They claim that a true revolution cannot be purely non-violent: the blood of heroes must be spilled for fundamental change to take root.

Let us hope not. In fact, let us make sure that Filipino blood need not be shed to make way for meaningful social change. As we did 20 years ago, let us muster the best in ourselves. Let us infect each other anew with the spirit of courage and solidarity and wield the power of compassion and sacrifice on a much bigger scale.

My dear friends and fellow Filipinos who care deeply about our country, join me in continuing our unfinished revolution. Join me in harnessing People Power against poverty.

Thank you very much.

 

 

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