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PHILIPPINES: Economic Recovery Unfelt by Urban Poor – NGOs

Kara Santos

MANILA, Feb 3 2010 (IPS) - Every day, 60-year old Felisa scavenges for garbage around the bustling streets of Manila, the urban capital of the Philippines.

Residents look out of their dwellings in a typical slum community in Manila, capital of the Philippines.  Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Residents look out of their dwellings in a typical slum community in Manila, capital of the Philippines. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Twenty years ago, when she first arrived from her province, the route around the areas of Tondo, one of the poorest districts of Manila, and the congested market district of Divisoria, was all hers.

In the course of her work, Felisa befriended security guards of buildings to collect the ‘best garbage’ for her. Even a local fast-food chain set aside the best of the day’s leftovers for her to take home.

Now it is getting harder and harder to come by good garbage like scraps of metal or used bottles. About ten other scavengers now ply what was once her route, making the collection of garbage a much more difficult task.

At the end of the night, she also has to contend with a long line outside the fast-food chain, where a large group scrambles to get a share of the leftovers.

“What was once the job of one old woman is now being shared by ten more persons, says Dennis Murphy, executive director of Urban Poor Associates (UPA), who recounted the story of Felisa.

“They are all now living on the same garbage that Felisa had at one time lived on by herself.”

UPA is a non-government organisation helping urban poor communities on issues about housing rights in the country.

Dante, a collector of used junk, agrees that finding garbage to resell to junk shops is not always an easy task. Formerly a native of Negros Oriental – an agricultural province in Central Visayas, located in one of the country’s major island groups – he moved to Manila almost 30 years ago to make a living. He now drives a wooden pushcart through mid-scale villages in Quezon City, looking for anything he can resell.

“I collect newspapers, bottles. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find old air- conditioners, steel, old car batteries, or tires,” he tells IPS in the vernacular, as he points to two old tires in his wooden pushcart. “Sometimes I can find good items. But most of the time, there’s very little to scavenge.”

The stories of Felisa and Dante highlight the lack of employment opportunities, as well as the swelling poor population in the urban centers of this South-east Asian country.

Studies by the International Labor Organization and Asian Development Bank (AsDB) point to a trend of unusual reverse migration in times of economic crisis. In Thailand, during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, some 188,000 workers returned to rural areas, with the highest return migration rates observed in the depressed northeast region of the country, government data showed. Shifts in employment from the non-farm to the farm sector were also seen in Indonesia and South Korea.

This has not been the case in Manila.

“Sometimes when a community is evicted from an urban settlement, some families choose to go back to the province instead of going to a distant relocation site or another squatter area. But they really have nothing to go back to in the province, which is why they came to urban areas in the first place,” says Murphy.

The National Economic Development Authority, an independent cabinet-level government agency in the Philippines, says the country has one of the fastest growing and dense urban concentrations in the Asia-Pacific region. More than half of its 92 million population resides in urban areas, mostly in Luzon, the Philippines largest island group, and Manila, one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

“The trend is that more and more people are coming to the cities,” says Murphy, who has been involved in helping thousands of families find better in-city relocation sites, particularly in times of eviction crises.

Based on the country’s population census, Metro Manila’s population almost doubled from 5.9 million in the 1980s to 11.5 million in 2007. The average annual population growth rate is pegged at 2.36 percent.

UPA estimates that Metro Manila’s landless urban poor number close to five million, or roughly about 800,000 families.

Asia houses over half the global slum population of 581 million people, with the number expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. The United Nations predicts that by the year 2030, about two billion people worldwide will be slum dwellers, mostly in Asia and Africa.

Even before the global financial crisis exploded in 2008, hitting large financial institutions and wealthy nations around the world, Manila’s urban poor area had long been grappling with problems of joblessness, homelessness and poverty.

“Definitely, every year, the urban population is growing. The global financial crisis may be new in other countries, but in the Philippines, living in crisis is not new. It just got worse,” says Von Mesina, vice-chair of the National Urban Poor Coalition, a confederation of urban poor organisations in the country.

In the latest survey of local research group IBON Foundation, about 71.4 percent of the country’s population rated themselves as poor, up four percentage points from 67.1 in July, due to the impact of the crisis, followed by two typhoons that devastated areas in Metro Manila and North Luzon late last year.

A World Bank study states that “the urban poor are particularly vulnerable in times of crisis due to their heavy reliance on a cash economy, job losses and wage reductions in urban-based industries, and no agricultural production to fall back on.”

“Just look at the streets and how the number of sidewalk vendors has increased. This is one of our social indicators of the lack of employment. Where else can the factory workers who were laid off during the recession go – either they become tricycle drivers or sidewalk vendors,” says Mesina.

Aside from scavenging for garbage and vending, the urban poor usually subsist on other informal jobs driving ‘pedicabs’ and tricycles (three-wheeled vehicles used to traverse small streets), buying and selling retail goods, or working contractually in construction sites.

Since they mostly work in the informal sector, they cannot avail themselves of government safety nets such as the Philippines’ Social Security System and PhilHealth, the national health insurance programme, which allows members who make voluntary donations to take out loans.

“The percentage of people who are formally employed here in the Philippines is only 20 to 25 percent. All the rest who are informally employed, including the rural poor like farmers and fishermen, drivers in the transport sector, sidewalk vendors and factory workers, are not members of the government systems,” says Mesina.

To address the worsening situation due to the global financial crisis, a new alliance among urban poor groups, called ‘Kilos Maralita’ (Movement for Social Protection of the Poor), was formed last year. Mesina serves as facilitator to the group.

The alliance’s campaign aims to highlight the struggle of the poor for housing rights while calling for a broad range of social protection measures in a period of crisis, which it says would only worsen the situation of the urban poor.

The alliance of some 300 urban poor groups is advocating a complete package of social safety nets for the urban poor, including health services, on-site development and in-city housing (instead of distant relocation sites), unemployment insurance, subsidies for basic services (education, water, food), and employment creation. The latest ‘Asian Economic Monitor’ released by the AsDB reports that “emerging East Asian economies have performed better than anticipated in 2009 from swift policy responses and an improved external environment.”

Multinational lender AsDB projects the region’s Gross Domestic Product to grow 4.2 percent in 2009 and 6.8 percent in 2010. Emerging East Asia comprises ten Southeast Asian countries (including the Philippines) plus China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

However, both Murphy and Mesina caution that these kinds of figures rarely impact the poorest sectors.

“Even if the economy recovers, this can only be felt by the formal sector like banks and institutions. The economic crisis may end, but only the businessmen will be able to recover,” says Mesina.

“Our economy is unique. It can grow, but at the same time the poor can get poorer as the gap between rich and poor grows. Even if the average monthly income has increased somewhat over the years, the real value of money is down due to inflation and slow growth of urban poor jobs,” says Murphy.

Murphy adds that despite an increase in average household wages, the increase in food prices, cost of living and inflation has actually lessened the value of money by 14 percent, particularly for the urban poor, who pay more for basic services like water, which they have to get illegally.

“What happens in the macro-economy may have no relation to what happens to the poor. The same people who always make a lot of money continue to make money, so national growth figures may go up. But for the urban poor, it’s a different story,” says Murphy.

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