Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hunger

The news from home is not surprising but disturbing. Nineteen (19%) of the Philippine population is considered food insecure. Social scientists prefer to use the term food security in looking at hunger and malnutrition. The definition of food security differs from country to country but in general to be food secure means a person is able to obtain nutritious, adequate and safe food in socially acceptable ways.

I really don't know why it takes a national election to bring this problem to the attention of the ruling elite. Despite President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's mantra that the economy is strong in its fundamentals, the latest 19% food insecure statistic blots whatever political, economic and social gains the Arroyo administration has made. In 2001, the food insecurity rate was just 15%. In the time that Arroyo has been President, there has been a 4% rise if the latest stats are to be believed.

Of course one can say that even in the USA there is food insecurity. about 35 million Americans are food insecure. This represents about 10% of the population. In the USA, many households have "low food security". While these households do not experience hunger, they are unable to at times get nutritious food or they have to cut down on meal sizes or frequencies. However families with extremely low food security experience involuntary hunger. In the USA, this represents 2.5% of the population. Our 19% rate would indicate extremely low food security. This is extremely obscene.

In many cases food insecurity is related to unemployment. To put it simply the household income is insufficient to buy the most essential necessities like food. Obviously the solution would be to raise family incomes (And this is where Mrs Arroyo claims she's an expert). I am not aware about the metrics used in the latest Philippine survey but here in the US, a family headed by a single woman with kids and belong to the minorities is likely to experience food insecurity.

I don't see people with obvious clinical manifestations of hunger on the streets here but I have seen them at home. But nonetheless, there is hunger everywhere and society has to do something in order to provide immediate safety nets to the food insecure. The Christian Churches have a long tradition of doing this by providing soup kitchens. And so do private charities.

Food security falls in line with the law of resource use that states "it is not the lack of resources that is the problem but the lack of opportunities to access the resources."

The worst thing one can do is to trivialize or deny the problem. This is what some in the government have done. In a recent speech in the Clark Special Economic Zone, Mrs Arroyo was quoted to have said " “I ask our people to spend on the basics first before the luxuries so our children will have enough to eat.” Mrs Arroyo probably meant this in general terms. But her spokesman was quoted to have said as reported in a national blurb "“If you cannot give [your children] milk or proper food, then you should cut down on other expenses." “You can cut down on cigarettes and drinks. Instead of three bottles, one or two would suffice. You can have substantial savings if you cut down on unnecessary expenditures, including text messaging.”

Is there anymore luxuries to cut? The morality of these statements can be easily found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But I have learned in the catechism is that those who have more should cut and give before the poor are expected to cut. I also have learned all these years (from experience) that the poor are more ready to cut (and give to the even more less fortunate) than the rich. If anyone argues about this, one must read the Gospel wherein Jesus praises the poor widow who gave her only shekel to the Temple.

So should we like the national blurb likened Mrs Arroyo with the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette?

Marie Antoinette cannot be blamed for thinking that the poor did eat "brioche" like she did. Her experience of bread is limited to broiche. So when asked about hunger on the gates of Versailles, she said to let them eat brioche. This national blurb fell into a historical stereotype which is definitely false. Marie Antoinette was not insensitive at all.

An economist and even more a President should know what being hungry and poor means. That's why the electorate won't give her slack in the coming elections. I suppose she knows now. She has to deliver now.

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