The poverty trap

Orly Mercado

Posted on May 21, 2007

Slum tourism is fine

Child development is an amazing thing. My son Renzo, who is now five and a half years old, is suddenly interested in my childhood. He just can’t get enough of my stories of living in poverty in the slums behind the Paco railroad station in Manila. I enjoy telling him these sob stories, knowing that in a few years, the same will be greeted with the rolling of eyes and a groaned “I heard that before.” He listens wide-eyed as I tell him I had no toys. I made my own.

Today, the story he liked was about how I made my public high school proud, when I was chosen to represent the Philippines in the New York Mirror Youth Forum. But we had a big problem. I had nothing to wear for my first ever plane trip overseas. The school authorities decided to pass the hat around to raise money for my trip. It was not easy. Most of my classmates were just as poor as we were.

I came home and was tearful as I unburdened myself to my father who was a teacher in our school. More than being touched by my classmates’ generosity, I was angry. I remember using the word mendicant for the first time. I did not like the idea of begging to get me a proper suit to wear to the conference. It hurt my pride, but I had no choice.

As Renzo busied himself drawing his papa’s “tiny” house near the railroad tracks, I tuned in to CNN. They were running a story about some American congressmen who were proposing to increase the budget for food stamps for the poor. They had taken up a “challenge” to survive for a week on $21 worth of food stamps.

Jeffrey Sachs reminds us that there are varying degrees of poverty. $3 a day for food may not look too bad for those in moderate or relative poverty. For those Asians or Africans in extreme or absolute poverty, it may be enough to survive. It is easy to dismiss the actions of these congressmen as political gimmickry. But experiencing even moderate poverty even for a fleeting moment is always good for policy makers.

I am still watching CNN. This time the story is about a controversial new “tourist attraction” in Kenya. Some enterprising group has introduced a tour of the garbage strewn, hazardous, and stressful living conditions in the slums of Kibera. I have recently seen some footage of the area even in programs like “American Idol.” This can only be good for the people of Kibera, I thought. Nothing could be worse than being poor and ignored.

My son may be too young to understand the poverty trap. One day, before he tires of my sob stories, I shall explain to him how I got out of the rut. It is not uncommon to blame the poor for their plight. Sachs says that “when poverty is very extreme, the poor do not have the ability–by themselves–to get out of the mess.” The challenge is to help them “escape the misery of extreme poverty so that they may begin their own ascent up the ladder of economic development.”

When I get back to Manila with my son, we plan to do our own little bit of slum tourism. The poor always need attention. The caring should never stop.

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