Friday, September 02, 2005

please D I S T U R B !

EVERY evening at the Rockwell Center in Makati City, as plush boutiques wind down their activities, there is a building that goes in the other direction, coming alive as hundreds of students stream into Ateneo de Manila University's Professional Schools for their classes in law, government, and business.
For two nights this week, the building was busier than usual as the school brought several hundred students together for plenary lectures, part of an extraordinary exercise called Mulat-Diwa -- an opening of the mind or, in the words of Dr. Alfredo Bengzon, who heads the business school, "the eyes of the heart" -- to get the students to reflect on how business might contribute to the task of nation-building.
I was invited to lecture on culture and nation building while Ateneo's own Father Jojo Magadia spoke on economics, politics and poverty. I will admit that even after years of teaching, I found the assignment daunting. After all, we were being asked to deal with some 800 people at each session, our lectures transmitted live to several sites within the Rockwell campus, as well as to Ateneo's extension sites in Santa Rosa, Laguna, Subic, and Cebu City.
Skeptical? I will admit I was that way too; after all, talk about social conscience and nation building isn't usually done in a business school. Yet, by the end of the second round of talks, I could feel the atmosphere in the auditorium, and in the remote sites, was charged. People were, well, disturbed, and that was the most important point of the exercise.
Body mining
Before the plenary lectures, the students got to see an episode of GMA Network's TV program "Imbestigador," titled "Pobreng Pinoy" [Poor Filipino]. I have worked with the poor in rural and urban areas for many years, but "Pobreng Pinoy" still had new shocking revelations.
What was most striking about the documentary was the way the poor find ways to survive: subsisting on instant noodles, setting up shacks on rivers (to get around the ban on squatting on land), taking over abandoned vehicles to build a home. But its most disturbing revelations were about the selling of body parts, "kinakalkal ang katawan," or "mining the body," as program host Mike Enriquez put it. We hear of such cases, but I was not quite prepared to learn the extent of what could be sold.
"Pobreng Pinoy" featured professional blood donors, something the public has been aware of for a long time. But that was the mildest example of body mining. It also featured a man who had sold all his teeth to dental students needing subjects to practice tooth extractions. He still goes to these dental students, this time to let them practice on his mouth for the fitting of dentures. He has also become an agent, looking for other people willing to let dental students practice their extraction skills on them.
Another man interviewed on the show talked about how he had donated some of his skin for a patient needing grafts. He got P5,000 for a small piece of skin from his leg, and now plans to sell his kidney. The trade in kidneys is actually thriving, with buyers sometimes coming in from overseas.
The most shocking example of body mining was a man who had sold one of his eyes, for P50,000, the money used up to treat his mother's heart condition.
There were other heartbreaking stories in this trade of body parts, ending with a mother who had accepted P50,000 from someone who wanted to adopt her newborn child.
A nation dismembered
During one of the plenary sessions, the topic of overseas Filipino workers came up.
While recognizing the extent of remittances coming in, Father Jojo wondered if overseas labor was really making a dent on people's lives. Sure, homes are built and children get to finish college because of the remittances, but Father Jojo also wondered how much of workers' earnings go into productive activities to make a difference for national development.
I had to speak out, too, again acknowledging that our overseas workers are making heroic contributions to the Philippine economy but wondering what the long-term costs would be. I shared the story of a 21-year-old girl who had been recruited to work in Japan. She had become pregnant before she could leave, and after the baby was born she began to consider the possibilities of paying her way out of her contract.
The people at the promotions agency did not take kindly to her request to withdraw from the recruitment, first telling her she'd need to pay at least P70,000 for expenses they'd incurred for her training and documentation. Not only that, the staff lectured her on the need to be more responsible: "Aren't you ashamed to your younger brother and sister? By not going to Japan, you're letting them down."
As if that statement was not bad enough, she was always hectored: "Someday when your baby grows up, don't you think you'd be ashamed telling your child that you chose not to go to Japan to work?"
My regular readers know I've always been supportive of overseas workers but there are times, and they are becoming more frequent, when I wonder what the long-term social costs will be for such large-scale deployment.
The anecdote about the young girl who had just delivered stirred up the audience, and got Dr. Alfredo Bengzon to speak out, too, and to compare this massive exporting of labor to the trade in body parts. As our Filipinos leave, we become a nation dismembered, much like the poor who sell vital body organs.
My main concern is the way overseas work has totally changed, well, distorted, our priorities. Our national development plans seem to hinge on this export. Business establishments aim for the returning overseas worker, and their families, for their market -- everyone else seems too poor to afford to buy anything. Many of our schools have become mass assembly lines for a global labor market. And, most sadly, families now tell their kids, "You have to at least finish high school so that someday you can work abroad."
Finding the stars
Our plenary talks at the Ateneo had started out with a prayer written by South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was appropriately entitled "Disturb us, Lord," calling on God to stir the spirit "when we are too pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have become true because we dreamed too little; when we have arrived in safety because we sailed too close to the shore... when because of the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the water of life; when, having fallen in love with time, we have ceased to dream of eternity." The prayer dares us to be bold, to venture out to the seas during a storm so that, "losing sight of land, we shall find the stars."
During the open forum, someone asked, "How will we find those stars?"
Maybe poverty, because it is so overwhelming lulls us into collective denial of our problems. If we are to chart our own national destiny it is time we put up signs that read, "Please do disturb."

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