A friend of mine, Prudence, has this to say about eight people hurt in a demolition site at Quezon City:
It is silliness to remain thinking these people are the “helpless and innocent” ones. Just think, there were 20 improvised explosives, besides the pillboxes, that were found in these shanties during the demolition. Think of what these people are capable of. If only it were directed to a more productive way, these people could be contributing citizens of the society. But they choose not to.
I repeat, they have a CHOICE. Poverty is no excuse. There were a lot of those who have been poor but were able to rise above it, through honest means.
In many respects, yes, when people start throwing pillboxes at police officials and resort to violence to defend “their property,” it is wrong. Then again, demolition – with the presence of authority figures who are anything but prudent and just in the exercise of their duties – is itself a form of violence, so it gets eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth really fast. Of course it’s not compassionate for police officers to violently disperse people who are there fighting for their right to abode, but it is not just for people to merely occupy a space for their own without thinking of the right of the property owner for that land, too.
I think that as long as we look at things in the black-and-white of who’s right and who’s wrong, we’ll always have a problem with informal settlers. We’ll be stuck in that cycle of settlers occupying land, and authorities taking people out of that land.
A quick paraphrase of Amartya Sen’s approaches in economics: that for us to be able to exercise choice, we need to have the capability to make that choice. Let’s take housing as an example: the right of abode and changing of the same is something doubtful because we don’t know whether:
- We should be provided with land and houses, and/or the materials should be provided for us;
- Our land and houses cannot be taken away from us, whether we’re in it or not in it;
As such, the definition of the right remains in doubt. As long as some form of development affects rights, we’re faced with that dilemma; there are many barriers that keep us from doing things completely from choice or legal procedure. Indeed, some things get in the way of our right to abode and changing of the same:
- Can we afford the house and do we have land to put it in?
- Do we have the education and training necessary to earn enough money for a house?
- Could we sustain ourselves when we buy this house and not have to worry about food and shelter?
- And so on and so forth.
They aren’t “responsibilities,” as much as they are “obstacles” to freedom.
Choice occurs when the barriers are removed, and the individual has the access and freedom to exercise the choices available to him or her. Many of the poor lack the education needed to succeed in life, live by a constrained set of values, and simply do not have the capabilities to exercise their rights within what the educated and learned members of society consider “just” and “fair.” If they knew better ways to do things within their pool of choices, then there wouldn’t have been any need for pillboxes or heart-wrenching photos of old women packing up their meager belongings.
The excuse to poverty is a lack of proper care and education: lacking the tools necessary to rise above their condition. It’s the realization that the poor cannot be productive members of society if the first recourse of enforcing the law is to force them out, so they can occupy another space. Poverty is the deprivation of one’s capabilities, and therefore the poor should be accorded with the capabilities to exercise those rights and make life meaningful for themselves.
It means access to healthcare, education, and social services – for free or within the limits of what they can afford without depriving themselves – instead of dole-outs of food and undeveloped relocation centers without prospects of development. It will take a while before the most indolent of our archetypes could be convinced to help himself, but I have no doubts that most of the poor would rather have a hand-up for capabilities, than a handout of land parcels and government relief. Most poor people I know rose above poverty not because of a Horatio Alger story, but because of the opportunities that opened up capabilities.
I’ve always advocated education as a tool to improve one’s lot in life, but only with a proper one does it become the great equalizer and provider of opportunities. Yet quixotic as that hope may be, I look at South Central Farm can be an example of how we can rise above the indignity of being a “squatter” and make productive use of idle land through community farming and community building in urban areas. I already wrote about this before, so please take a gander here.
Informal settling is unjust in the sense that it takes away individual rights to property, in the same way that violent dispersal is unjust in the sense that it is an affront to human dignity. In the end we not only seek compassion, but also justice; that the way to freedom is always paved by broken barriers, so to speak.