Chronic poverty in developing countries and us

By Gareth Leung


In June, escaping from the urban life in Hong Kong, I sneaked into an exotic country where tall cement buildings are replaced by wooden cottages; where double-decker buses and MTR are replaced by jeepneys and tricycles. During this adventure, I was immersed into Philippines culture, which allows me to look into the ambitions, regrets and struggles of some Philippines people.


Philippines is considered as an emerging country with an average monthly salary of PHP11,700 (which is only about HK$2,000!) as calculated by the International Labor Organization. Let’s not forget that we are only talking about average salary which does not accurately reflect the lives of most Philippines people due to the severe income inequality. Although Philippines economy is progressing fast in recent years, regional development is uneven with Luzon which is the home of the capital city, Manila, taking most fruits of the national economic growth at the expense of other regions.


Take the salary level in Guimaras where I was staying as an example. Guimaras is a small island in the Western Visayas which mainly produces agricultural products. As told by my host family, the daily salary of an entry-level staff in the provincial government is only PHP250 notwithstanding that the position is one of the highest paid one in Guimaras! While a set meal of chicken inasal with rice usually costs PHP85-120, which is almost 50% of most people’s daily salaries in Guimaras. The huge gap between income level and costs of living and the severely uneven distribution of wealth across the nation discourages people from pursuing higher education and having long-term plans, potentially resulting in chronic poverty.


Working as a consultant for a sole proprietorship named as La Imprinta Designs and General Merchandise Co. in San Miguel, Guimaras, I met Nonah who was one of the most trusted staff in the company. Notwithstanding that she has a very nice and upbeat personality with a college degree in accounting earned from the University of Iloilo and approximately 5 years of work experience, she was paid PHP5,200 per month only. A salary with the same purchasing power in Hong Kong could possibly lead to fierce social condemnation if not another political crisis. Although Nonah aspired to give her children better living standard, she admitted that she was not sure if sending her children to local universities can give them a brighter future.


If you know that even though you can successfully get into a college and graduate with satisfying grades, you can still only earn a little bit more than your peers who have not attended a college, the decision of not to further your studies after completing the compulsory education seems to be rational. Pursuing a higher education in the eyes of many poor Philippines is similar to building an investment portfolio which only consists of Hang Seng Index Constituent Stocks — very expensive but unable to bring huge returns in the short run.


It is normal for people who have lived in poverty for a long time to overvalue short-term benefits while having biases against value that could only be realized in the future. Indeed, the lack of delayed gratification is one of the major reasons why people living in generational poverty usually get stuck in it as suggested in A Framework for Understanding Poverty which is written by Ruby K. Payne (A book that has rich content with clear and concise writing style. I highly recommend if you want to under more about poverty and people living in emerging economy!). Poverty usually comes with a lower sense of control in life, higher rates of diseases, crimes and accidents. This properly shapes how children living in poverty view the world, seeing the world as a dangerous place with a lot of uncertainties. If there are many uncertainties in the future, it is normal for a person to perceive any long-term plans as having lower expected value, encouraging them to live in the moment. Therefore, the poor‘s inability to delay gratification seems to be more about their perception of the world rather than about lack of intelligence or knowledge.


Being born and raised up in a developed country, it is easy to feel distant from the struggles that the people living in emerging countries have. Some people believe that it is not our faults that some people suffer from poverty, let alone to say that we have the responsibility to help these less fortunate fellows. However, let’s not forget that almost none of our achievements we can take 100% credit for. Our knowledge and international exposure have more to do with the fact that we are lucky enough to be born in a country where education is highly encouraged with a well-developed education system than our own meritocracy. A child who is born in a poor African family may be much more diligent than us but his knowledge level may still far lag behind from ours. It even may not be fair for us to say that we can take credits for our meritocracy and efforts if we consider that DNA or even birth order may affect how hardworking a person is. A studies cited in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (written by Michael Sandel) suggests that how diligent a person is seems to be correlated with his/her birth order. The eldest son or daughter is usually the most diligent one.


If we cannot claim safely that the things we own and our achievements are earned by us, the idea that we only share or help the less fortunate people purely at our discretion seems loose at least from a philosophical standpoint. We may not be the cause of the poor’s misery but if to a quite large degree we cannot control our fortunes or misfortunes, everyone is fair game. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be better to everyone and the whole community if we are more generous and empathetic to the least fortunate fellows?



(A photo taken with elementary school students in Jordon Central School)


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