Can We Rely on Bayanihan Spirit Alone to Keep Donations Going?
As COVID-19 travels throughout the world, many people are stuck at home—and more than ever, they rely on their government to guide them through.
But in the Philippines, the nation struggles—not only to keep COVID-19 in check, but to provide basic necessities to areas that need it the most. And often, it is a fight with volunteer-led organizations at the helm.
“During the first week of lockdown there were relief packs given from private entities,” said Carol Sadorra. “Government aid only started pouring in later.”
Sadorra is a volunteer for Save San Roque, an organization advocating for the rights of the urban poor community of San Roque, which is home to roughly 6,000 families.
Every day, many of them line up, plates in hand, to receive food from the newly set up soup kitchens. In areas with less space, food rations are packed in plastic bags and distributed door to door.
Sadorra and the other members of Save San Roque are responsible for distributing the ingredients, which have been purchased mostly with money raised online, for the communities' daily food.
“We are looking to secure more funds. That’s the most urgent concern. But our target is to finish developing [an] urban farm, so that even after lockdown their kitchens can continue independently,” Sadorra said.
More than half of the community of San Roque is made up of informal workers. The majority used to be farmers or fishermen from rural areas, who migrated to find better pay in urban cities.
A hard lockdown has been imposed on the area since March 16, when President Rodrigo Duterte announced the entire island of Luzon was on enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
The ECQ banned public transportation and non-essential travel, severely limiting mobility within the island. For informal workers who rely on daily wages, it has meant a constant struggle, as many of them have no choice but to wait for help to come to them.
According to research, up to 80 percent of the households in San Roque earn lower than the Family Living Wage (P10,481) every month.
But there are many similar communities in the Philippines. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, up to 21 percent of Filipinos are registered below the poverty line.
Hunger turns to protest
On April 1, residents of San Roque took to the streets to protest for food and financial aid. Some have since told news publications that they were more afraid of hunger than COVID-19.
But the government responded by having 21 residents arrested for violating the ECQ. The arrests were quickly met with outrage:
Save San Roque has since set up 28 soup kitchens in the area, feeding a total of 3,500 households daily. But raising funds independent from government support has also meant heavily relying on the kindness of friends, strangers, or businesses.
“To be frank, our current budget will only last three weeks. So, we hope that the lockdown doesn’t extend again,” Sadorra said.
The ECQ is scheduled to end on May 15. However, it has already been extended twice previously, as COVID-19 continues to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system.
“Whenever the lockdown is extended, [the flow of] donations gets weaker,” Sadorra added. “Because there are new areas, new communities, that need more help.”
It costs roughly P1,500 to run each kitchen a day, she estimated. There have also been several days without meals, as they try to spread out their resources.
“We give only as much as necessary, and on days we run short, the cooks ask the residents for their understanding.”
A nation built on the back of its people
Save San Roque is not alone. There has been a wave of similar fundraising initiatives dedicated to helping urban poor communities.
Help from Home is a new website dedicated to organizing the various channels for donations that have opened since COVID-19.
Currently, it is working with 222 verified initiatives, although over 500 have reached out to help. Nearly all of these initiatives started as a response to the pandemic and its challenges; at the moment, only six are spearheaded by the government.
And the numbers are still growing. In fact, the total number of initiatives has grown 18-fold in just six weeks, since the lockdown began.
According to Jayeel Cornelio, director of development studies at Ateneo de Manila University, the current situation has revealed the state’s dependency on resources outside the government.
“True, these are noble actions. But the fact that the state relies on them as well testifies to the inability of government agencies to address all problems. This is not new. Development in the Philippines has been reliant on civil society,” he said.
Civil society refers to individuals and informal organizations outside the spheres of government or the private sector with a shared goal or vision; it includes non-governmental organizations, labor unions, and charitable organizations.
According to historian Xiao Chua, the term “civil society” was only popularized in 2001, when then-president Joseph Estrada was overthrown in a giant peaceful protest, now known as EDSA Revolution II or People Power II.
During the revolution, organized groups and unions were largely credited for uniting the people. But many of these groups were founded long ago.
After the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, from 1965 to 1986, activism helped fuel the rise of civil society organizations, Chua said.
“By late 1970s, the economy started to fall down and the Marcos’ started to borrow more money... there was repression. But repression doesn’t kill activism. The more people felt repressed, the more activists were emboldened. When you are repressed you go above or beyond ground. And when you go above ground, you join organizations.”
“That was the rise of the civil society. Because when people became emboldened to act against the government, it wasn’t just propagating or adding struggle, it was also about helping and empowering people in need. Empowering people to act for themselves.”
Donor fatigue and the need for a sustainable solution
According to a report by Asian Development Bank, Philippine civil society organizations have long been known for its ability to “tap corporate resources to support poverty alleviation initiatives.”
“I think the immediate concern is that too much burden is being placed on the private sector. Volunteerism is necessary, yes. Philanthropy and charity too,” Cornelio said.
“But for the state to expect the private sector to handle everything—including taking care of workers—assumes that its resources are limitless. And then the state fails to offer the support structures the private sector needs. Tax incentives, for example. Or public transportation.”
On March 30, President Duterte appealed directly to the private sector to contribute, “in any way [they] can,” during the national emergency.
Previously, Duterte approved a cash emergency subsidy program that would provide financial aid to 18 million Filipino poor families; between P5,000 to P8,000 for one family per month for two months, to be used for basic necessities.
However, Filipinos still need to apply for the subsidy.
According to TJ Malvar—a councilor of Barangay Calawis, one of the poorest areas in his city of Antipolo—only roughly a quarter of his community of 1,500 families qualified for a subsidy.
To keep them fed, he set up his own soup kitchen, named PusoKitchen, with funding initially coming from his family’s foundation. As of writing, PusoKitchen has helped roughly 2,500 families.
“The hardest-hit sectors right now are the low-income communities. And if you talk about government structure, it means it falls on the barangay,” Malvar said.
But he added that despite his position as a councilor, he still feels he is relying heavily on the private sector and his personal capabilities.
“Honestly, it still feels like I’m acting as a private citizen,” he said. “I mean, I am able to do what I do because of my personal network. It’s family, too.”
“In general, barangay officials are not always well-connected. And government funding isn’t really enough due to the magnitude of the crisis. Even if you have very generous, compassionate—and this isn’t always the case—public officials, they are also very limited in their capacity.”
Although support from the private sector has been crucial to his success, over time, funding has become harder to secure.
“There’s definitely donor fatigue, especially since we are all sharing one donor base,” Malvar said. “We need to fundraise better...besides donor fatigue, there’s ‘asking fatigue.’ It gets tiring and you also exhaust the people within your social network. And it gets embarrassing after a certain point.”
Like Sarodda and the rest of Save San Roque, Malvar hopes that eventually the community will be able to grow their own food. But an urban farm takes time to develop—time that is not available as there continues to be mouths to feed.
For the remainder of the quarantine, they continue to rely on aid, wherever it may come from.
“Filipinos have [long] accepted that our government is not so capable of doing the thing that the non-governmental organizations are doing,” Chua said.
“That can be a very bad thing, [particularly] in the perspective of the West, where governments are expected to give everything. But in many ways, empowerment from organizations, the spirit of People Power Revolution, the concept of bayanihan ...this is a very cultural thing that steers Filipinos.”
“Maganda rin siya because the people are not asked na umasa lang kayo sa government. The problem now in this global pandemic is that it’s not about empowerment anymore. All we can do is... help.”
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This article originally appeared on Transit.