Poverty alleviation is at the mercy of political patronage


On July 10, the disbarred lawyer Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon was sworn in as presidential adviser on poverty alleviation. After nearly a month of public adverse reactions to Gadon’s appointment, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has made his priorities clear: to honor political patronage over providing credible leadership in addressing poverty in the Philippines. 

Critics claim that Gadon, disbarred by the Supreme Court on a unanimous vote, is not equipped with the required knowledge, skills, and moral ascendancy to serve in his new post. In an interview with ANC, Ibon Foundation executive director Sonny Africa pointed out that such a position requires vast knowledge of and technical skill in government processes, empathy for the poor, and willingness to work with civil society groups—elements, he said, that Gadon does not embody. 

A qualified adviser can give the President sound advice on alleviating poverty, including identifying its root causes, providing solutions that empower the poor, and advocating pro-poor stances in the government. Sadly, based on his notorious interactions with the general public, the newly appointed adviser does not display these basic competencies. 

In 2018, Gadon cursed and shouted at supporters of ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, calling them “bobo” (stupid). In 2021, in a shocking display of misogyny and sexism, he ranted online at journalist Raissa Robles, who had questioned the qualifications of then presidential aspirant Marcos Jr. His rant—which speaks highly of his failure to present basic professionalism in public service—would be the basis of his suspension and eventual disbarment by the Supreme Court. 

The President’s resolve to push through with Gadon’s appointment despite his disbarment, negative public image, and questionable preparedness as adviser on poverty alleviation is a textbook case of patronage politics—as when a ruling leader and/or party rewards supporters with positions in government or other political favors as a token of gratitude for their support and loyalty especially during elections. 

Taking control of state resources

In his book “The anti-Marcos struggle: Personalistic rule and democratic transition in the Philippines,” Mark Thompson wrote that the goal of patronage politics is simply to take control of the resources of the state for the economic and political benefit of the winning party and its allies. This has been a common practice since the colonial and postcolonial eras, during martial law, and in contemporary Philippines. 

Past administrations have their share of controversial appointments. In 2010, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s appointment of her manicurist to the Home Development Mutual Fund and her gardener as deputy at the Luneta Park Administration was met with strong public criticism. President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointment of social media personality Mocha Uson, a known supporter of his, as assistant secretary at the Philippine Communications Operations Office also faced public backlash. 

Gadon ran as a senatorial candidate under the UniTeam ticket of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte in 2022. Before and during the election campaign, Gadon positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Marcos Jr., defending the presidential candidate from critics. During the SMNI senatorial debate, he went so far as to claim that there was no proof of human rights violations during the martial law era under Ferdinand Marcos Sr. 

It does appear that Gadon’s appointment after the one-year ban on appointing losing candidates is the President’s reward for his staunch support during the 2022 elections. With this token of gratitude from his political master, the new adviser is privileged with a prestigious government position, with the prerogative to implement his own projects financed by taxpayer money. 

In the same ANC Interview, Ibon’s Africa described the optics of Gadon’s appointment as “very bad,” reflecting the government’s lack of sincerity in genuinely addressing poverty. This appointment sends a clear message: The fight against poverty can be led by anyone regardless of their qualifications and attitudes, as long as they are favored by the President. Transformative solutions to poverty are thus not a priority, being of no benefit to the status quo. 

Multidimensional factors

The new presidential adviser on poverty alleviation has committed to implementing programs to decrease unemployment and hunger among schoolchildren. But addressing poverty requires a more comprehensive appreciation. 

A poor neighborhood in the metropolis. —PHOTO FROM pna.gov.ph

A study of multidimensional factors is needed to grasp the poverty situation in the country today. The results of the 2021 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) show that there are 19.99 million Filipinos whose incomes fall below the poverty line of P12,030 per month for a family of five. The FIES report also states that of this number, 3.50 million families cannot afford to meet their basic food needs. The poverty data translate to 9.8% of families who self-reported experiencing hunger in the first quarter of 2023, as measured by Social Weather Stations. 

The issue of poverty becomes deeper from the perspective of income and wealth inequality. According to a World Bank report released in 2022, the Philippines is among the countries in East Asia with the highest income inequality. The report states that the income of the wealthiest 1% of the population is equivalent to 17% of the national income, and that only 14% of the national income is owned by the bottom 50% of the population. 

Learning poverty is an emerging issue, with another World Bank study in 2022 reporting that 91% of Filipino children do not have sufficient reading comprehension skills. 

There is also the issue of gender inequality. While the World Economic Forum Gender Global Gap Report 2023 ranks the Philippines as 16th in terms of achieving gender equality, women’s income is still at 71.6% of the income of men. And a 2017 study published by the Philippine Institute on Development Studies says that poor and marginalized sectors, such as indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, continue to face unequal opportunities in accessing basic social services, improving their literacy rate, and securing access to electricity and sanitation. 

Finally, there is disaster vulnerability. The World Risk Index 2022 has identified the Philippines as one of the countries with the highest disaster risk, along with India and Indonesia. 

Grave, complex situation

These are just some of the factors that present the gravity and complexity of poverty in the Philippines. The data also present the issues that the presidential adviser on poverty alleviation must deal with, requiring a competency for understanding what’s happening on the ground in order to be able to offer sound advice on how to address the deep-seated problem.

Addressing poverty goes beyond palliative measures that lessen the daily hunger of the poorest of the poor. It requires a recognition that social inequality and injustice exist at the structural level—in the economy, politics, and culture. Disparities among genders must also be recognized and the responsibility of the state pinpointed. 

In addition, there has to be an appreciation of the agency displayed by grassroots communities in fighting poverty and discrimination through ways that fit their contexts and strengths. Ending poverty is a multidimensional process that necessitates transformative, democratic, and pro-poor leadership from various sectors, especially from the state. Gadon’s appointment triggers a loud call for state accountability in its leadership, policies, and programs in addressing poverty and inequality.

Isaac P. Linco is an assistant professor at the College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines Diliman.

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