When Helping is Seen as a Luxury by Marisse Galera

One day, while walking through the streets of Manila, I encountered two people who triggered lingering thoughts with me: the child selling turon on the overpass and the seemingly mentally handicapped man selling sampaguita in front of a high class dormitory across one of the Philippines’ top universities.

Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t have noticed them had it not been for my friend, who was walking with me at the time. He said, “Didn’t you see how teary-eyed the man was?” and later on, he asked, “Why do these people have to undergo these things? That kid should’ve been studying instead.”

Truthfully speaking, I never even bothered to look. I had been conditioned to draw my eyes away from the poverty that surrounded me, to cringe at the touch of a dirty hand reaching out, and to generally be disgusted with the people who need my help the most. I had been conditioned to question whether these people really need help, and, for years, I had been convinced that the sentiment “it will only encourage them” was true and not encouraging this behavior greatly outweighs the prospect of helping another person in need.

For the longest time, the prospect of helping has been to hone myself to the fullest and to help these people when, and only when, I have already achieved my best state. My idea of helping used to be grandiose: I wanted to change the system from the inside and start helping only when I have obtained enough power to do so. Most of the people I know also subscribe to this kind of thinking. But we never bother to ask: if you ever do achieve that state, what happens in the period between that state and yesterday: what happens in the now? More importantly, what happens if you never reach that state at all?

Sadly, in that in-between, most people are happy to wallow in a state of limbo and apathy. What we don’t realize is that we’re merely looking for excuses to refuse in helping others because it’s troublesome. While there might be the possibility of feeling helpless and feeling like whatever you do won’t really make a difference, with introspection, perhaps you’ll realize that you simply don’t want to give more than what is convenient. At least I did. I realized that I can give no more than loose change. I can’t give to these people unless it’s something I don’t want or it’s an excess. I realized that the only thing I was really willing to give were rejects and rejection. This holds true even with the notion of wanting to change things only when I have enough power: it holds a lack of urgency and doing it only when I’ve reached a state of lavishness.

Another problem with this kind of thinking is that it creates a disconnection between the self and the other: we end up alienating the people who need our help. With this kind of view, the drive to help is a lot less compelling, and we start viewing the act of helping more as a luxury than a need. For most of us, this is enough justification to refuse to act for the betterment of others.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying that you’re a bad person because you refused to give anything to that beggar on the corner of the street or because you don’t spend your weekends teaching children with learning disabilities. What I’m trying to point out is this: Unless you are severely marginalized, ostracized, and vulnerable, you will be taught that those who do belong to that category brought it upon themselves, and that it will never be your responsibility to help them. You are only expected to act towards alleviating their marginalization when you have the luxury to do so.

Helping others usually ends up in the bottom of a list of priorities. To make matters worse, the way we blame the victims by saying that they are poor because they are lazy and they are worthless, without considering that these people have no money to invest and little skills to employ. This does nothing but further exclude them from society. This prevents them and their children from changing their situation of destitution. The systems that are employed by society today are driven by those priorities, this callousness, and the social exclusion brought by these.

While the fastest growing economies are in Asia and the Pacific, two-thirds of the world’s poor also live here. The growth of the economy benefits only those at the top of the pyramid and those at the bottom remain there. The gap between the rich and the poor grows: the rich grow ever richer and the poor, poorer.

This is why, as pointed out by the BSP Governor Amando Tetangco and the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, systematic changes must be made–we cannot simply wait for wealth to trickle down to the grassroots; we cannot delay attempts to lift the poor out of extreme poverty.

As people who have faced constant rejection, what the poor need the most is empowerment, and this can be done through offering social protection and inclusion. As Gov. Tetangco said, we have given them access to microcredit from formal financial service providers, and the challenge is how to reach out to the millions of people who live in extreme poverty.

I cannot agree more with the World Bank President Kim Yong Jim when he said, “When a poor family has access to something as simple as mobile phone payments or a savings account, it could open the door to services such as water, electricity, and education.” Simple services, when made more accessible and less discriminating, can allow the most marginalized to gain more capabilities to allow them to take more steps in living their lives to the fullest.

Alleviating millions of people from extreme poverty is possible, but it requires a change of perspective, and more importantly, a change in the system.