ANA Patricia Non’s idea of mutual aid in these pandemic times is catching fire. A community pantry she opened early this month in Diliman, Quezon City is being replicated at a viral rate in other parts of the country. The latest count shows that community pantries have sprouted in at least 22 areas in Metro Manila and neighboring provinces alone. The rise of similar community pantries has been reported from as far as Mindanao in the south and Pangasinan in Northern Luzon.
The idea is powerful. Non’s creation consists of a physical structure, a slogan and a community that shares common values. The physical structure consists of a bamboo cart on which benefactors drop off food items they wish to donate. Close to the cart (parked along Maginhawa Street) hang two cardboard pieces on which its identity is written in bold pentel, “Maginhawa Community Pantry” and, on the other, also in bold black pentel, “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan/Kumuha batay sa pangangailangan” (Give whatever you can; take what you need).
The Maginhawa Community Pantry’s roster of benefactors has so far shown the breadth of diversity that includes kindred souls outside of the neighborhood, such as root crop farmers from Central Luzon and tilapia growers from Binangonan. But the average profile of givers appears to be one among many of us: neither rich nor powerful. They can, in the context shifting political dynamics, rise and band themselves together to constitute the regenerative core of yet another peaceful people power uprising.
Both benefactor and beneficiary — whose number and depths of need indicate the magnitude not only of the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on the poor but, unfortunately, also the inadequate level of government response to address that need — share a common value of solidarity and collective action. This shared value is powerful enough for community pantries to thrive, even to attract support from a broader segment of society, for as long as the offer to help on the one hand and appreciation of one’s need on the other is seen as pure and authentic.
“Give whatever you can; take what you need” expresses the shared values that make Non’s mutual help idea work. This seemingly easy-to-follow rule looks simple. In reality, however, anthropology has shown that it is not. Threats to its sustainability can come from many fronts.
The offer to help tempts both the righteous and the wicked. One is authentic; the other attaches strings to every act of kindness. The moment people see rubbish filtering into the system, like one community pantry that has been re-branded to include the name of a politician, potential donors will shy away from it and beneficiaries will reconsider their need in the context of a pandemic that shows no sign of slowing down. The community of donors shrinks to one individual, and the queue of beneficiaries will be left with one or two who hoard goodies for themselves to the detriment of others. In short, shared values are debased and the entire notion of community action that it underpins collapses.
The notion of “what you need” is thus dependent on context. Gang lords kill and rob because they believe they are addressing the security needs of their businesses and families. Commercial loggers, miners and fishers kill the environment and rob local people of their livelihood for pretty much similar reasons. Political dynasties steal people’s money to support the needs of their constituents, not to mention the needs of extended families, those of a dynast’s mistresses included. They may be accused of being driven by greed, but all of them operate within the bounds of what they consider as their need (batay sa pangangailangan).
Regardless of where the community pantries are headed, the idea that sired it is like a whiff of fresh air in a polluted socio-political environment. Somebody in social media has commented that with billions of funds as its disposal, government has failed to offer hope where the humble community pantry has succeeded, or something to that effect.
These bamboo carts may not live long enough to feed a starving nation. But they open people’s eyes to new ways of responding to their issues. Whereas before the poor sought every politician’s intervention to help them get by, now they may try to explore ways by which they can help themselves. In time, the ways of traditional politics should be due for dumping.
Beating traditional politics requires breaking free from the dis-empowering and enslaving shackles of a political culture that supports it. In Cristina Montiel’s Philippine Political Culture and Governance (2000), there is this damning reference to “a culture of dependence.” She writes: “Filipinos tend to display a sense of dependency and helplessness, especially those in extreme poverty. As such, poor people are perceived to depend on a patron politician who can provide temporary relief to their everyday struggle for subsistence. Politicians can stay in politics for a long time by making people continuously dependent on them. This culture of dependence is also evident within government, where people merely wait to follow orders rather than take the initiative. Essentially, people try to avoid responsibility by depending on their superiors.”
The Philippine political culture institutionalizes, according to Ferdinand Marcos in Today’s Revolution: Democracy (1971), a populist, personalized and individualist idea of democracy in the person of the politician. That culture has kept our country backward, politically and economically. To quote the late dictator further:
“The unequal distribution of wealth where a few become rich and the majority remain poor serves as fuel for the perpetuation of a corrupt political culture. The oligarchs either use their money to influence politics or they themselves become integrated into the political system. Moreover, the morally bankrupt society functions as an enabler of this type of political culture. Filipinos are so accustomed to the corruption that they experience and witness it but they choose to ignore it. The people, especially the masses, are hard to be blamed because they are frequently misled by the empty promises of traditional politicians.”
Non’s idea of mutual aid shakes up the notion that people are dependent on the benevolence of the rich, the oligarchs, the powerful, who often are personified by the political patron and cannot take the initiative of helping themselves.
But this early, that idea is being challenged from the perspective of individual and collective values. Because Philippine politics is so deeply rooted in culture, it might be too optimistic to expect that community pantries have lasting answers to questions of what it takes to put traditional politicians out of business. But community pantries bring to the democratic space ideas that can show the poor — the usual prey of partisan politics and pawns of political gang lords — their way out of traditional politics and into a fresh reset of a democratic revolution.
Originally published by The Manila Times on 21 April 2021.