The following commentary by Irish missionary priest Shay Cullen, SSC, was published by the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) on February 14, 2020. A member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, Father Cullen has worked to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse, in the Philippines for nearly 50 years. The following article was published in the March-April 2020 issue of NewsNotes.

There is extreme poverty in the world. One percent of rich people have more money and wealth than the combined wealth of 4.6 billion people who have almost nothing. Worldwide there are about 735 million people in extreme poverty.

In the Philippines, there are an estimated six million people in extreme poverty. Why is there so much inequality in the world?

Can the power of goodness bring social justice and overcome the devastating harm done by powerful, greedy, and selfish people? They must be challenged, opposed and resisted by those dedicated and committed to doing well.

Humanity develops when there is sharing, cooperation, justice, freedom and equality among people. When these values pervade daily life, they bring peace, harmony and well-being. People have to change peacefully the political and economic forces that allow them such a life.

Each of us can help our neighbors and find ways to open the cage of poverty and let them fly free. Everyone needs a job and a just wage to support their family. The following is a true story, one that is repeated many times over.

Luisito was a boy from a hungry, homeless family. They lived in poverty under sacks at the edge of a beach. His father was a simple fisherman but when international fishing companies were given commercial fishing permits in Philippine waters by corrupt officials, the fish disappeared.

Thousands of Filipinos were thrown into the pit of poverty. Luisito, then 15, collected junk, plastic bottles, anything he could sell for a few handfuls of rice. That's all they had but it wasn't enough. Sickness took his father.

One day Luisito, who was emaciated with hunger, was seen by the owner of a basket-weaving shop and invited to learn basket weaving. He was a person of conscience and he judged it the right thing to do and did it.

Luisito was amazed when he was paid, in advance, a generous trainee's allowance. Immediately he bought rice and fish for the family, the first that they had in weeks.

He was determined to succeed and joined several workers in the small factory. Quickly he became a skilled worker and was paid a higher just wage and given shelter in the workshop. The cage was open.

Luisito saw a way to overcome poverty. He went to evening classes and graduated high school and, with the help of the basket shop owner, he eventually graduated from college and found a managerial job. He saved his family and his own children. They became college graduates and they have good jobs today.

That was and is the exception rather than the common reality.

That was 30 years ago. The Philippine population is now 110 million and, while poverty has lessened, there are 23.1 million Filipinos going hungry every day, down from 28.8 million in 2016, according to a World Bank survey.

That is still 23 million too many. Yet many more millions of Filipinos, while not grievously hungry, are still living in poverty.

The world has moved on to new economic challenges, so new skills and education are needed to help make a just economy where the youth of today will find good pay in high-tech jobs with dignity and equality.

The nation needs to produce more high-value products in a sustainable way that protects the environment and heals the damaged planet.

To help bring this about, Pope Francis will launch a new initiative called the "Economy of Francesco" at a world meeting of economists and business people with a conscience. It is to be held in Assisi, Italy, in March.

Global action is urgently needed. Millions of people around the world demand change and refuse to be submissive and docile or live in fear of the rich. They now protest inequality, low wages, poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction. They raise their voices at rallies, marches and demonstrations or quietly advocate and create public awareness of social injustice.

Equality will have to come by the action of just governments that will tax the rich and compel them by law to pay higher wages. Governments must also provide social development, health, housing, and employment with just wages, as government is supposed to be at the service of the people, for the people, by the people to overcome poverty.

In the Philippines it is the rich who control Congress; they rule by family dynasty and will very seldom legislate against their own interests, and only under intense public pressure.

What is to be done to overcome poverty? One thing is to defeat and remove corrupt officials. Politicians promise to do this in order to get elected and have power, but most are corrupt themselves.

As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported in January 2020: "The Philippines slipped 14 notches from its previous ranking in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a rating of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International has shown."

In the group's CPI 2019, the Philippines scored 34 to land in 113th spot, down from 99th place in 2018.

Despite that vexing and painful truth, there has been change for the good. There are millions of children and youth getting a better education nowadays thanks to many Filipino people of compassion, with social conscience, who don't tolerate injustice and poverty and lobby and pressure government officials to act justly. It is a slow and frustrating incremental progress.  

The restless youth and workers can't wait and are demanding jobs and higher wages and benefits, a life free from hunger and want.

The rich oppose this. They grow rich from low wages, restrictive labor laws, short-term contract workers, exploitation, plundering natural resources and paying low or no taxes. The labor movement is frozen.

Educated workers are frustrated and migrate with their brainpower, skills, and knowledge. The Philippines can lower the rate of poverty if the government will invest in advanced technology training and encourage business to create higher-value employment and make high-value products. This will give more spending power to people. That in turn spurs greater economic growth.

Breaking the cycle of poverty will only happen when many more millions develop a conscience, have compassion, and give equal opportunities to the poor by sharing their wealth. Together we can help the poor to rise out of poverty and open the door of the cage so that they can fly free.