Amidst all the troubles we have as a nation or simply as a group of people, whether at home or in a foreign land, one thing is certain. We can always celebrate. No super typhoons can even stop us. This was vividly on display a few nights ago when we were invited to a dinner gala of a local organization of Filipinos in Toronto who were celebrating their 4o years of existence in the city.
And it wasn’t a small feat. Gathering about five hundred souls under one roof is not an easy task. Not just about breaking loaves of bread to feed the multitude. Honouring its outstanding members for their contribution and celebrating the history and legacy of people from their region in the Philippines meant a lot of brainpower was used up. To top it all, making the event relevant to what their organization is doing in the Philippines to help those in need, they had to invite not just any other Filipino who could keep the masses spellbound or entertained with songs and whatnot just like most Filipino organizations in the city are wont to do. Bringing over someone to speak about the task of sheltering Filipinos so that they would not live as squatters any more or in unfit living conditions is in itself a monumental achievement. We’re not even talking about the soon-to-depart leader of our country, but a much-better person, Tony Meloto, top honcho of Gawad Kalinga (GK).
Since building its first GK house in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City, in 1999, GK launched the GK777 campaign in October 2003 to build 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities for the next 10 years. This means that next year, in 2010, GK should have met this target.
In February 2006, GK launched another initiative called Isang Milyung Bayani (“One Million Builders), aimed at mobilizing at least 1 million GK volunteers. In its global summit held in Boston early this year, GK launched its Vision 2024 platform, a 21-year timeline from 2003 to 2024 (including the GK777 started in 2003) to eradicate homelessness, hunger and poverty in the Philippines. To all GK dreamers, this would mean that the Philippines will be joining the First World in 2024.
Tony Meloto has set on fire the spirit of bayanihan through voluntarism—an effective model for community development. Everywhere he goes nowadays, he brings the message of hope that Filipinos by themselves can rebuild their nation, and this message rings more true in light of the destruction, death and despair brought about by the recent typhoons that have ravaged the country.
Meloto’s approach is not entirely new but under his stewardship, GK’s efforts in building houses for the poor on private initiative and cooperation have been recognized with a Ramon Magsaysay Award (the Philippines’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for Community Leadership in 2006. His efforts have followed others who have emulated India’s Emperor Ashoka who ruled from 269 to 232 BC. Stricken with great remorse after enlarging his empire through wars and unifying the Indian subcontinent, Ashoka realized how much economic power his empire had and used it for social purposes. Ashoka advanced a bold but fairly simple idea: social entrepreneurship, which in turn gave birth to the citizen sector by 2003. It is this growth of the citizen sector that attracts people of all ages to work for the benefit and betterment of their communities. Meloto, in part, has been responsible for making civic engagement socially acceptable in the Philippines.
But Meloto and Gawad Kalinga must go beyond their 2024 vision and re-engineer GK efforts away from charity, for aid is not the most effective way to solve real problems. GK’s success hinges mostly on donations from overseas Filipinos to finance its construction activities. What would happen when this deep well of money dries up? There is not enough private money to support a sustainable community development program that addresses—aside from shelter—other issues such as livelihood, education and health that are equally important for the welfare of the Filipino people.
The GK initiative can be integrated in a more comprehensive social and economic plan where both the government and the private sector can work as equal partners. To achieve this partnership, the leaders we elect in Congress, the president of the country and those that surround the executive circle, and local government officials must be on board this massive socio-economic plan. This can only be accomplished if GK believers and like-minded people exercise the power of the ballot and elect people who will embrace this gigantic program of helping and serving the people.
It’s probably the opportune time for Tony Meloto to jettison his disinclination to throw his hat into the political ring. If indeed what the country needs today is transformational leaders, Tony Meloto leads the best of them. In an arena with the likes of Noynoy Aquino and the rest of the so-called “presidentiables,” who could be more transformational than Meloto?
Tony Meloto has proved that GK, a non-governmental organization (NGO), can be the most effective voice for the concerns of ordinary people. The United Nations has recognized that NGOs are often the most outspoken advocates of human rights, the environment, social programs, women’s rights and economic amelioration.
GK has shown that the concept of civil society is alive in the Philippines. There is no other or better way to crown its success than by its leaders giving themselves up to the public sector to become the new corps of civil servants, by changing the whole makeup of the government with people who serve because they care about their country.
Another powerful typhoon is said to be headed towards the Philippines as I am about to finish writing this blog. Are we going to appeal again to our more well-to-do overseas Filipinos to keep opening their hearts and wallets? This kind of natural devastation that our country finds itself could be cyclical, and charity does not offer us the best alternative to help our people fight or survive from it. Perhaps, it is about time to consider more strategic responses, such as helping arouse our people’s awareness that years of wanton destruction of our homeland’s resources have made the environment so fragile and to pressure leaders in government to make environment conservation and preservation a top priority.
That’s why building houses is not enough to solve our crisis of poverty. We need people in government who would serve like Tony Meloto and his group who will put service to the people ahead of their own personal interests.