“If poverty is man-made, it can be unmade by man”
The slums of Manila are notorious: thousands and thousands of huts lashed together by plywood and zinc roofs.
Atop mountains of rubbish, children scavenge for food, bottle caps and screws. Mothers nurse infants amid the swirling stench. Animals and drug dealers prowl by night.
And yet nestled amid the Payatas slum in Quezon City is a strange sight: rows of brightly painted houses ringed by flowers.
Children play badminton along straight and tidy streets. Youths shoot hoops at a basketball court. At a cooperative, a dozen young men are silk-screening t-shirts, while a group of seamstresses sew clothes and bags.
“Welcome to Blue Eagle Village. I help to take care of this place,” says Peter, a middle-aged man, as he gestures to the 197 houses built in 2003.
Peter tells us that he worked as a driver before.
“I used to live under a plastic tarp. The walls were carton boxes.”
This amazing social and physical transformation is happening in hundreds of similar villages within slums across 10 cities in the Philippines.
These communities are the brainchild of Antonio Meloto, or Tito Tony, as he is usually known.
Gawad Kalinga, the social enterprise he founded, has set a big goal: to eradicate poverty for five million families by 2024.
Its work has won worldwide recognition, including the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2012 and the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.
Gawad Kalinga, which means “to give care” in Tagalog, is a collaborative model that invites the government, corporations and volunteers to build communities together.
Since 1999, the Gawad Kalinga movement has impacted 2,500 neighbourhoods and mobilised more than 1.7 million people.
Together, they target the root causes of slum life. Beyond building homes, they work on healthcare, food, and values formation. All partners are driven by the same core value of bayanihan – the Filipino spirit of community and helping one another.
“People see an ugly slum, but I see the beautiful community it can become,” Tony says.
“My mission is to build homes. If I want the future to be secure for my children, I have to provide land for the landless, and give light for those in darkness. If poverty is man-made, it can be unmade by man. Our purpose is to restore humanity who live in subhuman conditions.”
Power of presence
A former marketing executive, Tony began his purpose-driven journey by spending his evenings with youth gangs in Bagong Silang, one of the largest slum districts in the Philippines.
“You cannot have transformative solutions without the power of presence,” he stresses.
By spending time with the gangs, he gained their trust. He spoke to their mothers. He partnered with them on projects, such as community theatre.
At one point, he encountered a young prostitute – the same age as his daughter – who was gang-raped.
Tony was struck by a thought; the only difference between his daughter and this girl was where they were born. He saw that the poor were his family too.
He learnt a great deal about solving poverty from being present in the community he wished to help. But the most valuable lesson was that it transformed his own worldview.
Power of purpose
The community’s needs went deeper than mere infrastructure.
“Slum dwelling breeds slum mentality,” he concludes.
Men deprived of the dignity of providing for their families, became predatory and mercenary.
Tony saw that their surroundings had stripped them of hope and self-respect. He wondered if given an opportunity, they could be enticed to aim for a higher purpose.
Initially, the movement met with scepticism. People questioned if building houses would solve the drunkenness, crime, and unemployment.
In Bagong Silang, Tony made every recipient of a house sign an agreement not to do drugs or get drunk, and to seek to better their community and nation instead.
Through “sweat equity,” fathers were invited to co-build the houses with volunteers. They attended values formation sessions. And many of them went on to find jobs.
Gawad Kalinga’s bayanihan approach restored the men’s sense of purpose, which empowered them to be present for their families and community.
Power of partnership
With the proof of concept in Bagong Silang, Tony began to scale up support.
Grounded by Gawad Kalinga’s values and mission, he invited political figures to mobilise resources through their networks; private corporations to sponsor whole villages with their profits; and universities to provide innovative solutions through research.
He wanted to “bring the best to the least, and bring out the best from the least”.
Today, Gawad Kalinga is building hundreds of partnerships each year to achieve its seemingly impossible goal of eradicating poverty.
It has also launched social enterprises that help rural farmers and the urban poor sell high quality duck eggs, bamboo bikes, chocolate and organic chicken.
“A lot of people want to end poverty with you. You cannot do it alone,” Tony says.
“We have built thousands of houses yet I don’t own one. But I will always have a place to live. Because of that I am the richest man on the planet.”