News of Tony Meloto’s speech at the 40th anniversary of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii reached me a few days ago. It flooded social media yesterday and came with a barrage of comments from people who apparently have some kind of grievance against either Tony Meloto or Gawad Kalinga. My initial thoughts centered on the quite distasteful act done by the University of Hawaii-Center for Philippine Studies (UH-CPS). Rather than expressing its disappointment directly to Tony Meloto, the institution chose to make its disapproval viral through a memo made public on a Facebook page. In doing so, the UH-CPS seems to be inviting people, Filipinos, the world over to join its quest to publicly scorn a person – an invited guest at that.
While I question some of Tony Meloto’s ideas about social entrepreneurship – a business will never be “social” unless the poor are made partners and equals in management and decision-making – one cannot argue with 1.25 million people housed, with his (and Gawad Kalinga’s) goal of instilling discipline and putting an end to a culture of poverty in GK communities. Such endeavors and achievements, which no NGO or government institution has rivaled as yet, will not go down without resistance. Along the way, one cannot help but have disagreements with those who think they know better, and such individuals would only be too happy to join in on this public persecution.
This article is not about the speech per se, nor about the incident. Such things will pass from memory soon enough (and is probably dated by now – in fact, Tony Meloto has already released a response). My concern involves those ideas that Tony mentioned that people seem to have latched on to, for instance, that the poor are “broken,” “hopeless,” and “violent.” [I will not talk about the supposedly sexist and xenocentric remarks because jokes, when taken out of context, will indeed appear off to certain groups.] As is usually the case when the country gets cast in a bad light, the number of arms raised up in its defense multiplies tenfold. Academics, many of whom are not even based in the country, are calling out against the way that the poor have been defined, and they are supported by quite a few in civil society.
Only those who have never been immersed in poor neighborhoods, who have very little interaction with the poor, who have done field work from a privileged position, or whose contact with the poor is limited by blinders, will protest against such characterizations. In the years that I have worked in both rural and urban poor communities – talking to families on the verge of relocation because of flood control and river rehabilitation programs; assessing resettlement conditions in Bulacan, Montalban, and Cavite; documenting feeding, savings, and slum upgrading programs at the foot of one of the country’s largest dumpsites – I have seen resilience. But I have also witnessed Tony’s depictions of the poor in the flesh. In such areas, I have encountered an extreme lack of motivation and initiative to work once easy access to livelihood is eroded; a deprioritizing of education; a lack of vision for the future despite the presence of programs that offer benefits in the long run; an over-reliance on politicians and ‘patrons’; and a huge sense of entitlement – all of which are embodiments of Oscar Lewis’ notion of a culture of poverty.
This culture of poverty is one of the major reasons why, despite the presence of NGOs, charities, and a plethora of poverty alleviation programs, things have remained the same. Yes, poverty and inequality are products of structure, which will take a very long time to change. The country is beset by a wide gap between the rich and the poor and a highly unequal distribution of wealth, where the top 10% are getting nearly 40% of the share in the country’s total income. And the rich would like to keep it that way. This kind of structure dates back to pre-Hispanic times, reinforced during Spanish times with land ownership and the encomienda system, continued during the American period with land titling, and maintained in present day elite control of the economy and government.
One can certainly blame the structures for the poor being “broken,” “hopeless,” and “violent.” Decades of deprivation have shaped them to be so. Unfortunately, in trying to be politically correct, many of those working towards poverty alleviation often adopt a patronizing and careful approach, denying the existence of such a culture. Interventions focus on empowering the poor, not to address the roots of their poverty, but to make demands and ask for entitlements. Such interventions do not allow for a shift in mindsets that enable the poor to recognize the ways by which their attitudes reinforce structure. They may have agency, but it is often asserted in support of a system that prevents them from moving up.
In this light, Tony Meloto’s efforts are commendable. Aside from building houses and schools, GK also administers values education in its communities. While one can argue about which and whose values are propagated, the attempt to make the poor see that they have to work at alleviating their own poverty, rather than simply voicing out what they should be getting from others, is there. Further, structures that instill discipline and curb dependency have also been introduced, including mechanisms for dispute resolutions, rules on cleanliness, drugs, and the like, and rules against buying from sari-sari stores on credit.
I may not agree with some of Tony Meloto’s ideas or with a number of principles upheld by Gawad Kalinga, but my experience with the poor indicates that this approach is indeed a good way to proceed. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon of critique based on de-contextualized extracts of a speech that was intended only for a select group of people, credit needs to be given to Tony Meloto for understanding what is happening on the ground and working towards changing it.
Featured image from this site.