Articles, Class, Culture, Focus, Lifeworlds
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Tony Meloto and the Culture of Poverty

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.


  1. Reblogged this on Chocolate Dazed and commented:
    Hindi sa lahat ng oras, “resilient” ang mahirap. (It is not all the time the poor are resilient.)

    Lift them up by education, kindness and compassion to make the “broken, hopeless and violent” rise.

  2. I do not wish to distract you from your main focus – Meloto and GK – but allow me this minor comment. I presume you are alluding to us at U of Hawaii as one of those academics “who are not based in the country,” but who call “out against the way that the poor have been defined, and they are supported by quite a few in civil society”? And your statement further hints that just because some of us are working outside of country (OFW by the way; not migrant in my case) we are unable to understand our country and our people better? Let me see: what is the best scholarship on the history of corruption in the Philippines today? It is Alfred S. McCoy’s (who by the way is fluent in Ilonggo), Policing America’s Empire (Ateneo republished it). Which Filipino expat scholar has contributed much to the study of Pinoy peasant mentalities? Reynaldo Ileto (based in Singapore) and Pasyon and Revolution. Who has given us the best insights on the Chinese in the Philippines? Caroline S. Hau (Kyoto) and her Instik book (recently published in Ateneo). The best work on the Magindanaos? Ileto’s MA thesis on Datu Uto, and Thomas McKenna’s Moro Rulers and Rebels (McKenna speaks fluent Magindanao – do you?). Scholars not “based in country” alas….And just for the fun of it, when I do get money to go home this July, and since you question our ability to know about our country, how about I take you on a road trip through that stretch between Cotabato and General Santos City. We part ways in Ampatuan municipality – where the clan still holds power – and figure out separately how to get back home (but not taking the bus)? And since you are in radical geography maybe we can go to Tawi-Tawi or Sulu and you can explain to me – an academic who lives in country – how the smuggling network’s geography works.

    • Thyme says

      This is another example of academic arrogance, and name-calling. I do not understand the need to be sooo defensive, and to even personally attack someone who is unknown to you. These are exactly the very same traits that Soco-Roda’s article alluded to. Filipino academics, not only those working outside the Philippines, can sometimes be very disappointing. The very same people who kept harping about oppression are the best oppressors.

      • Name calling? Arrogance? Alas, Thyme does not know how to read. I was just citing to the author the works of scholars not based in the Philippines who have written works that make us better understand our country. If Thyme think that there is no substance here, how about providing us heathens a list of the best works on the Philippines by those based in country. If you check these closely, these are not by academics in the Ateneo or UP, but by journalists, civil society and public intellectuals.

  3. Mariano A. Santos says

    Mao was perfectly correct in sending the elitists-academicians-intellectuals to the farms to learn and to serve the people. UH can save the people’s money by sending these snobs to the ghettos and urban red districts; and to the farms of California and live with the exploited migrant- workers. Then and only then they will have the credibility to pontificate about elitism and sexism. Short of that–it is all sound and fury or in the language they might want to put to heart—intellectual masturbation!

    • And Deng Xia Peng brought them back and China grew from a battered Maoist economy to the largest in the world. Maybe Mr. Santos can join our merry entourage to Tawi-Tawi. This is not intellectual masturbation; it’s field work. And at the end of the travel, let’s see who can better explain our country.

      • Ang tanga ng palitan na ito.

        Whatever was written here clearly wasn’t aimed at those who have immersed themselves with the Filipino poor, living in the Philippines or not. That includes all those prolific scholars overseas who broke ground in understanding the Philippine people. They won’t be credible sources if they didn’t immerse themselves. So don’t be so defensive and affected by that Mr. Abinales because clearly it’s not meant to offend you.

        If you’re offended then maybe you haven’t immersed yourself enough. Your next responses also are pointless and unnecessary. You try to compare local scholars with those located overseas to see who’s the better type. These scholars are clearly working towards the same goal. This is very unbecoming.

      • Linda DE Guzman says

        I don’t understand why Mr. Abinales feels the compulsion to answer comments that may not be in agreement with his (or probably he’s pushing his opinion down our throats? ). You may give a lot of resource books or articles written about the poor and their analyses of why the poor continue to be poor, which books, articles, opinions, analyses are most likely beyond the comprehension of the poor. You don’t need to invite others to go to places in the Philippines to prove your point. Since you have read those articles and books, and, I assume by the way, you understand them, why don’t you then redirect your energy in helping alleviate the plight of our poor? Our poor have been talked to by the intellectuals for decades and yet nothing has changed. The time for talking has long passed. What the poor need now is action. Don’t try to explain to me why the poor continue to be poor; show me how the poor can stop being poor. Then and only then will I be interested in what you’re saying, or as you say, “field work”.

  4. Andrea Soco-Roda says

    Thyme – and oftentimes, such arrogance creates blinders, allowing us to see only what we want to, driving us to always have the final say in things. We could all do with a dose of reflexivity and respect.

    Mr. Santos, yes!

    Mr. Baldonado, I agree! You are indeed correct in saying that those working to understand the Philippines have similar goals. Unfortunately, some choose to compete and do an exhortation of how knowledgeable they are, rather than respectfully pointing to other possible ways of looking at, for instance, the poverty situation. It would be particularly useful to hear about efforts in Mindanao. In fact, a number of colleagues have just concluded a study on displacement in Zamboanga and the ways that displaced peoples have worked to actually change structures. Their findings should be very interesting.

  5. Andrea Soco-Roda says

    Perhaps I will take this opportunity to follow up on certain debates in the approach to poverty alleviation. As mentioned in the article, the culture of poverty I have experienced in my work persuades me to support Gawad Kalinga’s top-down approach in running its communities (the current emphasis on social entrepreneurship, however, merits a separate discussion). Those government and NGO efforts known to me have so far tried to be bottom-up and ‘participatory,’ engaging the poor as ‘partners’ in development. I fully agree with the premise of a bottom-up approach – the importance of listening to the voices of those who are systematically excluded, of respecting their values, and arriving at courses of action as interpreted by the poor themselves.

    My concerns stem from experiences that indicate how i) community-based programs are never completely participatory. The poor are seen as partners in theory, but not in reality. Control over programs resides in institutions implementing the program, regardless of how much leverage is given to communities in making decisions. In many instances, once a project has been concluded, the community is left on its own, albeit with, for instance, slightly better infrastructure. But the culture of poverty remains.

    Further, the very act of implementing something or wanting to intervene in particular ways are already in themselves reflections of the ideologies of actors, whether these are social entrepreneurs, private corporations, or government and non-government organizations, none of whom are part of the poor community that they intend to help. Yes, the messianic complex also exists, even in bottom-up interventions, which are not so different from top-down ones, after all. BOTH approaches require a great deal of reflexivity.

    In the article, I mentioned as well that what usually happens in interventions that supposedly prioritize the voices of the marginalized is that ii) the poor are enabled, but only to make their voices louder, to make further assertions in terms of what the government should do for them, to demand accountability, but not to uproot structures of inequality. In the drive to be politically correct and to use uplifting discourses, these programs do little to even allow the poor to see how their actions reproduce the cycle of poverty. In fact, recent evaluation studies of programs that aim to break patron-client relationships have admitted to the need of these programs to work within the system so as not to antagonize local governments or the elites. In such cases, would descriptions of the poor as ‘hopeless’ or ‘broken’ be a case of elitism when poverty discourses are shaped by elite institutions, and very rarely are the opinions of the poor included?

    It would also be worth considering that the poor are not homogenous. There are the “elite poor,” the more vocal ones in the neighborhood, usually the community leaders, and their presence brings about another layer of dependency.

    While I am not discounting bottom-up approaches, these can perhaps make a dent in the structure, or at the very least, contribute to a shift in mindsets, if the above concerns are addressed moving forward. In denying that a culture of poverty exists or in saying that we should respect the values of the poor (acquired through years of structural deprivation – as I say in the article) and not impose our own middle or upper class ones, we might be inadvertently supporting structures too. If these values are cogs that enable the cycle of poverty to continue, then shouldn’t they need to be changed? Perhaps only then will structures change as well.

    We have yet to see whether or not top-down approaches also have the capacity to change structure. In GK communities, what is particularly of note is the discipline and accountability required of beneficiaries. There is indeed an imposition of middle class values – something its proponents have never denied – but there is also the effort to make the poor see the value in taking action to better their condition. And yes, this is extremely difficult for them given a system that just does not want them to move up. So far, evaluations of GK areas have shown positive impacts. But regardless of the approach, only time will tell if the middle and upper classes, the ones AT THE HELM of these interventions, are willing enough to pave the way for greater equality. Otherwise, even bottom-up approaches will remain impositions of middle class ideologies, masked in the language of participation and partnership.


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