PGTW: ‘The genius of the poor’

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 25 December 2014, Thursday

‘The genius of the poor’

Thomas Graham’s “The Genius of the Poor: A Journey with Gawad Kalinga,” launched at Fully Booked-Bonifacio High Street last Nov. 29, is the story of how a foreigner fell in love with the Philippines and is now devoting his time to helping developing ways to uplift the Filipino poor, in partnership with development organization Gawad Kalinga (GK) and through his own initiatives.

Graham, who was in the country to write a business report, says he gained a revelation “on a large deck terrace in Rockwell, one of Metro Manila’s most exclusive areas.” Moving to the edge of the terrace to take a picture, he notices “a distracting blot on this otherwise grand vista…perhaps little more than 400 meters from the ‘luxurious’ [quotes his] towers where I am standing, there lies a slum area of shocking squalor.”

Graham then ditches his high-paying job and comfortable lifestyle to connect with the poor on the ground, his motivation to emulate the selfless young people he has met who are “not just complaining about the inequality in their country but doing something about it.”

GK co-founder Tony Meloto tells Graham about his belief in the “genius of the poor,” and how “investing in and partnering with the poor” can lead to inclusive nation-building.

Meloto suggests that Graham start his journey by visiting Silver Heights, a depressed community in Caloocan City, saying, “many foreigners who stay just a short time in the Philippines see the country only superficially. They notice only affluence jostling with poverty, while the human gems behind the dirt and the traffic remain undiscovered.”

This book contains Graham’s stories about some of those “human gems,” who, in their own little ways, have decided to make a difference in the lives of others.

Meloto tells Graham the country, blessed with abundant resources and talented people, has “no excuse to be poor.” Graham at first is skeptical, but later realizes that “Tito Tony was right: the Philippines, through bayanihan, has the potential to eradicate poverty.”

GK makes a difference in the lives of many. I’ve seen the GK housing units in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro that rose up only months after typhoon Sendong devastated much of the area on 16 Dec. 2011, when I was there with another group for capability-building of the community clinics.

Regarding Typhoon Yolanda assistance, according to GK’s website, the group has had 2,923 houses funded for the victims, of which 2,041 units (70 percent) are already completed (684 units) or under construction (1,357 units), the goal being to “raise funds and build 3,000 houses more by the end of 2015.”

“GK’s thrust for disaster preparedness,” the website adds, “is an anti-poverty campaign.” Reducing poverty would mean a people better equipped and prepared to handle crises and challenges.

Sad to say, but in comparison to GK and other non-government organizations, government is slow to respond and not as effective. We’ve seen how the ill-built shelters for Typhoon Yolanda victims blew down recently with Typhoon Ruby.

Which brings us to an unanswered question – why is poverty still endemic in the country? Statistics are lifting slightly but not so that the masses are feeling the change. Add to the existing burdens the new ones, like the announced increase in MRT fares on Jan, 4, and an escape from the trajectory of decline and destitution seems impossible for many.

An easy reply to this is that graft and corruption led to this state of things. This is true to a large extent, aided and abetted by the culture of impunity that allows the elected, so-called ‘public servants,’ to get away with it. Corruption will always be around as long as there is a benefit to anybody for being corrupt.

It needs an iron will to crush this out, but there is too much political accommodation. Moreover, we’re a gambling nation: you’re gambling your reputation if you are caught, but bahala na, with a shrug.

Meanwhile, individuals like Meloto, Graham, others in GK and in unheralded NGOs and aid groups work quietly and efficiently to restore hope, dignity, and a second chance in the lives of the marginalized.

On that note, it is in charity and compassion that the true spirit of Yuletide resides. To all, thank you for reading my column throughout the year. May you and your families be blessed with peace and joy this holiday season, and may you find within yourselves the genius – the innate talents – that will help you make the world a better, kinder, more loving place.

Merry Christmas! ***

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