Friday, March 21, 2008

The Best for the Least by Tony Meloto

The Best for the Least: Building a First World Philippines, Raising a First Class Filipino*
Tony Meloto

(This speech was delivered last 11 March 2008 at the University of the Philippine National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG) as part of the GK Public Lecture Series.)
"What can we do for our country?" is the question in the hearts of many Filipinos today. It is a genuine quest for a personal response after tiring of repeatedly asking others the old question "what's happening to our country?" and not getting any satisfactory answer or seeing any meaningful change once the disturbing issues of the day are out of the headlines and emotions die down.

We are here this afternoon at UP NCPAG to discover and discuss fresh and radical responses to this question since this is the best environment for out- of- the- box ideas. And Dean Alex Brillantes is just as crazy and adventurous as we all are in Gawad Kalinga in exploring uncharted territories. Before responding to this question, let me show you first a short video.

What you just saw is a moving documentary depicting the lives of former street children in Quezon City captured vividly on canvas by patriotic artist Joey Velasco in his now famous painting Hapag ng Pag-asa. Three of the subjects were scavengers from Payatas, one girl lived in an empty tomb in La Loma cemetery, the others were squatters under the bridge in North Fairview. Born in extreme poverty to parents who were landless tenants or fishermen in Visayas and Bicol before squatting in the city, they were children without hope, part of the dispossessed population that our society calls hampaslupa (dirt poor) and patay-gutom (starved to death). They are the faces of the real Filipino that many of our political and business decision-makers who live in gated villages do not know. Any meaningful effort to develop the country must first consider the need for respect and restoration of those at the bottom of the heap.

Joey Velasco used his art not only to depict the plight of the neglected but more importantly, to inspire supporters to help educate them, provide livelihood for their parents, and relocate them to a Gawad Kalinga village in Amparo, Caloocan City where they can live in dignity and look forward to a future full of hope. This is a case of art giving life and the portrait of an artist as a Filipino.
Many of us are concerned over what is happening now although our reactions and responses may vary. The establishment is threatened, the students are restless, the rich are disturbed, and the poor are waiting for the next meal and for genuine change to happen on a scale that is massive and heroic at the ground level for their lives to improve.

The silence of many is not a tolerance of wrongdoing or falsehood. Our people simply want concrete action that goes beyond rhetoric, partisanship, and conflict. Our passion is waiting to be unleashed on a great vision for a new nation anchored on truth and justice that inspires hope, heals wounds, and builds peace.

Last February 28, as some people took to the streets once again to vent societal frustrations, I was in Ayala Alabang for the GK forum on nation building with concerned village leaders and residents. Many of them are active GK partners and volunteers and others wanted to find out how they could help. One of them, world-class architect Bobby Manosa, commented after the session that the best response that we can give to the present situation is to simply love our country despite the pessimism and the ugliness that we see or hear around us.

I agree with Bobby, but let me add another fundamental response: we must love the poor in our country as we love our family.

It is unfair to leave to our children a legacy that is in a state of disarray. They deserve to inherit from us a country that they can be proud of, a strong economy that will provide them career and business opportunities, and a home environment that will guarantee them security. This is not possible if we neglect the poor. Nation-building is about people-building; it is about raising the weak to become strong. Nation-building is about developing our social capital, converting our human liabilities to assets, and cultivating a culture of productivity and hard-work to achieve food sufficiency, trigger entrepreneurship, promote trade, raise standards of excellence, and improve quality of life for all. This is the view from the bottom that many cannot see because they do not know the poor.

Sadly, it is true that we do not speak enough about our love for the Philippines and for the poor in our country. It is simply not in our system; it is not embedded in our soul. We do not drill it in the hearts of our children because it was not drilled in ours. We talk about love of God all the time because we are a religious people but seldom do we profess our love for God and country as if the two do not go together.

As a Christian, I see poverty as fundamentally a failure in discipleship. We are a poor nation because we have failed to love the poor. Consequently, we are second- class in the eyes of men and unfaithful in the eyes of God.

Love of country is the heart and soul of UP, the fiery rhetoric of countless campus speeches, the burning passion of street parliamentarians, the dying breath of martyrs, and the mantra of the Iskolars ng Bayan who have become world-class professionals and talents. Through excellence and hard-work, many UP graduates now call Ayala Alabang home. Many others have bloomed and prospered in many corners of the globe.

However, despite the sacrifice and heroism of its patriots and the affluence and influence of its successful graduates, UP today, after 100 years of existence, joins other top universities who have nurtured the brightest and the best in the country, in wondering why the Philippines remains third-world, poor and corrupt, where 3 million Filipino families live in extreme poverty—landless, homeless, and oftentimes, hungry. Why haven't we changed for the better? What happened to our collective genius?

It is not from a lack of concern, or caring, or effort. The streets of our cities are mute witnesses to numerous collective outrage for change; I was in two of them, EDSA 1 and EDSA 2. The soil in the countryside is soaked with the blood of our warriors, both soldiers and rebels alike, ferociously fighting each other yet not understanding why Filipinos have to be enemies to one another. Our slums drip with the sweat and tears of countless everyday heroes from NGOs, peoples organizations and government agencies who care for the needy, despite the fact that many of them are also in need.

Yes, many do care for our country, many want change. Despite countless false starts and dead-ends and untold frustrations, our compatriots will continue the struggle for redemption until we get it right.

There are numerous laudable paths and noteworthy means in building this country. The buzz word in business is CSR, for Corporate Social Responsibility; schools have immersions, civic clubs and churches have outreaches. There are also those who run for public office or take political actions on the streets. These are conventional paths of good citizens.

My chosen path is a disruption to convention. It is called Gawad Kalinga. Our dream is clear to us, crazy as it may seem to others: to build a First- World Philippines and to raise a First- Class Filipino in this country in this generation. Ambitious? Yes! But why not? "Bakit ka pa magtitipid kung nangangarap ka para sa iyong Bayan?" (Why scrimp when you dream for your country?)

Many have ridiculed our dreams but have not succeeded in discouraging us or stopping others from believing and taking the journey with us- bringing with them better technology, greater expertise, and more resources- and contaminating others with their passion.

If we succeed because of our faith in God and in the Filipino, the country will rejoice and we will gain our place in heaven. If we fail, we lose nothing. Trying is everything. The journey is the victory. There is no failure for those who believe.

The first phase of the journey is to address social injustice by raising 700,000 home lots and start –up 7,000 communities by the end of 2010. The goal of the campaign called GK 777 is to "unsquat" the poorest of the poor, heal their woundedness, regain their trust, build their confidence, and make them think and act as a community.

Then we move in the next 7 years to the stewardship phase: strengthening governance; developing community- based programs for health, education, environment, and productivity; building a village culture that honors Filipino values and heritage. The goal is to empower the powerless for self- governance, self- reliance, and self- sufficiency.

The final phase in the last 7 years is achieving scale and sustainability by developing the grassroots economy and expanding the reach and influence of GK to 5 million families with support from key sectors of society in the Philippines and partners abroad. We will make the Filipino poor "unpoor" by unleashing his potential for productivity and hard-work in the right environment.

The timeframe is 21 years starting October 4, 2003 until October 4, 2024. This represents one generation of Filipinos who will journey from poverty to prosperity, from neglect to respect, from shame to honor, from third-world to first-world, from second-class to first-class citizen of the world. The term first-world is not a statement that everything in the West or in a developed country is superior or desirable; it simply refers to greater opportunities, higher standards, and better quality of life available to more of its citizens.

Some quarters concerned about the present situation are wondering why we have been quiet during this time of public outrage and noise. No, we have not been silent, just busy building the dream on the ground—getting more land for the landless, building more homes for the homeless, mentoring more children, planting more trees, producing more food for the hungry in 1,700 GK sites in 362 towns and cities to date. And we want these numbers to double this year.

Last weekend, 1400 students of the College of Immaculate Concepcion, led by their president Msgr. Mike Veneracion, were noisy and busy working to support ongoing GK programs in 9 towns in Nueva Ecija. This is happening in many parts of the country on a regular basis and increasingly on a massive scale.

Yes, we are on the ground yet fervently praying for what will happen at the top. Whenever the rich and the powerful fight it is the poor who suffer the most. We want to be at their side to assure them that they are not alone and abandoned, and that we will continue to raise them up until changes in political systems and economic policies from the top will finally reach them on the ground.

We are not only making noise on the ground in the Philippines, but also abroad.

As I speak this afternoon my son-in-law, Dylan Wilk, with his wife and two babies and a couple of volunteers, is cutting across the American continent in an epic drive to 68 cities in 81 days to honor the achievement of Filipino Americans and to rally them to share their success with the poor in the towns and provinces where they come from. Dubbed the "GK Highway of HOPE 2008," the caravan will culminate in a huge Pinoy Pride Celebration on May 24, 2008 with a target crowd of at least 20,000 at the National City Park organized by the top Fil-Am leaders of San Diego. This will usher in the GK Builders Summit at Marriott Hotel in the next two days with volunteers from across North America converging to swap dreams and fuel love for the motherland.

One thing is clearly evident in this surge of patriotic fervor: the Filipinos in North America are awake. They are no longer content in simply pursuing the American dream and enjoying the good life once they achieve success. There is a growing consciousness to outgrow a colonial mentality and to overcome an identity crisis, to come out of the closet and celebrate the gift and the pride of being a Filipino in America. There is outrage when this emerging collective identity is insulted like the recent racial slur on TV by one desperate housewife against our medical profession.

They know however that the insult will continue if their country of origin remains the way it is. They want to see change in the Philippines and they will help to make it happen; and they have the resources to do it. After all, the Filipinos today have the second highest average household income of all ethnic groups in America. Their total disposable annual income exceeds USD 50 billion, not counting their accumulated wealth and expertise after long years and long hours of hard work. American intervention in the future will no longer come in the way it did before, but through the Fil-Ams who will interfere in local politics and business and other affairs of our nation, now that they have the time and the resources to do it. Some of them helped a priest become governor of a province in the last election: they will be a major factor in 2010.

The global mood is for hope and change. People want to build a better world especially after September 11, with the threat of global warming, massive poverty, terrorism, and pandemic diseases and plagues hanging over our heads. A stream of foreigners, mostly from universities, is coming to build their customized communities that we call GK Designer Villages. Twenty Yale students, the fourth batch to come, are here to volunteer in an existing GK site in Taguig and to search for their first Yale Designer Village. The team from the Lone Star College of Texas is also here to upgrade and expand their adopted community in Lipa city. Just build and they will come. The Philippines will become the field of dreams even for foreigners who want to see an end to poverty with this exciting model called Gawad Kalinga started by ordinary Filipinos in their country who simply did not give up.

The yearning for a better life and better times in this country must be matched with a clear, sincere, and grand vision that will inspire its citizens to work together for the greater good. The good news is that many want to help. The next good news is that we have the resources to do it.

1. There is enough land to "unsquat" the informal settlers in this country. Mayors and governors, with the support from DILG and HUDCC and its shelter agencies, are doing massive land banking with us because they are starting to see that doing good is good politics.

2. There is enough money from government and the private sector to build 3 million homes for the poorest Filipinos living in shanties. We don't have to beg foreign governments and international funding institutions to help us. The problem is not lack of money, it is equitable distribution and effective utilization of wealth.

3. We have the brains and the talent to do it. If we offer our collective excellence to uplift the poor, this will be a beautiful country where no one is in need and every Filipino will be proud.

Now let's go back to the opening question. "What can we do for our country?"

First, as we discussed at the start of the session, is to give the poor in our country the gift of respect, not just pity and dole-out. In the process, the poor will learn to trust us and teach us how to love, especially during times when they are most difficult or ungrateful; when our expectations for their own good are not easily understood or appreciated because they have been left behind for so long. This is when we will discover true love as written in the Good Book where it says "Love is patient, love is kind…and real love does not easily give up."

The second is to give them the gift of dreams; real hope that they can see, aspirations that they can reach, homes that they can build, and food that they can produce with our help. This is possible if those among us with the resources, the technology, and the patience will dream with those who have lost their capacity to dream.

Finally, we must share with the poor the gift of excellence. A nation will prosper if its brightest and most successful citizens will generously share their talent and resources with majority of its population who are underdeveloped because of poverty and historical neglect. Our slogan and strategy of development in Gawad Kalinga is the "best for the least"… to raise the least to become the best.

To design the homes, gardens, and furniture for Gawad Kalinga, the best talents in the country like Bobby Manosa, Bong Recio, Jun Palafox, Edith Oliveros, and Budji Layug have offered their help. Other top architects and designers in the provinces, many of them members of the United Architects of the Philippines, are helping us build first-class communities for the poorest Filipinos. This will rock the world of architecture and design.

Two of the best agricultural schools, Central Luzon State University and UP Los Banos, are here today to help end hunger and malnutrition in all GK sites. Our goal this year is to set-up GK farm institutes all over the country- with the support of the Department of Agriculture and corporate partners like Globe, Shell, Selecta, AIG/ Phil-am, and others- to help educate our people to produce more food rather than buy, to plant rather than import rice, and to mitigate the risk of scarcity of supply, high prices, and hunger.

The UP NCPAG and the Ateneo School of Government are also here to help enable LGU partners for township development. I am confident that the next generation will be less corrupt because we chose to work with our political leaders rather than judge them, getting them to observe greater transparency and accountability when they work with us. Excellence will restore our pride, integrity will bring back our honor.

The Gawad Kalinga brand is starting to attract the best medical practitioners to help build healthy communities, the best in media to spread the good news, the best in business to promote and market the best product in the world- the excellent and beautiful Filipino.

In closing, I want to leave you with this radical challenge if we want the Philippines to rise soon: we must all fall madly in love with our country- lavish her with affection, delight in her beauty, and take pride in her achievements.

If we see her through the eyes of love and help convert her faults into virtues, we will turn her ugly slums into beautiful communities, bring her street-children out of begging back into the classroom, turn her barren hills into lush forests, and her idle men into productive citizens.

Like Rizal, we must liberate her from the matapobre mentality of Dona Victorina and the hypocrisy of Father Damaso to build an egalitarian society and a caring culture where rich and poor live together peacefully in inclusive communities.

Like Ninoy, whose 25th death anniversary we are celebrating this year, we must show our country that she is "worth dying for." She is worth dying to oneself so that others may live.

Let us make nation building our greatest romance and loving the poor our greatest passion. Let us prove to ourselves and to everyone that Filipinos indeed are the best lovers in the world.

May God, in His amazing grace, continue to reveal to us that we are not a mistake of creation but a people designed for perfection. May we always cherish the gift of being Filipino and pass this gift on to our children.

Mahalin ang Pilipinas! Mabuhay ang Pilipino!

1 comment:

GK said...

Tony Meloto recently released his new book “Builder of Dreams” saying it was a result of his journey in life, inspired by the good deeds and patriotism of Ninoy and Cory Aquino.