By Ruth Manimtim-Floresca
Tony Meloto grew up being conscious of the fact that other people have more opportunities and more privileges than, what he calls, ordinary mortals like himself. “I went to public school in grade school and high school. I realized that education was my chance,” he recalls.
He was 16 when he got a scholarship to the United States as an American Field Service scholar. “I went to California and discovered the world there was Technicolor because it was black and white where I came from,” describes Meloto. “When I came back to the Philippines, I got a scholarship in Ateneo. I never told anyone that I came from a public school because, in this country, you’re judged by your pedigree. But I realized it was my spirit that was free and it was my brain that was my ticket. It opened doors.”
Finding a new direction
After graduating from university, Meloto worked in a multinational company, eventually got married, had kids, and saw the deepening poverty around him. “At the end of the day, you realize you’re holding an empty bag because while you live in an exclusive subdivision, you send your children to exclusive schools, you can afford good food and sleep in an air-conditioned room, and you have high walls and security guards around you; you are still living in a sea of third world poverty of squatters around you,” he enumerates. “And that’s something you cannot ignore.”
Thus, at age 35, Meloto recognized, “I was not whole as a human being simply because I’m disconnected from the bigger part of myself. I knew I had to get out of my safety zone to understand the world that my children will inherit. Unless I try to make a difference, it will be a more difficult life for them.”
This jumpstarted his decision to look for answers in religion. Meloto became a missionary for 10 years and traveled around the country to preach. He also traveled to Australia and the U.S. to set up their organization. “At a certain point, I somehow got a road to Damascus experience. I came to realize, what’s the point of trying to aspire for heaven in the afterlife while I allow God’s people to live in hell in this life?”
Meloto then decided to leave Melbourne in 1996 and went to the biggest slum in the Philippines. Bagong Silang was where Gawad Kalinga was born. “I went back to the poor where I came from. Gawad Kalinga started not as a project but as a journey,” he clarifies.
“The Philippines is a country not meant to be poor,” states Meloto. “I wanted to find solutions and believed that poverty is man-made and can be unmade by man. I dream of a country where no Filipino is a victim or a prey.”
Meloto started working with gang members and drug addicts. “I brought my then 16-year-old daughter, a freshman at the Ateneo, to a youth camp for young men and women. She was facilitating a group of people her age and came to me in tears before the end of the day because she met a girl who was raped by her stepfather when she was 13 and who already had two abortions since she became a prostitute,” he remembers. “My daughter looked at me and asked why things happen this way. I realized she could have been that girl if she was born in the same circumstances.”
“That was the precise moment I realized that unless I treat the poor as family, I will never invest my time, talent, and treasure in giving them their dignity, in giving them just a little of the opportunities I lavish on my children. And my children will never have a future in this country if I ignore the abandoned, the street children, and the squatters.”
Meloto also discovered that the problem of poverty is not an economic problem. “It is a behavioral problem with an economic consequence. And most poverty interventions focus on women! Micro-finance is on women, micro-enterprise is on women, the health and educational programs are on women,” he explains. “But the criminals are men, our rebels are men, the wife-beaters are men, the adulterers are men, the most corrupt people are men. If men are the problem, why can’t they be part of the solution?”
So in 1999, after three years of working with drug addicts and gang leaders and members, Meloto started building the first GK village in Bagong Silang. “That’s how I got the men. When you build houses, roads, schools, water systems, toilet facilities, you need the men and you provide an opportunity for them to feel a sense of dignity and self-respect.”
In Gawad Kalinga, before a family gets a home, the men and women have to undergo 27 sessions of values formation. “We have to build communities on values, not on stone, wood, or hollow blocks,” illustrates Meloto. “Secondly, they have to put in sweat equity. Even if they have no money, they have time and they can work. So we call it their sweat contribution. And before they occupy their houses, they have to sign a covenant that men will not drink in public or gamble and there will be no drugs in the community because these are grounds for expulsion.”
Pretty soon, Meloto witnessed that it is possible to transform criminals into good citizens and slums into beautiful communities.
Collaborating with like-minded people
To date, there are already 2,300 Gawad Kalinga communities nationwide and since it started, GK has partnered with various organizations and companies. Meloto describes it as the work of the rich and the poor as well as the government and the private sector.
“When you gain the trust of big businesses like Nestle, Procter and Gamble, Salad Master, and hear [praise] from CEOs who have seen the world, it gives us credibility,” acknowledges Meloto. “Thus, it’s important that big business also sees our own philosophy that doing good makes good business sense; that working with Gawad Kalinga to bring people out of poverty is a good business decision because it enhances buying power and expands the market base [such that] they won’t have to just keep on selling, as the country gets poorer, smaller sachets.”
Meloto believes that big businesses should work with organizations that give land to the landless, provide home to the homeless, and give dignity to people who are called squatters. “Even businessmen and CEOs particularly realize that a country of squatters cannot be a country of productive citizens. We cannot be globally competitive and be content with importing contaminated goods from our bigger Asian neighbors,” he says.
“After having been a slave for several centuries, we became a country of jobseekers abroad and not wealth creators at home. We became a country of consumers, not producers. Worse, our top universities graduated politicians and professionals but few patriots,” laments Meloto. “So, in the process, we became mercenary and the poor became mendicant and migratory. Those who are landless and homeless in the countryside, those living in vulnerable areas where they find it difficult to survive, come and squat, and create more slums in the city.”
He is not giving up hope though. “I’m happy that we now have a government that is responsive to the problems of this country. And I’m happy also that there’s now a president I can trust, a president who is honest and, probably, the most intelligent. But of course Filipinos will always find a reason to complain. Right? So count your blessings.”
Meloto further confides that he doesn’t desire being a politician. “I was offered a cabinet position and I declined because I value the freedom to serve my country more than the power to rule.”
Dreaming more dreams
According to Meloto, giving hope to the poorest Filipinos and the least fortunate is a work that can only happen and will only achieve scale and sustainability if it is owned by many.
He described that Singapore, which is built on a rock and has hardly any fertile land, has developed ahead of the Philippines despite their miniscule resources. “They have very little natural resources and a very small consumer base; but they’re rich! While the Philippines, the richest and the most fertile land in Southeast Asia, the country with the best biodiversity and most number of life forms in the entire Asia, and the country with almost a hundred million consumer base; we are poor!” exclaims Meloto. “And for the past decade, we have been known as the sick man of Asia. We find it ironic that the only Christian nation in Asia is also known as the most corrupt.”
In a meeting with a dozen top Canadian corporations doing business in Asia, Meloto was told that the Philippines is the most undervalued economy in Southeast Asia. “Undervalued, I guess, because we are undervaluing ourselves,” he remarks. “When we continue to bash ourselves, then people only see the negative about us. For so long, we’ve looked at ourselves as second class. We’ve never really had the confidence collectively to see ourselves as first class citizens of the world.”
“Oftentimes we bash ourselves and we don’t see our good qualities as a people. But it’s amazing because we are willing to sacrifice if we are properly motivated,” he observes. “And oftentimes, family is the biggest motivation for us. So it’s important for us to also make our country our motivation.”
Thus, Meloto knew he has to have a purpose, not just for his family but for his countrymen who don’t have the same privileges he has. “I was just lucky because from where I came from, very few ever make it. And those few who make it, always leave thousands of others behind.”
He also claims that one of his greatest learnings didn’t come from the university. “The greatest teachers are the poor. They taught me how to love because they’re not easy to love. As a human being, that’s the greatest lesson in leadership: to learn how to love without waiting for anything in return.”
“So we started dreaming for them because many of them have lost the capacity to dream. We dream for small people to have big dreams. It’s free! And unless you have big dreams, no one will listen to you,” he reasons. In 2003, after seven years of immersion in the community and doing social experimentation, trying to find out what kind of combinations and what kind of social engineering they could do to make a difference in the lives of people, then President Cory Aquino launched Gawad Kalinga at the Fort.
“That was the period of social justice. We felt that we can never have peace in this country unless there is justice where every Filipino is seen as equally worth in dignity and should be provided also the same opportunity not just from government but also from all of us. We have to overcome 350 years of colonization, which produced the worst in us — the matapobre attitude while the poor, who are trying to survive, have crab mentality.”
“But I had no difficulty dealing with the poor. It’s the rich I have difficulty with. Because the most educated and the most privileged are the most colonial. We all have to learn. Even the education from top universities did not give me this kind of humanity and Christianity,” admits Meloto.
“So what I’m saying is just build, and [people willing to help out] will come. But build with integrity, and for the good of many. Go beyond your own self-interest and the interest of your family. The journey has been very hard for my wife, Lyn, and my kids, Anna (33), Amalia (32), Jay (30), Camille (26), and Celine (9) but they understood others needed me more,” confesses Meloto.
“I think what my five children have learned all these years is generosity. They’ve learned to share me with others and that’s why I think they’re happier because they don’t demand too much from life but are willing to give more to life.”
Likewise, he encourages fellow Filipinos to have detachment from their own interests. “[We should always look] at the congruent that will transform an entire nation and also create a new culture that we’re building from the grassroots. We need to also build this kind of solidarity inside exclusive subdivisions because we can experience miracles through it.”
Meloto is positive that when Filipinos start to really realize that this country is our home; that every Filipino is family, a friend, a partner and that no Filipino should be an enemy, “That’s when this country can rise. So it’s a continuing journey. I have been blessed by being a father to the poor. God has been the father to my own children.”
“All these years, I’ve seen God’s faithfulness. I consider loving the poor and loving this country as an expression of my love for God,” he pronounces. “I realized that the first thing I need to do is not to bash my own country and to be a radical optimist because at this point in our own development, we need to build up each other in love. There is no time to criticize; there is no time to bash.”
“There is so much that we can do together and a lot of opportunities for us to make a difference in this country. The least we owe to ourselves is not ignorance but knowledge, and for us to be able to form our conscience. We have been ignorant for so long about many things in this country. So it’s important for Filipinos now to grow an intelligent heart.”
“I want my children and my grandchildren to grow up in this country. My dream by 2024 is that, together, we can end poverty in the Philippines. Why 2024?” he asks. “Because I have to believe in something and I have to put a timeline. So it was in 2003 when 7-7-7 came about: seven years of social justice, seven years of social artistry, and seven years of social progress.”
Discovering more solutions
Meloto says he’s now focused on agricultural progress because we have skipped these things. “So from building homes and communities in the urban areas, I’m now going to the countryside because Filipinos are looking for answers in other countries. The answers are here! We can end poverty by creating sustainable prosperity.”
“Why can’t we grow more cacao trees? Or coffee? I think it’s dumb that we import 99% of our dairy. We have the best cacao beans. Why do we import 85%? Why can’t we be self-sufficient in coffee?” questions Meloto. “The French are addicts to chocolate. The Belgians, the Swiss, they’re making all these chocolates but they don’t grow a single cacao tree! We have 93,000 hectares of land in Remedios Trinidad in Bulacan, which is only one and a half hours away from Quezon City. How about the whole of Mindanao, Samar, Leyte, Bicol?”
In Bulacan, Gawad Kalinga has already started developing The Enchanted Farm, which serves as an incubator for social entrepreneurial start-ups. It is where GK members and young entrepreneurs from various universities are encouraged to come up with innovative products using natural ingredients and earthfriendly technologies. “We want to address global warming and poverty by building green and sustainable communities.”
“Right now our agriculture only contributes 12.3% of our total GDP. We should increase it to 30%. We’re becoming very much dependent on services from call centers to OFWs. While we are grateful to those who are abroad, we’re always at the mercy of people who hire us.”
“We want to work with the next generation of Filipinos who will become wealth creators. Bring your children home from abroad. The graduates from the top universities should not be harvested by rich countries and make them richer. Our children should make the Philippines rich,” Meloto insists. “Start now to end slavery to the interest of other countries. The best time to do it is now because this is the Asian age and the Philippines is predicted as one of the fastest growing economies in South East Asia.”
“Again, let us not abandon our country,” he advises. “First, never stop hoping for this country. Second, never stop caring for our people. Third, demand greatness from yourself as a Filipino. And fourth, inspire greatness in other Filipinos. Then poverty will end even before 2024.”