Tito Tony Meloto founder of Gawad Kalinga (To Give Care) (GK) and journalist, Thomas Graham were in Sydney in May as part of a whirlwind trip to Australia to connect with GK volunteers and spread the word about GK. Tito Tony spoke at Dooley’s in Lidcombe on Wednesday 27th May to a gathering of over 40 people both current GKA volunteers and people who were interested in hearing his message.

In his talks, Tito Tony tells stories that lead to a deeper truth about humanity and the life we want to live. Whether we come from a faith based or non-faith based background he speaks to our belief that we need to live in a more just world.

As always Tito Tony manages to bring the audience into his speech and he manages to interweave information about the different groups in the audience into his talks. He mentioned the Vietnamese friends in the audience and proceeded to tell a story about his haircut in Houston, Texas, which was done by a Vietnamese salon owner who refused to take payment. When Tito Tony asked why, she said that she had been a refugee in the Philippines and she had been treated like family there. He went on to say that the Vietnamese community in America had been the largest Asian group of donors for Typhoon Haiyan.

He spoke to the audience about GK’s beginnings and his initial work, along with a core group of volunteers, in Bagong Silang a slum to the North of Metro Manila. He said that this core group of volunteers brought only courage and a desire to discover ways of addressing poverty to their work. They had no expertise in the area, but they also realised that no one else had the answer, and that they could only change things by working together.

He said that one of the things he realised was that families and communities were becoming disconnected. That the most privileged were disconnected from the less fortunate. So he went to the most disconnected, to the biggest slum to the north of Manila to work with gang leaders and drug addicts.

He said that he came to the realisation that there was no point blaming others for the problems in the Philippines, “the problem began with me and the changes had to begin with me”.

He also said that a number of poverty alleviation programs focused on the poor as objects of charity, while charity he said, encouraged generosity and the sharing of resources it did not solve the problem.

He said the core group had to look at poverty in a different way, because conventional initiatives had not worked. He said that he came to realise that most poverty intervention programs focused on the women and children because they are the victims, however, his experience working with gang members and gang leaders in Bagong Silang showed him that in order to address poverty you needed to get to the root cause of the problem which in this case was a loss of dignity, which led to a loss of human capital, particularly amongst the men. He said, that while many poverty alleviation programs focus on women, they can never be truly sustainable because women are still part of a home and a community and men are part of those homes and communities too.

In the instance of Bagong Silang, the criminals were men, the thieves were men, the domestic violence was mainly carried out by men, due to the loss of their dignity and a lack of motivation to lead a productive life. His experiences in Bagong Silang opened up a lot of insights, but it was also a slow learning curve and they lost a number of people through gang violence and their (GK’s) own inability to react to the situation at a fast enough pace.

Tito Tony said that it is not just a top-down approach from government that brings about change, rather you need to tap into the genius of the poor, you bring the genius of the rich to work with the genius of the poor, to give the best to the least, to become the best.

He said that while Filipino Australians continued to remember their relatives back home, they should also remember the generosity of Australians and contribute to Australian life through helping Aboriginal communities here in Australia. He asked what it would take to have Aboriginal people considered as family. He said that it was up to us to discover the power of presence, in the same way that he had to learn to see gang leaders as family - because you don’t abandon family. Instead of seeing the less fortunate as objects of charity, we need to see them as family, because it is only then that we feel their hunger and we are in solidarity with their joys and their pain, because that is what we do with family.

Gawad Kalinga Australia’s (GKA) Director of Domestic Programs, Andrew Chalk said GKA is looking to implement GK’s work in Dubbo. Stan Donnelly, chair of GKA in Dubbo and Riverbank Frank Doolan had travelled from Dubbo to listen to Tito Tony. The program in Dubbo is at the very initial stages.

From the early work in Bagong Silang, GK is moving into its second phase of development, which Tito calls ‘enlightened’ capitalism. He talked about the need to use our creativity to create wealth that does not leave anyone behind. He pointed out that it was just common sense that when you brought people out of poverty you also created a new market. He spoke about the car company Hyundai which gave GK $1million to build a social innovation centre at GK’s farm village university at the Enchanted Farm in Bulacan, 50km from Quezon City. This he said was not charity but rather an investment.  Tito Tony called this a global economic renaissance where you bring rich and poor together to create wealth that does not leave the poor behind. But at the same time corporations are creating a market for their products through brand recognition.

Tito Tony said, “We are creating this farm village university … to unlearn our biases. To unlearn our greed to unlearn and re-learn new things. To build a new caring society and in this farm village university, the first in the world, we are attracting also the brightest and the best from all over the world. For them to discover Asia which is now the booming market and the Philippines which used to be the sick man of Asia, which drove many of our people abroad to look for opportunities is now the second fastest rising economy in the whole world and predictions are that we will become the fastest growing economy.”

He talked about value adding, instead of sending raw materials overseas and buying back the finished product at an exorbitant rate, at the village farm university students are learning to develop entire value chains from finished products to supply chains so that the impact is felt from top of the chain to the bottom. Corporations, he said were moving from CSR Corporate Social Responsibility to CSI Corporate Social Investment and that’s where the farm village university played a role, in bottom of the pyramid wealth creation.

English journalist, Thomas Graham, spoke about how his own journey with Gawad Kalinga had transformed his life. He spoke about his life changing interview with Tito Tony, where he turned up for a half hour interview to find out the solution to ending poverty and was still there three hours later, none the wiser for his efforts at asking Tito Tony questions. He then proceeded to leave his privileged life and spent a year visiting GK communities to finding out how they and GK worked.

However, he was quick to point out that it was not just Tito Tony who sold him on the concept of GK it was the young people that he encountered at GK’s Enchanted Farm, French interns and young Filipinos, who he said were, “really, really driven by some kind of purpose”.

He said, “They were living for a reason, I was just living to get a pay cheque to live a lifestyle.”

One of the most important things he learned on his journey, was the concept of Walang Iwanan – no one is left behind. He had thought that message was only for the rich - do not leave the poor behind. But he learnt that it was also for the poor. He visited a community where around 78 houses were being built and only 50 had been completed, but no-one was living in any of the completed houses. They were still living in the adjoining slums.

He couldn’t understand it.

He said, “At least 50 of you could move in,” and their response was, “No, no, Tom, this is Walang Iwanan, so, we are not going to move in until all of us are ready to move into all of those homes”. So, Tom said, the community waited an extra year until the funds for the rest of the houses came in and all the houses were built, then the entire community moved in as a whole.

Thomas’s story showed how GK changes the way people think about and see the world. The world in which the rich and the poor live. Tito Tony does not argue for the end of capitalism, but rather as he points out an enlightened capitalism, where the poor are not left behind, but their talents are utilised to make them a part of the economy but at the same time an economy that understands that resources are finite and that sustainability literally means a sustainable life that enables everyone to live a life with meaning, epitomised in another GK saying: “Less For Self, More For Others, Enough For All”. 

Thomas has written a book about his experiences: The Genius of the Poor, A journey with Gawad Kalinga. The first half is about the different communities that he visited and Thomas says the second half of the book is about learning to do business in a slightly different way, where it’s not just about money, but it’s also about social business. He said, “If we can make money, have profitable companies, but reinvest that in a social purpose, then maybe we really can change the world.”

By Suganthi Singarayar