By: Conrado de Quiros 1. Ambition

Mang Nestor used to scavenge in Smoky Mountain before the mountain of trash there was razed down. Driven to live in Bagong Silang, he tried to make ends meet doing this and that, but found it the hardest thing in the world with two kids. Though his wife helped by cooking and hawking food, his family was in constant want. His dream of being able to send his kids to school to help them escape his lot in life remained just that, a dream.

They lived austerely. During his kids’ birthdays, he worked longer hours to try to get them some noodles, but not always successfully. He could not comprehend how people could throw away food so easily, masasarap pa naman, when they’re so tasty, in fastfood and restaurants. It was such utter waste.

What he particularly minded was that there was no toilet where he lived. To get to relieve yourself, he said, you had to hike for 20 minutes to the nearest public toilet and line up for your turn. A pretty trying experience when you’ve got to go, and which the more desperate solved by settling for the tabi-tabi or the bushes. A brutish life, with no relief in sight.

But relief did come in the form of a newly opened Gawad Kalinga village in Bagong Silang. Mang Nestor was one of thirty families that got awarded a home in that village, a tiny house by the standards of the rich and middle class but a veritable palace in the eyes of the beneficiaries. It had of course the most wondrous thing in the world, a toilet. Or a “comfort room,” as Mang Nestor, like other Filipinos, refer to toilets. Nowhere did “comfort room” take on the most literal meanings.

A couple of things ran through my mind when I saw this.

The first was to catch a glimpse of the ugliness and monstrosity of corruption again. Corruption is not abstract, it is concrete—and cruel. Corruption is far more wasteful than throwing away barely touched food in Jollibee and Mang Inasal while the street children sniff rugby to forget their hunger pangs. The other side of things like the AFP spending P800 million to procure bond paper is a horde of Mang Nestors who have to hustle their way through life to treat a daughter to some noodles during her birthday or trek a mile or so to relieve themselves of their stomach’s contents and their soul’s cares.

The second thing that flashed through my mind was the grandness of spirit shown by the movement Gawad Kalinga—yes, it is a movement now—and the hope it is giving people. GK’s professed goal is to eradicate poverty in this Philippines by the next decade. That may seem like an impossible dream, a quest more admirable for the scale of its aspiration than for the possibility of its realization. Yet when you come right down to it, why should that be so impossible? Why should that be so quixotic?

Ambition, Shakespeare said, should be made of sterner stuff. Well, you can’t find sterner stuff than the tears of gratitude and joy streaming down the faces of those who have not only been given houses but communities to live in, who have not only been given a roof over their heads but a gladness in their hearts. You can’t find sterner stuff than the thirty families who have been plucked from utter want who now live like human beings in a spot of Bagong Silang, the 150 families who will live like human beings in other spots of Bagong Silang courtesy of what the Fil-Ams raised last year in just one event in Las Vegas, the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of families that will live like human beings over the next several years in other Bagong Silangs in the Philippines, in other New Births or New Days or New Lives in this planet.

I don’t know how Manny Pacquiao’s fight next month will turn out, but I do know that another champion is winning a far more magnificent fight for the country and will continue to win far more magnificent fights for the country in the coming years.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, and none comes sterner than the spirit shown by the people who have dedicated themselves to this. Men and women, young and old, Pinoys and Fil-Ams, Americans and Australians, who have worked tirelessly, eagerly, joyfully to bring the vision of the Philippines freed from want a little closer to reality. It is the exact opposite of the baleful spirit of corruption. Corruption in the end is selfishness, an inability to see beyond oneself or one’s family, an overriding need to secure self and family beyond all others, at the expense of all others. Either the men and women of Gawad Kalinga have gone past that or they have extended the meanings of self and family to include the farthest of the far, the poorest of the poor. They too are self, they too are family, walang iwanan, you don’t leave them behind, you don’t leave anyone behind. That is grandness.

That is ambition.

2. Business sense

Unless PAL sacks 3,000 of its employees, its management says, it “will close down and 7,500 workers will be displaced without separation pay.”

Of course it’s a scare tactic, one Lucio Tan, PAL’s owner, has employed often enough. Why should PAL close down if he can’t lay off 3,000 workers? As insiders say, PAL has enough savings to keep its force and put it to productive use. At the very least, there’s the justice aspect of it. Many of those workers have been with the company for decades. They even agreed to call a 10-year moratorium on collective bargaining during Joseph Estrada’s time.

At the very most it’s bad business. How can you get the loyalty—which translates as enthusiasm, which translates as productivity—of your people by mounting a reign of insecurity, if not terror?

The problem of course goes beyond PAL. The problem is the general attitude or instinct of capitalists to think of themselves first during hard times, or indeed to use those very hard times as an excuse to employ sweatshop methods of cost-cutting.

But the question is: Is there any other way to do it?

The answer is yes.

That answer is called Human Nature, a company that now has a whole line of products, including hair care, face and lip care, body care, hand and foot care, and stuff for kids. All these are giving rivals like Body Shop a run for their money because they are world class while being way cheaper. The company surged strongly last year because of its Citronella Bug Spray which came out while dengue was raging. The company managed to meet only 25 percent of demand, government itself endorsing it as a safe and effective means to fight the epidemic.

Human Nature takes off from GK’s philosophy to serve the poor. Not to help the poor through charity or dole-out but to help the poor help themselves. The products are manufactured by GK villages, from ingredients grown by GK villages. The profits are plowed back to the GK villages. Most companies that tote a “social responsibility” tag give 1-2 percent to the poor. Human Nature gives back 30 percent to them, though the GK residents may no longer be called poor before very long by dint of their own effort. That is the reason the Human Nature products are world class and way cheap. That is also the reason the company is growing by leaps and bounds.

Of course you can always say that Human Nature can’t compare with PAL in scale. But give it time and the opposite might be true: PAL can’t compare with Human Nature in scale.

The point is simple. You can have capitalists who do not need to exploit labor to thrive. You can have capitalists—or entrepreneurs in the truest sense of the word—who need only to make the poor less poor, or no longer poor, to thrive. GK is setting the template for it. Its argument, or share tactic in lieu of scare tactic, is that unless your workers profit along with you, you will perish, your workers will perish, the country will perish. It’s great business sense.

It makes great business, and it makes great sense.

3. Building

One cannot find a truer measure of how far he has gone than the indictment of him by Couples of Christ. Their indictment, which Tony might wish to frame and hang on his wall as the highest honor conferred upon him by anyone, is that Gawad Kalinga is sapping the energies of Couples for Christ which could have been better spent in spiritual uplift rather than secular succor. An astonishing charge given that Jesus Christ was known to have told his disciples, “Whatever you do for the least of your brethren, you do for me.”

But truly Tony’s detractors have reason to fear. Because Gawad Kalinga has done the most subversive thing of all. It has made the weak strong. It has made the dead living. It has made the poor rich—in spirit as much as in body. It has done the unthinkable, which is to make the poor believe in themselves. It has done the atrocious, which is to make the poor see themselves not as lucky beneficiaries—or bovine victims—of gratuity, forever grateful, forever needy, forever prostrate, but as their own saviors, their own deliverers, their own liberators.

It has empowered them.

We do not lack for housing projects. We do not lack for low-cost housing from SSS and GSIS. We do not lack for low-cost housing from the private sector. Even Imelda Marcos had her Human Settlements, which produced the BLISS projects which have benefited the lower middle class.

If that were all Gawad Kalinga is, a housing program, then it would be no better or worse than them.

But Gawad Kalinga is more than that.

It does build, but not just in physical space, or the rough and tumble of impoverished neighborhoods, also in spiritual space, in the rough and tumble of impoverished minds. It does build, but not just houses, not just a roof and four walls to haul bedraggled carcasses to, also some very deep wells, where gush forth the poor’s newfound confidence and dignity and pride in themselves.

The transformation is astonishing. The transformation is inspiring.

That is where Gawad Kalinga’s true significance lies. It is a project dedicated to building. But it has built more than dwelling places, it has built more than neighborhoods, it has built more than communities even. It has built foundations in the heart, it has raised beams in the mind, it has sprung out arches and gables and turrets in the soul.

If you build it, says the line in “Field of Dreams,” they will come. Tony Meloto has built it.

We have come.