It’s a village community Christmas party, and a bunch of over-enthusiastic men are on stage, dressed as lady boys, dancing enthusiastically to the repetitive and yet (dare I say it?) catchy tune of Gangnam Style.
Whilst everyone enjoys the show, you imagine these Alpha-males will regret their performance the next day. So far, this Filipino Christmas party sounds rather like a typical festive ‘knees-up’ you might find anywhere else up and down the UK (minus the lady boys, perhaps!).
Only this party is rather different.
These men are in fact former hardened criminals and drug addicts who terrorized their local community only a few years before. But these young men have transformed from personae non gratae within their dysfunctional and violent neighbourhoods to respected community leaders.
Indeed, as I watch the festivities, which involve four separate generations of Filipinos, it reminds me of the close-knit family gatherings I went to as a kid. And yet this isn’t the story of one ‘well-to-do’ family in a leafy Surrey suburb, but that of an entire community that just a few years previous had wallowed in abject poverty and despair.
Whilst life is still undoubtedly tough for these people, this is a community that now appears functioning and harmonious. Perhaps the Philippines, long used to taking lessons from the West, can give us clues how to mend ‘broken Britain’.
The vision of Gawad Kalinga
The scene I have described could in fact have been found at any one of the communities built and inspired by the Gawad Kalinga movement. Gawad Kalinga literally means ‘to give care’ and over 2000+ of their communities have emerged across the Philippines over the past decade.
Gawad Kalinga’s vision is to build a nation; empowered by people with faith and patriotism; a nation made up of caring and sharing communities, dedicated to eradicate poverty and restore human dignity.
And its mission is not short of ambition: ending poverty for 5 million poor families by 2024 through Land for the Landless, Homes for the Homeless and Food for the Hungry. Their work is already estimated to have directly impacted the lives of over one million Filipinos.
Discarding elaborate development theory
Gawad Kalinga or “GK” as its known, is led by an inspirational leader known as ‘Tito’ Tony Meloto. GK has discarded the numerous elaborate, and often ineffective, developmental theories fed to poor countries by academics and professionals. Instead, it has simply demonstrated development through action, armed only with love, care and a genuine interest in the lives of the most discarded members of society.
The early GK volunteers mobilised by Tito Tony were amazed at the hidden level of humanity they discovered. And this humanity was not just amongst those on the margins of society – but amongst themselves. GK’s methods have involved people at grassroots level and they have been able to topple previously existing cultural and societal barriers to change happening.
The result? Entire communities have been built in record times, at an extraordinarily low cost. A disenchanted, segregated and ashamed nation has started believing again, Seeing this kind of authentic transformation close-up makes me think that Gawad Kalinga’s quest to eradicate poverty in the country by 2024 doesn’t seem all that outlandish at all.
Faith in action
Admittedly the survival-mentality that affects impoverished Filipino communities, where people are focused on where the next meal will come from, may look very different to some of the challenges societies face in Britain.
And yet there may be real similarities. As GK’s work has showed me, society’s ills are often caused by a deep disconnection between people and the inaccurate, yet powerful, impression that no one cares.
In fact, every human being has the intrinsic ability to care for others. Through stepping out of your individual comfort zone, even just for a moment, and showing you actually do care, a shared recognition of humanity can emerge, which in turn benefits all concerned. This is faith in action, and yet it has been a revolutionary concept for one of the most Christian countries on the planet.
The world is taking notice
Above any theories or ideas, what makes GK different is its ‘proof of concept’ on a massive scale. It has unarguably achieved a huge amount. More than that it is a genuine grassroots movement which evolved into a countrywide phenomenon and has inspired a whole generation of ’nation builders’.
And it seems like the world is taking notice of how this has been in done – just in the last month Tito Tony has addressed the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and LSE. People are eager to know more about how faith, hope and love have made such an difference in the lives of so many people whose lives have been blighted by poverty.
Tom Graham is an international journalist who is working for Gawad Kalinga and collaborating with Tito Tony on his 2nd book, ‘Miracles of Solidarity’. He will be writing more about their work on R&R and you can follow him on twitter @TomGeorgeGraham