In 2012, Londoner Thomas Graham arrived in the Philippines expecting to stay one month. His assignment was to write an investment report on the Philippines, ‘one of the fastest growing economies in Asia’.
Having interviewed various politicians and businessmen, the turning point came when Graham interviewed Tony Meloto, whose work has been credited with transforming 2,500 of the poorest communities in the Philippines.
Graham walked into the interview in his suit and tie, expecting it to last around half an hour. But this encounter with Tony Meloto changed his life as he learnt more about the movement called Gawad Kalinga (which means ‘to give care’) that Meloto founded.
Instead of giving him the straight-forward answers that he was looking for, Meloto challenges Graham to go out and see the transformed communities himself and to understand the ‘genius’ that is within them. It’s a challenge that Graham accepts and which leads to profound consequences:
‘A few weeks later I make the most drastic decision in my (so far) unremarkable career. Ditching the suit and tie, I decide to extend my stay in the Philippines a few extra months…the well paid job and thirty-fourth floor condo in Makati are things of the past. Instead I am living in Tony Melito’s mosquito-infested lowly basement with half a dozen young sweaty Frenchmen for company.’
He is honest about his motivations:
‘I have not made this decision because I have turned into a selfless ‘do-gooder’ overnight…My prime motivation is more selfish than that. I am envious of the commitment, compassion and courage of the young people I have met…qualities I feel are missing from my own life. They are not just complaining about the inequality in their country but doing something about it.’
Finding true purpose
Essentially, this is a conversion story of how a young man from a privileged background sees something within the poor communities of the Philippines that he wants and needs for himself.
It is not a story of ‘reaching down’ to the poor but of the deep happiness that can be found in finding true purpose and meaning in joining a movement for change. And it’s a movement which is not focused on charity and dependency but on empowerment, dignity and solidarity.
The book describes how Gawad Kalinga (GK) has been effective because it has harnessed the powerful resources at the heart of Filipino society. Despite overwhelming material poverty, the communities are rich in other resources, such as faith and family.
The Philippines is one of the most religious countries in the world, and GK emerged from the Catholic organisation Couples for Christ. Like so many social action organisations, it was faith in God which was the original catalyst. And faith remains a powerful resource for solidarity, hope and change even though GK now works far beyond its Catholic roots.
The challenge for the UK
As I read more and more about the power of these resources to create change, I felt challenged about what this means for the UK. Belief in God and a commitment to family life are probably weaker than ever in our individualistic society. And many of our economically poor communities are further disadvantaged by a deep poverty of relationships and of identity.
Despite our relative wealth, we are often poor in other ways. How will the UK build the kind of social capital in its poor communities that has been possible in the Philippines?
The start of another journey…
The story ends with the start of another. Back in the UK, talking with mates in the pub, Graham was frustrated with how difficult it was to convey what he has seen and experienced. So he repeats the challenge that Tony Meloto gave him and urges his friends to come out to see the communities for themselves. This leads him to hit upon the idea of setting up a travel agency to facilitate ‘social tourism’, with the aim to “connect the bewildered rich with the enterprising poor so that both will benefit.”
It’s a fitting end to a moving story. In ditching the suit, tie and professional detachment, Tom Graham discovered a way of changing the world which inspired him. But in doing so, he discovered meaning and purpose for himself.
Thomas Graham is based in the Philippines, running a social enterprise he founded called MAD (Make a Difference) Travel which facilitates social tourism in conjunction with GK’s communities. For more information see www.madtravel.org or email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.