Philippine economy

Gawad Kalinga: Time for an independent assessment

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Gawad Kalinga: Time for an independent assessment
For GK, Meloto, and his defenders, there is an easy way to resolve our doubts: answer the questions we have asked

My doubts about Gawad Kalinga began when some of the community women I work with told me that GK organizers proselytized against contraception except natural family planning.

They also talked about value formation sessions that reinforced sexist conceptions about families – namely, that men were to be the final decision makers and their wives were supposed to obey them and support them. Furthermore, unmarried or non-heterosexual families were not awarded houses.

There were also reports that the titles to the homes were being given only to the men.

At around this time, circa 2009, I attended a “conversation” among development NGOs at the Ateneo de Manila University, where I asked the Gawad Kalinga speaker whether he could clarify GK’s position on contraceptives.

His reply was disingenuous: “Like every social movement we have an army. In the case of Gawad Kalinga, it is the Couples for Christ.” Those who know CFC’s consistent anti-RH position would take that as a confirmation that contraceptives were discouraged, if not banned, in Gawad Kalinga communities.

Also at about this same time, Tony Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, was recommended by a colleague as speaker for our recognition rites at the College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD) of the University of the Philippines.

Because of the lack of clarity about GK’s position on contraceptives, I had to summon my courage to object to the suggestion, thinking it would be an unpopular objection.

To my surprise, I got support from the two of the most seasoned professors of the Department of Community Development. These two eminent colleagues, along with other professors, talked about their sharp disagreement with GK’s development approaches – particularly the patronizing approaches to the poor.

In short, what to others may seem strengths of GK (the insistence on values formation, on uniform cleanliness, on forms of contraception and religiosity) have a dark side.

In the philosophy of CSWCD, people do not have to give back anything, much less their right to choose how they might live, to “deserve” basic services such as housing. In the philosophy of CSWCD, there are careful ethical balances to be achieved if any institution will build itself and a money-making campaign around people’s poverty.

More recently I had to politely say “no” to two women who wanted the UP Center for Women’s Studies, of which I was then director, to participate in a women’s empowerment campaign for young campus women.

The campaign was about increasing young women’s confidence by bringing them in contact with women achievers. What bothered me was that there was a “beauty angle” to the campaign, mainly around the advocacy of Human Nature products. Human Nature products, as many people know, is a company which, while separate from GK, is affiliated with it. Human Nature is owned by one of Meloto’s daughters and her British husband. A percentage of Human Nature’s profits also go to Gawad Kalinga.

Whatever my own misgivings about such approaches to women’s empowerment, I really had to say “no” because UP’s name should not be used as an endorsement of any commercial product. I also felt that as a government institution, UP should guard our secular character carefully.

I have been quiet about my doubts all these years because I believe that serious errors in any institution will either be corrected or they will come out. When Gawad Kalinga and Meloto began to garner more and more prestigious awards, I hoped that my fears were unfounded.

Still, through the years, some things would come up. Just recently two of my colleagues in the Department of Women and Development Studies alerted me to the sexist analysis about poor men and the causes of male violence in the Gawad Kalinga website. (I cannot find the paragraph now, but more on this later.)

Meloto’s sexist, racist, and elitist speech

Thus, when the statement of the Center for Philippine Studies (CPS) of the University of Hawaii in Manoa (UH-Manoa) went viral, I was bothered but not surprised.

The statement reiterates all the criticisms that have concerned me and adds much to be disturbed about. It says Meloto’s “ideas about economic development of the Philippines (are) both condescending and self serving.” It adds that “what was most disturbing about his speech was his sexism.”

The statement states further that Meloto delivered what “appeared to be a standard stump speech of the kind he had delivered in many settings. The speech focused entirely on Mr Meloto himself, and the accomplishments of his family.” It adds, “He seized the opportunity to promote the products of his own family company, Human Nature…”

And he said it again

That it was a standard stump speech is likely because it seems that Tony Meloto went on to Paris where a friend, Dr Sibyl Jade Peña, resides. Like the folks at UH-Manoa, Dr Peña went to hear him with an open mind and left the talk bothered. So bothered that she wrote about it on her Facebook page.

Her criticisms essentially echo those of my own, of my colleagues and the CPS. Meloto’s view of the Philippine poor is condescending, characterizing them as “broken, hopeless and violent”. His solutions, apart from pushing his brand of social entrepreneurship (that is, Human Nature) was to encourage foreign men to invest in the Philippines by marrying Filipinas.

Our beautiful women, Meloto believes, are our best assets who can attract the best and the brightest men of the West who could then go on to produce what he jokingly calls “capuccinos”.

Dr Peña adds in a personal communication to me that what bothered her was Meloto bewailed the lack of quality Filipino men and he was encouraging Frenchmen and German men to come and inspire our Filipino men. She felt that Meloto was dismissive of so many Filipino men who have also been working against poverty and for national development.

Let me add also that my son, Professor Lisandro Claudio and another colleague, Professor Patricio Abinales, heard Meloto speak in Hawaii and confirm the accuracy of CPS’ description of what Meloto said.

Like Dr Peña, they did not feel, as Meloto writes in his defense, that it was merely a matter of people not appreciating his humor or that his “statements were taken out of context and my metaphors given a negative interpretation…”

Meloto’s utter shock at accusations that he is sexist and elitist are no assurance. Many who are sexist and elitist are shocked when confronted, especially if the world has convinced them that they are essentially jolly good fellows.

Literature search on Gawad Kalinga

I wanted to be fair in writing this article and so I went looking into the literature on Gawad Kalinga. The Gawad Kalinga website is uninformative. It is well written but generally contains only goody-goody statements.

The same information can be found in Wikipedia causing the editors of Wikipedia to note: “This article contains content that is written like an advertisement. Please help improve it by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links, and by adding encyclopedic content written from a neutral point of view.” Wikipedia, by the way, is not an acceptable reference for any real researcher, so it speaks volumes that the GK information was found to need improvement even by this outfit.

Most of the “independent” literature I found were testimonies of people who went to build houses and stayed for very short periods of time. I did find a few studies that lauded GK but they were essentially repeats of what is on its website.

I found no studies that actually talked to a sufficient number of people in GK sites for a sufficiently long period to give a picture of how people really live there. And I found no studies that would pass as methodologically valid in terms of determining whether GK communities were meeting Meloto’s promises of better family lives, better livelihood and less violence.

What I did find were more hints about the sexism in Gawad Kalinga. An enraptured volunteer notes that “GK usually focuses on the men of the village, sometimes the young women don’t know their place and thus, remain in the background.” 

A volunteer’s guide for GK Australia seems to say that men turn to violence when they lose their capacity to provide for their family. “The men in particular have often lost their sense of dignity because they no longer have the ability to provide for their families. As a result they often become aggressive and overly macho. They prey on the weak beginning with their wives and children.”

This goes against the fact that rich men are also violent. It also implies that women can deal with the loss of income without turning violent while men cannot. This excuses men’s personal responsibility from violence and looks down on the poor men as being the violent ones. It also implies that jobs be given to men instead of women.

My search did find one independent analysis. Sarabia-Panol and Sison write in the Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal: “While the organisation’s strategic use of the discourse of faith and care resulted in its popularity, it also presented issues of power. Moreover, its highly optimistic and positive claims resulted in gaps between its rhetoric and actual behavior.”

Crab mentality or fair criticism?

I understand that Meloto and GK have many admirers and I can almost hear the pained protests of those who think this is yet another example of what we call the “crab mentality”, or the capacity of Filipinos to pull good people down to the detriment of our country.

On the other hand, I would say that we are a kind-hearted people who have not yet evolved the mechanisms that would empower citizens to build a just and prosperous society. Thus, we often imbue people who give us hope with a halo that stops us from looking at things critically. We are then angered by the bearers of bad news.

For GK, Meloto, and his defenders, there is an easy way to resolve our doubts: answer the questions we have asked. What is GK’s philosophy about gender relations? What is its analysis of the causes of poverty that would make it say that its programs truly address poverty? Does it allow contraceptives in its communities and as part of the health programs it provides? Do men and women own the houses jointly? What are its views about single-parent households and non-traditional families?

It is time for GK communities to be opened up to independent and scientifically valid assessment.

All of us – defenders, doubters, critics and admirers of GK – deserve no less. –

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