Asia's vast cities-of-the-poor are visible proof of a hard fact. Despite decades of economic development programs and foreign aid and the earnest efforts of foundations and NGOs, not to mention the sweet promises of politicians, great millions of people in Asia still live in poverty. In the Philippines, nearly half of the country's 84 million people are credibly said to live below the poverty line. Forty percent of its urban families occupy what the Asian Development Bank calls "makeshift dwellings in informal settlements." Slums, in other words. ANTONIO MELOTO believes these disheartening facts reveal his country's failure "to work for the collective good." As executive director of GAWAD KALINGA COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION, he is changing this.
Born to humble circumstances in Bacolod, Central Philippines, ANTONIO MELOTO attended Ateneo de Manila University on a scholarship and embarked upon a successful career in business. In 1985, an encounter with the Filipino Catholic organization Couples for Christ caused him to reassess his life and priorities. Meloto subsequently joined the organization fulltime and, in 1995, launched a work-with-the-poor ministry in Bagong Silang, a huge squatter relocation site in Metropolitan Manila. He called his ministry GAWAD KALINGA, "to give care."
In Bagong Silang, MELOTO immersed himself in the lives of slum dwellers. He learned that "a slum environment develops slum behavior." But he also found goodness, even in the hardened gang members he met there. Slum dwellers needed love and spiritual nourishment, it was clear. But they also needed dignity and decent living conditions. It was not enough to pray for them, he decided. "We should do something!"
MELOTO decided to build houses. Drawing support and volunteers from Couples for Christ, he began transforming the neediest area of Bagong Silang into a viable neighborhood with safe, sturdy, and attractive homes -- the first GAWAD KALINGA village. In doing so, he formulated guidelines for later GAWAD KALINGA projects. New homes would be allotted only to the poorest families. They could not be sold. And although the beneficiaries would not have to pay for their new homes, they would have to help GAWAD KALINGA's volunteers build them and to abide by neighborhood covenants. As Bagong Silang Village blossomed, MELOTO identified new sites for GAWAD KALINGA villages and spread word of the project through Couples for Christ. He solicited donations and volunteers passionately, offering "see-for-yourself" exposures to convince skeptics. Through the ANCOP (Answering the Cry of the Poor) Foundation he brought expatriate Filipinos into GAWAD KALINGA's growing web of partners and supporters. Meanwhile, he introduced health, education, and livelihood components to GAWAD KALINGA villages to equip the occupants with skills and resources to rise in life.
As word of GAWAD KALINGA's hopeful project circulated at home and abroad, it tapped into a reservoir of longing. Many Filipinos despaired over their country's stubborn poverty and yearned to do something about it. They flocked to the movement, convinced by Meloto that their money and efforts could really make a difference. Donations soared and GAWAD KALINGA villages began to proliferate throughout the Philippines.
MELOTO guided the organization to embrace all comers. "We provide the framework," he says. "We also provide the principles; we also provide the spirit. But anyone can come in." This philosophy led GAWAD KALINGA into cooperative projects with corporations, civic organizations, families, schools, and government agencies as well as over three hundred governors and mayors. When typhoons destroyed thousands of homes on Luzon in 2005, for example, GAWAD KALINGA joined a dozen government agencies and private organizations to build forty thousand new ones. In Mindanao, GAWAD KALINGA-led "Peace Builds," fostered by local mayors and built by Christian, Muslim, and indigenous-Filipino volunteers, resulted in hundreds of new homes for displaced Muslim Filipinos.
It is often said that ANTONIO MELOTO is the face of GAWAD KALINGA. But the movement he spawned is now much bigger than himself. In truth, GAWAD KALINGA has thousands of faces. These are faces of every Filipino ethnicity, faith, and social class?of donors at home and abroad who are providing the money and land for new villages; of volunteers across the Philippines who are joining their families, and friends, and schoolmates, and officemates, and fellow church members to build houses and to provide GAWAD KALINGA villages with training and services; of executives, lawyers, doctors, architects, and other professionals. These are also the faces of over two hundred thousand grateful beneficiaries.
Today more than eight hundred fifty GAWAD KALINGA villages span the Philippines. Alongside those sponsored by expatriate Filipinos, such as Norway Village, Swiss Village, and North Carolina Village, there are more than one hundred others sponsored by major corporations. And this is just the beginning. GAWAD KALINGA is committed to building seven thousand new communities by the year 2010.
GAWAD KALINGA neighborhoods typically contain fifty-to-one-hundred brightly painted homes and are conspicuously tidy and clean. There are flowers and plants and pleasant walkways, plus a school, a livelihood center, and a multipurpose hall. Participating families are mentored by a Couples for Christ caretaker team that organizes volunteers to assist in education, health, and livelihood projects. In many, clinics provide routine medical care. Through a self-governing neighborhood association in each village, residents are becoming stewards of their own stable and vibrant communities.
The objective is transformation. MELOTO recently described a mature GAWAD KALINGA village as "a beautiful middle-class community. Crime has virtually disappeared. Former street children are now in school. The idle have been motivated to find employment and are now leading productive lives." As for those who contribute to Gawad Kalinga and its mission, they are transformed, too, by their acts of goodwill and the warm camaraderie of bayanihan, "working together."
Now fifty-six, the lanky, self-effacing MELOTO says, "I believe in the immense potential of the Filipino." Thinking of people like himself who formerly ignored the poverty around them, he says, "Before, we were part of the problem." "Now," he adds, smiling, "we are part of the solution."
In electing the GAWAD KALINGA COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION and its family of donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries to receive the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes their harnessing the faith and generosity of Filipinos the world over to confront poverty in their homeland and to provide every Filipino the dignity of a decent home and neighborhood; and in electing ANTONIO MELOTO to receive the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his inspiring Filipinos to believe with pride that theirs can be a nation without slums.
The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.
I am privileged to represent the many faceless heroes of Gawad Kalinga who are giving of themselves without counting the cost, without being recognized, without looking to gaining anything for themselves, except the satisfaction of having served God, society and our nation. And I am honored to speak on behalf of the poor of our land who are also the unsung heroes of Gawad Kalinga. They inspire us with their quiet dignity, their joyful simplicity, their perseverance despite the seeming hopelessness of their situation. They are the future and the strength of our nation.
Today we live in a world where there is great poverty, and where poverty has inevitably led to crime and corruption, to instability and insurgency, and even to terrorism. Many people are lost, feeling helpless and hopeless, dreading what else the future may bring. But this is not how life was meant to be, for we live in a world of beauty and abundance. But due to selfishness and injustice, it is the ugliness of poverty that we see all around us.
There is a way out. This is when we realize that the poor have dignity, as children of God. This is when we think less of ourselves, and begin to serve the least among us. This is when we begin to really care and share. This is when we realize we are our brother's keeper, and begin to love and help the poor.
We in Gawad Kalinga are privileged to be among those who are striving to make a difference in the life of our nation. We are building beautiful and peaceful communities among the poor. In this effort, we are harnessing all sectors of Philippine society, and in doing so, we strive to unite rich and poor, Christians and Muslims, the right and the left, the mighty and the lowly, the haves and the have-nots. Gawad Kalinga, in the spirit of bayanihan, is the collective work of everyone who is willing to respond to the call to heroism in building a nation.
Our vision is a Philippines where there is no one in need, where all will have an equitable share in the abundance of the land, where Filipinos will be brothers, moving as heroes who will rebuild the nation and bring it to a time of peace and prosperity. And as we rebuild our land, we look to the other nations of the world that also experience poverty, oppression and injustice, and strive to share with them what we have learned. We thank the people of Cambodia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea for welcoming us and giving us the privilege of building communities among their poor. We in Gawad Kalinga humbly look for more opportunities to be bearers of light and hope to a world in darkness.
It is a great honor for us in Gawad Kalinga to be conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, and to be the first organization to be given this Award in this category. Indeed, Gawad Kalinga is a movement that aspires to lead our nation to greatness through the heroism of every Filipino. May this award inspire not only our faceless workers in Gawad Kalinga, but every Filipino, including especially the poor, to desire to be part of this great effort at building a nation. And furthermore, may this award give hope to the poor and oppressed of the world, to know that together we can build a better world, one of caring and sharing, a world where justice reigns, where we are our brother?s keeper, a world that is at peace.