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 Tony 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.