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The Asian Eagle Will Not Leave the Weak Behind
[Date Created: July 21, 2014]

‪by Tony Meloto

(An excerpt of this article was published in The Philippine Star on June 27, 2014. Read the online version in

It was stirring, and quite symbolic for me, to speak yesterday (June 12, 2014 which is Independence Day in my country, the Philippines) to a crowd of radical optimists at the LH Positive Economy Forum in Bologna, Italy at a time when our world is buffeted by economic and human depression, negativism‎ and doomsday scenarios. I enjoyed the energy of those who can still see the silver lining in the gloomiest of economic seasons, including those who have always known La Dolce Vita but now have to face debt woes, increased unemployment, greater work insecurity, higher level of corporate stress and an uncertain outlook for young graduates of even the most prestigious universities of Europe because of the highly competitive job market in emerged economies that have stopped growing.

The choice of this venue is perfect as it shows the positive energy and perseverance of those who seek solutions while others complain and refuse to give up when the faint-hearted have long thrown in the towel.


These past two days I have been immensely happy here in San Patrignano in the company of former drug addicts who have become experts in culinary, hospitality, wine-making, furniture-making, food processing and product design. There was hope in the smiling faces of those who served our meals, applied make up on me before my speech and the media team that interviewed me afterwards. I found the whole experience truly remarkable!

This incredibly beautiful farm community is the biggest rehab facility in the world, home to 1,300 young men (75%) and women (25%), many of them coming from successful and affluent families of Europe, including a beautiful blonde young lady from Russia named Marina who gave us a tour yesterday of this piece of heaven with such pride and zest for life.

Marina came here three years ago after losing her way in a world of cutthroat competition, excessive consumerism, permissiveness and self-indulgence which drove her and many of her friends to confusion, isolation and heroin.‎ Now at 32, she is free of her demons, mentors other young girls, has a boyfriend and wants to build a career in communication when she gets out in a few months.

San Patrignano sits in the midst of a 300 acre vineyard and winery with a well-kept stable of thorough-bred horses, a furniture factory supported by top Italian designers, a 1,200 seater air-conditioned convention centre‎ and an immense dining hall serving 2,000 seated diners with plated meals. Service was fast, food was good and the wine – the best I've had in years, though I'm no connoisseur.

This Renoir-like landscape is the masterpiece of dreamers. It is a dream come true for 23 young Italian men and women (in their 20s and 30s) who founded this space 36 years ago for the lost to find a home and a future. Since then, 20,000 former drug dependents have been nurtured in a 4 year stay-in program with 72% success rate compared to the global average of less than 30% in rehab centers, using a strategy of love, work and fun to restore the dignity, humanity and productivity of the wayward. Looking at the residents, I might as well be in the Paul Bocuse Culinary School in Lyon or the Cambridge campus in England. The people inside are simply inspiring, including the social entrepreneurs and mentors I met who are running the place with competence and compassion.

It feels like home.



A film showing about the early years of Gawad Kalinga and our life with the drug addicts and gangs in Bagong Silang

Last night I was deeply moved by the emotional response of the big audience at the showing of the French film (dubbed in Italian) about the early years of Gawad Kalinga (GK) and our life with the drug addicts and gangs in Bagong Silang, a squalid slum north of Metro Manila where we started this movement in 1996. They listened intently, and felt a deep connection somehow, as former addicts in a distant place in Asia narrated how they sold their bodies, robbed houses and sold shabu to cope with hunger and support their addiction. But through unconditional love, presence and patience by volunteers of GK who simply won't give up on them, many eventually kicked their addiction, went to school or took on a job and became an inspiration and mentor to others.

>> Learn more about GK’s 10-year journey

The residents of San Patrignano saw the faces of former drug dependents in the Philippines who are now assets to their families and communities: Josan is a nursing professor in a big university, Jolly is a cop and Anthony and Emong are currently coordinating the re-building of the homes of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Central Philippines. The tears and hugs I received from the audience after the film showing were enough to convey to me how deeply they connected with our message of hope since most of them did not speak English and my Italian was just as bad.

It was the same problem of confusion and desperation for the children of the more privileged in Europe and the less fortunate in the Philippines.

And the same remedy of unconditional love that gives hope and does not easily give up.

The lessons of San Patrignano and Bagong Silang give us a clear clue ‎on how the emerged economies of Europe and the emerging economies of Asia can work together to give our disheartened young population aspiration and direction.


Tony Meloto speaking in the Global Sustainability Summit in Madrid

We can build a global partnership of hope early before they lose their way or lose heart with the growing uncertainty in the job market, as bad as the situation in Spain where 50% of new graduates are unemployed.‎ I was in Madrid last week to speak at the Global Sustainability Summit and the outlook for those entering the job stream was quite bleak. 



This has been my message to various European universities that I regularly visit – for interns and young graduates to experience the positive energy in the Philippines and discover vast opportunities in Asia.

Perhaps the Philippines can open a window for them to see that the answer to their uncertainty may be in a growing market in Asia that speaks English, has a lot of democratic space, believes in the same values and welcomes foreigners as partners in making the world better. We need them to help us develop our social enterprises as they need us to expand their career choices. So far it's been mostly the French interns who have found the key to the GK Enchanted Farm, our hub for social entrepreneurs in Asia.


French interns learning to weave their own baskets with the mothers of the GK Enchanted Farm

The action in the next decade is in the emerging economies of the East where investments are flowing, infrastructures are being built, new wealth is being created, career and business opportunities are being opened – where hope is high, dreams are big and the end-goal is, hopefully, lasting social impact.‎


‎But Asia is still a mystery to Europeans. And many of them only know Asia as China. In fact I am the only Filipino – and only Asian – among the 1,000 delegates in this Forum, as is often the case in the various fora I attend here in Europe. Our hardworking countrymen here, though many, are often unheard of because they have no collective public face or voice. They are here simply to work so loved ones back home can live a better life. ‎They are our unsung and unseen heroes who kept our economy afloat in our worst of times.

They are here because life has not been easy in our country due to natural and man-made disasters,‎ and worst, 400 years of brain-washing as colonial slaves that we were not good and smart enough to dream our own dreams, own our business, create jobs for our people, produce our own products and fly quality "Made in the Philippines" brands in the world market. We were content to be workers of foreign corporations and consumers of foreign brands.


But finally, the dark clouds in our country are parting and there is bright light in our horizon. Like our journey with former drug dependents of Bagong Silang, many in our country are moving to set our people free from our addiction to poverty and dependence on charity.


The tagline in our tourism campaign that "It's more fun in the Philippines" is not just media hype or wishful thinking. The Philippine economy is rising – the second highest GDP (next only to China) despite our recent calamity, a stable currency and stock market, several credit upgrades, increased ‎tourism and the happiest and most resilient people in the Far East. HSBC predicts the Philippines to be the 16th biggest global economy in 30 years. We see ourselves as the soaring eagle of Asia among the emerging economies of the world. Our rapid rise is inconceivable to many who knew us as the "sick man of Asia" just a decade ago. We have the luxury of smiling now because it feels good to be in a poor economy that's finally rising, in contrast to the depression in rich countries that are stagnating or falling. This was the simple reason why my 33 year-old daughter and her young family moved back to the Philippines last year after five years living in a foreign land.

This is good for our young people who now see our country as a land of opportunity,‎ where staying is a real option and a welcome reversal to the brain drain in the last half century when leaving for greener pastures abroad was the desired path for those privileged with education and expertise in various professions.

A Positive Economy as articulated by French economic guru Jacques Attali is what inspires the young to seek innovation for inclusive wealth creation, job generation and human liberation. This is our path to sustainable prosperity and peace as an emerging nation, very much aligned with the Social Progress Imperatives (SPI)‎ of Michael Porter in measuring authentic growth.


‎With the growing optimism, we now have more confidence and commitment to build our nation rather than be prisoners of our submission and inaction.

Nation-building in Gawad Kalinga is about enduring hope, unconditional love and faith in action.‎ It is our deep conviction that the Philippines will be better and safer if we resolve together to make it kinder and fairer, if we commit ourselves to the noble task of unleashing the greatness of the human spirit to defeat the Goliath of lust and greed that cause man to plunder and murder, and, for those of us privileged with education, wealth and influence – to use our power to make the weak strong. By giving the best opportunities to the least fortunate, we will raise a new generation of young Davids who will embrace justice and peace as the path to inclusive and sustainable wealth creation for a future full of hope.

I am a late bloomer in the world of social innovation because I followed the traditional formula for success – that the best educated deserved the best job and the best life, only to be frustrated at mid-life that it did not bring me happiness or guarantee a secure world for my children as poverty was deepening around my artificial bubble of status, safety and comfort. It became clearer to me that the success I was pursuing was perpetuating a culture and economy of exclusion where the poor were not included in my definition of family and friends.

Worst, I am a citizen of a resource-rich country in Southeast Asia that doe‎s not have any excuse to be poor – fertile land, abundant seas, nearly a 100 million human resource base of talented people – 12 million of whom had to leave for greener pastures abroad. Yet, we endured poverty at home like Israelites who were wandering in our own desert of hopelessness, not knowing how to find our way to a better life. Our poverty is a scandal to other less endowed countries (like Singapore where 163,000 Filipinos are domestic workers and expats) and a shame to me as a Filipino. It is a shame that I do not want to pass on to my children.


It became clearer to me then that the Philippines was poor because we kept leaving the poor behind. As an economist, I had to find a platform for wealth creation where profit bridges wide social gaps and helps correct our flawed economic system – where increase in GDP simply meant the minority rich getting richer and the majority poor getting poorer, very much like the flawed American economy today described to us by Joseph Stiglitz at the LH Positive Economy Forum at Le Havre, France last year.

‎In 2003, we launched Gawad Kalinga, a movement to help improve the lives of 5 million families at the base of the pyramid by 2024. The audacious long-term goal was to build intentional communities for the poorest and empower them to rise by using whatever knowledge, experience, influence, capital and technology we can get from the top – business, government, academe and civil society. Simply put, harness the genius of the rich to unleash the genius of the poor so no one will remain poor.


‎In a decade of massive nation-building, the GK movement stirred hope, inspired heroism, opened floodgates of generous giving and volunteerism to provide land for squatters, build decent shelter for the homeless with clean water and toilet in 2,300 communities and improved the lives of over a million beneficiaries, many of whom have become volunteers and givers themselves.

This cycle of caring and sharing, of receiving and giving in GK was highlighted recently in the response to the Haiyan (Yolanda) tragedy,‎ where many of the workers and volunteers in our rebuilding effort in Central Philippines were former victims and beneficiaries themselves in previous calamities. It is simply mind-boggling how we were able to generate 1.6 million volunteers in 2 months since we launched our drive on April 9, 2014 through the Bayani Challenge campaign to build homes, repair schools, plant trees, clean-up waterways, conduct medical missions, feed and tutor children in 112 towns and 10 provinces this year. The quick response to house building was also made possible by the massive land available to GK before the tragedy struck, through donation by private landowners ‎and land-banking by local government units (LGUs).


>> Read more about the Bayani Challenge


Property owners shared their land when it became public knowledge through mainstream and social media that our bottom up development approach improved lives, promoted good citizenship, brought peace, triggered economic activities and increased land values‎. It is a win-win formula for multiple stakeholders, producing the greatest social impact.

International recognition of Gawad Kalinga as a trusted Filipino non-government organization (Reader's Digest, Ernst & Young, Schwab Foundation, Skoll World Forum, Japan Nikkei, World Entrepreneurship Forum, New York Times, etc) gave us added support to build more communities after ‎the much-publicized Napoles scandal broke-out which exposed many NGOs as conduits for massive government corruption.

>> Learn more about Gawad Kalinga’s recognition and awards

History now affirms our early decision ‎to foster sacrifice and altruism to build character and resilience – not a funding mentality – which helped us avoid pork barrel funds and a mendicant behaviour of seeking foreign aid in re-building our land. It is timely that we have a leader in President Benigno S. Aquino III who is allergic to corruption and has the guts to send crooks to jail. His challenge is how to deal with political allies and friends who are tainted in a compromised society where it is difficult to tell who is blacker between the kettle and the pot. This is the defense that many who are charged with corruption are taking – "why blame only us, everyone is doing it?"

This explains my patience with the less-schooled poor in the slums who had to steal and beg for survival – because the biggest thieves in our country come from the most elite and prestigious schools in the Philippines and abroad who cannot distinguish greed from need.

We have to re-educate the rich and poor together to build a Positive Economy anchored on sound values to create the greater good t‎hat go beyond self and family interest.


Walang iwanan (leave no one behind) is the battle-cry of Gawad Kalinga in its bottom-up and top-down approach to social progress.‎

The peaceful GK communities that are mushrooming nation-wide are starting to be productivity platforms, distribution networks and marketing centers. The poor that we help out of poverty today will be the market of tomorrow. By restoring human dignity we improve capacity, increase household income and enhance buying power.

Big business has embraced our economic philosophy that doing good makes good business sense.

Over 500 major corporations have invested in building our massive ecosystem, many of them migrating CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) philanthropy to CSI (Corporate Social Investment) sustainability through social entrepreneurship.

European and American interns and volunteers bring technology, knowledge and enthusiasm in helping the entrepreneurial poor

Our latest initiative to build the GK Enchanted Farm Village prototype as a destination for social tourism and business incubator has Air France/KLM, Shell, Hyundai, Berjaya, Schneider Electric, Nestlé, Crédit Suisse, Globe, Microsoft, Mitsui, Archangel, Accenture, Lifebank and Human Nature as cooperators.‎ Our European and American interns and volunteers on the other hand bring technology, knowledge and enthusiasm in helping the entrepreneurial poor develop gourmet cheese, healthy tea coolers, duck burgers, plush toys, organic jams and many more brands that create jobs, put food on the table and fund education. Our 34-hectare rural mentorship hub, though only four years old, feels like San Patrignano in vision and inspiration, with the big dream of training 20,000 deserving students of public high schools in the surrounding towns to be wealth creators and job generators in the countryside and not simply job seekers and informal settlers in the city.


Students go to the GK Enchanted Farm for experiential learning

>> Learn more about the GK Enchanted Farm

We have a long way to go but it is important that we know where we are going.‎ Like the Philippine eagle which is the largest and strongest bird in Asia, our country will soar to greater heights by nurturing the young and the weak to grow wings and fly.


This is a simple prescription‎ towards making the Philippines a model of a Positive Economy in Asia.

1.‎ Adopt a Build Philosophy that connects with the good in everyone, that does not see anyone as an enemy, a victim or a prey. Together we can create prosperity, build peace, end poverty.

2.‎ Value people as the greatest wealth of any nation, including thieves and drug addicts who can be transformed with love from liabilities to assets, from burdens to blessings. Knowledge is garbage if it is not used to help the blind see, the lost to find their way, for the captives to be free.

3. ‎ Nurture a business culture of caring and sharing, of justice and peace between rich and poor so no one will remain poor. Profit is a loss if business over-pays top executives but lower-rank workers are underpaid and under-fed.

Human Nature, a social enterprise manufacturing natural cosmetics and personal care products formed from the ribs of GK, trained a hundred former garbage scavengers and slum-dwellers as retailers, merchandisers, office and factory workers and paid them nearly double the legal minimum wage, with the security of a no-firing policy. In return the company received from them the highest level of loyalty and efficiency. This is the power of compassion in building competence and character and creating profit with a bigger social conscience.

‎This is the way to build a nation: raising the bottom will bring everything up.

Note: This will be a chapter in the new Positive Economy book ‎of French economist Jacques Attali.

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