Tackling poverty with pragmatism

13 June 2016 | Education , Community
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Garbage collectors who live and work within a dumpsite in Cabanatuan City

With rising interest in overseas projects to aid the global fight against poverty, it is vital to consider the sustainability of these efforts, within the larger context of community development and poverty alleviation. How do we ensure that there is no over-reliance on external help? As visitors, what role can we play to help develop a community which we are not familiar with?

Over the course of 12 days in May 2016, as part of the 7th Builders Connect Learning Programme in the Philippines, nine students from the NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) had the opportunity to address these issues. This programme aims to give students multidisciplinary insights into complex issues such as poverty alleviation, through partnerships with international charity organisations or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

During the study trip from 11 to 22 May, the students interacted closely with two established Filipino NGOs – Alalay sa Kaunlaran, Inc. (ASKI) and Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation, Inc. (GK) – to explore their strategies and challenges in eradicating poverty in the Metro Manila and Northern Luzon regions.

While the two NGOs share the similar aim of tackling poverty in the Philippines, they differ in their approaches and target groups. Through site visits, experiential learning and homestays with beneficiaries, as well as dialogues and interviews with various levels of management in ASKI and GK, the students were able to observe and appreciate these differences.

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NUS students conducting interviews with beneficiaries of ASKI in Laur, Nueva Ecija

ASKI targets the entrepreneurial poor through its microfinance model, offering loans to help clients develop self-sufficient businesses. It also provides entrepreneurship training for its clients, along with resources and funds to address the rural communities’ self-identified needs.

In contrast, GK, which derived its name from the Tagalog phrase gawad kalinga (to give care), mainly targets the poorest of the poor, building sustainable communities through values formation and engaging members to form an elected leadership and formulate community goals. The spirit of bayanihan (solidarity through sharing the burden) and walang iwanan (leaving no one behind) is emphasised in GK communities through its founder, Mr Antonio Meloto, whom the students interacted with.

The students’ experiences culminated in a presentation and dialogue with Mr Rolando Victoria, ASKI Executive Director, as well as suggestions to further develop the GK Ark of Noah rural community. The NUS students were the first group of foreign visitors to visit this community.

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NUS student Loh Jun Yu interacting with residents from GK Silver Heights, an urban community in Caloocan

Not only did the students build warm relationships with the villagers that allowed them to better empathise and understand the challenges they are facing daily, as Year 1 NUS Science student Li Chengcheng commented, but they also gained insights into the attempts to eradicate, if not alleviate, poverty. As Year 2 NUS Arts and Social Sciences student Rachel Ker aptly put, “I learnt that alleviating this complex and multifaceted issue is never a one-step approach and is a continuous learning journey.”

By Tham Jun Han, Faculty of Engineering + USP