Good morning USA! From over here in Southeast Asia it’s late Monday night and definitely time to go to bed after our first full day in the Philippines. We’re staying in Manila, the capital city with a population of 12 million people in the city proper and surrounding area that makes up what’s known as “Metro Manila.” It’s a sprawling city, full of smaller neighborhoods called “barangays.” Among the barangays, some are pockets of great wealth and some are pockets of great poverty. The metro area holds nearly a thousand “barangays.” Some of the most populated and poorest are urban slums, swelling with a migrant population from rural parts of the country looking to make a living. These communities are often centers of extreme poverty, overcrowded and growing all the time, and at heightened risk during natural disasters.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) – the host of the Egan Journalism Fellowship reporting trip that’s brought me here with three other Catholic journalist – works in 15 of the most densely populated and poorest of these barangays in the city, comprising nearly half a million people. Today we visited what is known as the poorest of all and the largest: Baseco, population 51,000.
Despite the extreme poverty, in Baseco we witnessed some of CRS’ most innovative programs at work. I got to meet Lesley Tambago, the chairperson of a small micro-finance group in the community. The group is made up of 25 women, many of them single moms like Lesley, all of them scraping together a living from what little the barangay has to offer. The group is a micro-saving and micro-lending group. The women save between $1 and $5 in the collective account each week. If they’re absent to the weekly meetings or pay late they incur fees. Any member of the group can take out a loan and must pay back with interest. At the end of a period of time, according to what the group decides, the savings are withdrawn, the collective fees and interest distributed equally and the saving begins again. The group gives the women the community support and motivation to save and budget and provides an economic safety net. Before, if they needed a loan they were at the mercy of sharks who charged 20% interest and collected daily.
In Baseco CRS also works with local government and Caritas Manila volunteers (more on Caritas Manila in a moment) on disaster preparedness in this flood-prone community, situated right on the edge of Manila Bay. These measures include establishing a network of community leaders, often gathered around a chapel, or community church, who train residents on how to be prepared and activate the warning and evacuation system in the event of a disaster. They’re prepared not just for floods and tropical storms, which rip through this community multiple times a year, but for fires and earthquakes.
Part of disaster preparedness is also solid waste management, a major problem in many of the barangays, especially Baseco. The longest river in Metro Manila, the Pasig River, empties into the bay right through Baseco, carrying with it the garbage of the entire city. This trash and the pileup in Baseco itself blocks water drainage during floods. By again mobilizing the community and a network of volunteers through Caritas, CRS is training people on how to separate their garbage into non-recyclable and recyclables that, in the case of plastics, can be sold to junk dealers for additional income.
This afternoon we visited Caritas Manila’s headquarters and met with their executive director, Father Anton Pascual. Caritas Internationalis is an international network of social services agencies similar to the Catholic Charities network in the U.S. Caritas Manila is based in the Archdiocese of Manila, but as the country’s largest Caritas agency it serves not only the metro area but poor provinces all over the country as well as disaster-stricken areas. A project of particular passion for Father Pascual is the agency’s micro-enterprise programs. The agency’s own brand, “Margins,” taken from the meaning-rich word in Catholic Social Teaching ‘marginalized,’ gives small entrepreneurs a platform for their products. The brand officially launched two months ago but has been in incubation for three years and boasts a line of 900 different products ranging from crafts to packaged foods. Caritas Manila helps the producers through the process of quality controls and packaging, and then markets the product and helps distribute it through online sales and stores in parishes and a few malls.
Their second social enterprise is called “Segunda Mana,” a second-hand goods retailer that repurposes used items, inspired by Goodwill Industries in the States. In the process it is recycling, earning revenue for Caritas’s other social programs, and providing another outlet for micro-entrepreneurs. Donated items that can’t be sold in the stores are sold cheaply to the poor who then either sell them at a profit in the barangays or turn them into craft items sold under the “Margins” brand.
A combination of troubling and inspiring experiences this first day on our trip to the Philippines. In the face of desperate poverty, it’s fascinating to see how Caritas and CRS’ programs put economics – which in the Philippines has worked to consolidate 75% of the nation’s wealth in the hands of just 40 families – at the service of the poor.