Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Tale of Two Cities

Yes, both of these places are in Manila, but they have very little in common. This is the tale of two cities.

Generally, we believe that we are all equal. We cringe at the sight of any form of discrimination and even protest when our own rights are violated. However, is equality just a concept in today’s world? Each example of social and economic inequality reminds us of George Orwell’s statement that some people “are more equal than others” (I hope you’re familiar with Animal Farm). One of the first things they teach us in Economics is that limited resources are matched with unlimited wants. The sad reality of this is that the majority is forced to live in a state of desolation so that the rich can satisfy their unlimited wants.

Day two introduced us to two sides of the same city with the help of our dear friends at Habitat for Humanity, an international NGO dedicated to providing housing for the world’s poor. It is their vision to have “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” One of Habitat’s thriving operations is housing microfinance. Although they do not provide microfinance services on their own, they develop partnerships with microfinance institutions such as Kasagana-ka Development Center Inc, which provides microloans, savings, insurance and education for the urban poor.

The day’s activities began with a brief overview of Kasagana-ka’s business objectives and operations.

You may read about poor communities in books, see them in the news, or discuss them with colleagues, but the complexion of the poverty problem is quite different when you experience it first-hand. Kasagana-ka, alongside with Habitat for Humanity, plunged us head first into one of the communities they serve – just in time for a borrower repayment meeting. The streets were paved with debris of all kinds. We were greeted by the smell of poor sanitation and pestilence, along with hungry stray animals. As we walked through the neighborhood, we witnessed the daily lives of those deprived of the luxuries we often take for granted.

Nevertheless, the attitudes of the people reminded us of the important distinction between ‘poor’ and ‘living in poverty’. As we listened to Kasagana-ka’s borrowers welcome us and share their delight and enthusiasm, it was clear that they are by no means ‘poor’. They emulated a sense of hope and solidarity that many ‘rich’ persons would love to experience. The repayment meeting was not just a formality to collect loan funds. It was a home of unity among the borrowers. They share joy and support each other in every aspect of life. The strength of this community and the dedication of the borrowers allow Kasagana-ka to boast a 100% loan repayment rate – how impressive!

I was told that the other side of Manila is “much more Westernized,” but it was as though we travelled to a different land. During the drive to the main office of Habitat for Humanity, we encountered an unbelievably different city. It felt like New York (well..somewhat). I wondered if I was still in the Philippines! Just over an hour away by car, the buildings pierced the sky; the residents were dressed for office; the culture painted a different picture.

Fortunately, there are organizations such as Habitat for Humanity that are making strides in alleviating poverty and hopefully tipping the balance of inequality. Inside the office, we were introduced to a lot of the impactful work that Habitat is performing in the Asia-Pacific area and beyond. 

Incremental Housing; Housing Microfinance; The MicroBuild Fund; what does this all mean for the poor? Incremental housing reminds me of Lao Tzu’s words: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is the process whereby repairs and improvements can be made to homes- one step at a time. This way, affordable houses can be built for those in need, one step at a time. Coupled with housing micro finance, those living in poverty are given access to small loans so they can improve different aspects of their homes. Over time, the proud beneficiaries can see their homes slowly transform into something safe, comfortable and secure. 

The MicroBuild Fund adds an interesting perspective to the micro-finance industry. Micro finance has usually resulted in the formation of micro enterprise; Habitat urges micro finance institutions to focus on the creation of housing for the poor. 

It does not end there; they also provide technical assistance, educating borrowers so that they can create high quality homes. The result is an all-rounded increase in the well-being of communities. Having already funded home improvement, GLOBE is no stranger to Habitat's vision. 

The fight against poverty needs all the helping hands available. Let's build together.

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