The Phillipines has always been a country I’ve known very little about. Historically, I guess I’d always associated it with Imelda Marcos, the wife of the country’s former dictator (both pictured above), who had so many shoes, until more recently when the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been making news by calling for vigilantes to gun down drug dealers. This has made him hugely popular with Filipinos all of the world. But his rough language apparently upset the Obama administration last week when he threatened to call him a “son of a whore” if Obama chose to lecture him on human rights during their meeting – after that, there was no meeting and Duterte seemed to apologize.
As a CPA, I’ve always known that the Philipines pumps out a lot of English-speaking, high-quality accountants, and I have worked with a number of them over the years. My firm even established a subsidiary in the Philippines not long ago to tap in to this talent pool. My family employs a Filipino maid and both my sons have a number of Filipino friends at school in Singapore. Despite all this recurring Filipino influence in my life, I had never visited the Philippines, until last week.
I flew to Manila with my business partners to visit our office located south of the city, adjacent to a university which graduates a fresh batch of CPAs every year, so I was happy to see minimal constraints on our ability to grow. During an afternoon outing to see the Taal Volcano Lake (a volcano lake which is located inside a larger lake, so quite unique) we spoke about the phenomenon of President Duterte’s popularity in the Philippines. Despite a headline-grabing thousands of suspected drug dealers (and who-knows who else) having been shot in the streets by vigilantes, thousands more have actually turned themselves in for fear of being killed, and crime rates have been cut in half. Impressive results and this is why every Filipino I have spoken to of late support him whole-heartedly (while the UN and other human rights groups look for ways to denounce his actions).
But it turns out there is more to his immense support than just reducing crime. Filipinos over the centuries have been repressed and abused by typhoons, the Spanish (and maybe even the Americans), dictators and the ruling class, and all too often unscrupulous employers in other countries. A pretty long list of exploiters.
Getting to know the country a bit I started to get the feeling that Filipinos see themselves as a country of victims and believe that they as a nation, and thus many as individuals, are destined to live small, simple and supressed lives. We all at times (myself included) have played and can play the victim, wearing that “victimness” on our sleeve as a kind of badge of honor or personal identity, but which ultimately holds us back from accomplishing what we would otherwise really want in life. Duterte’s take-charge language, both with drug-dealers and with global leaders, provides a voice for the victimized public and he has become the alter-ego of the masses, saying what Filipinos really want to say but are afraid to say.
From my own personal experience, the main problem with playing the victim card is that the sense of personal responsibility is relinquished or outsourced to someone else or to some circumstance.
I have outsourced some of my accounting function to the Philippines but I can’t outsource personal responsibility for my life to anyone.
My general conclusion about the need for Filipinos to collectively up their game and take a more active role in their future was confirmed when on the last day of our visit we met with Tony Meloto, the founder of the Philippines’ largest NGO, Gawad Kalinga (GK), which he founded in 1995 with a vision to eliminate poverty.
GK began by building housing communities in the slums and over the years this has grown into a global movement with branches and operations in multiple countries. More recently though, Tony’s efforts have been focused on social entreneurship where he is encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to think big and set up business which can become globally recognized Filipino brands. The Philipinnes has a huge amount of under-utilized farm land and tremendous human capital potential (and 100 million people!), but the country’s farmers are starting to die out.
The GK Enchanted Farm, with over 100 acres (and growing) of highly fertile farm land, is the platform for, in the words of Tony, the lowest of society’s pyramid to connect with volunteers and social impact investors from the “top of the pyramid” and create not only jobs, but also purpose and meaning, all while restoring dignity and personal responsibility.
Tony spoke about the need to change the collective mentality of Filipinos from all walks of life to think in entrepreneurial terms and not simply believe they are destined to work as dutiful employees (i.e., domestic workers or Manilla call-center employees or, for the top university grads, to work for P&G or Coca-Cola).
Tony wants to change that paradigm and encourage entrepreneurs like the young boy on his farm who recently started a quail egg business with start-up capital of $200. He was previously working for a quail farmer getting paid about $25 a month but asked Tony for help in funding his own business. A quick computation of the quail egg business economics revealed a profit of $75 a month (i.e., a pay-back period of less than three months!).
In lieu of land rent, GK asks that 30% of the business profits be paid back to the farm. And while this kind of micro-financing is great and has empowered lots of people, especially women, in places like India, Tony wants to see these agri-businesses grow way beyond what micro-finance can do. The GK Enchanted Farm has aleady birthed brands which are now growing outside the Philippines.
Global food security will continue to be a huge issue for the world in the coming years and agriculture is a growing investment sector. The GK Enchanted Farm is attracting global attention now with this big vision for social entrepreneurship.
I will be back and, along with my partners, will be supporting GK and the GK Enchanted Farm to fund and mentor social entrepreneurs in the Philippines. Let us hear from you if you would like to be involved.