Racism, sexism and the curious case of Gawad Kalinga’s Tony Meloto
Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto, famous for leading a movement that aims to end poverty, is now accused of making distasteful comments about the poor and Filipino women.
The most widely-reported charges sprang from a stunning statement released by the University of Hawaii’s Center for Philippine Studies. Not as widely-known were the reactions of a Filipino medical doctor, a veteran of international relief campaigns, to Meloto’s recent remarks in France.
Meloto has rejected the labels, saying in a statement reacting to the University of Hawaii release: “This is the first time I’ve been called a ‘sexist,’ ‘elitist’ and a person with ‘colonial mentality,’ which definitely I am not. I may have offended some who did not agree with me or appreciated my humor and I can respect that.”
“I am saddened that my statements were taken out of context and my metaphors given a negative interpretation,” he also said.
I agree with those who have called on the University of Hawaii’s Center for Philippine Studies to release a recording or a transcript of his comments.
It would make clear if, as the University of Hawaii statement said, Meloto called the poor “hopeless” and violent, or that he claimed that “beautiful women” are the country’s greatest asset and should be used to attract “the best and brightest” men from the West.
It would prove or disprove the University of Hawaii center’s claim that Meloto pointed to the “need for Filipino women and their white husbands to produce what Mr. Meloto humorously called ‘cappuccinos’ and appeared to present such policy of seduction and reproduction as a solution to the problems of economic development in the Philippines.”
On these accusations, Meloto said he “spoke candidly about bright foreigners finding the Philippines as the land of opportunity, hub for social entrepreneurs and the most beautiful country in Asia, including our women.”
He mentioned his two daughters “who married foreigners, a Brit and a Fil-Am,” saying, “It would be ridiculous for a father like me to trivialise and insult my daughters, whom I love and respect, to lure foreigners to our country. I have nothing but the highest respect for our Filipina women who are the heart of our home and community.”
But respect was not what Dr. Jade Sibyl Pena felt when she attended another recent Meloto speech in Paris.
Jade has spent most of her life with international aid groups, working in crisis areas in such countries as Liberia, Chad, Indonesia and Haiti. She had heard of Meloto and Gawad Kalinga, so when she heard of an event in Paris featuring the organization’s founder, she decided to check it out.
It was not a pleasant experience.
“Cringe-inducing,” was how she described Meloto’s remarks. The Gawad Kalinga founder, she told me, wanted “men of quality to come to the Philippines to serve as a model for Filipino men.” In fact, Meloto “asked the Frenchmen and Germans — white men — to inspire Filipino men.”
And just like in Hawaii, Meloto referred to the “beautiful women” of the Philippines as a form of enticement, she said. As she sat in the audience, Jade said, “I felt like being sold as part of the package.”
Did Dr. Pena simply fail to appreciate Meloto’s humor like the audience at the University of Hawaii?
In that case, Meloto should seriously rethink his public presentations — and maybe consider giving up on trying to be funny. For it could be undermining the good work the Gawad Kalinga is doing.
In fact, Jade even says the movement is “filling a niche,” meeting needs not being met by government and the private sector.
A movement that mobilizes people, including those from the middle class, to build homes for those who are struggling, to take on the problem of poverty, can be a force for good.
There’s always the risk of creating a cult-like organization with an annoying and counter-productive ‘we-are-the-saviors-of-the-poor’ attitude, especially if that movement doesn’t bother to address issues of inequality and social injustice at the root of many of the country’s problems.
But there’s something powerful and uplifting about working with a team to build something as concrete as a home for a family that needs one.
I discovered this first-hand together with my teenage son. In the summer of 2014, we joined his church group, a Bay Area-based Korean Presbyterian congregation, on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico. It was an incredible experience: We helped build a house for a struggling Mexican family.
I still remember how moved my son and other church members were when we turned over the keys to Esperanza, her mother and her daughter, the three women who were going to live in the house we spent two days building.
We did not end poverty in that part of the world. But we did something concrete to help three people in their struggle against it.
I imagine that that’s how people who’ve volunteered for Gawad Kalinga also felt.
I’m sure they’re sincere and committed to the movement’s dream of eradicating poverty…
That most of them would not call the poor hopeless and violent, and would not declare, even jokingly, that beautiful Filipino women are a means to attract “the best and the brightest” men from from Europe and the U.S.
Here’s a thought: Maybe Gawad Kalinga is much bigger than its founder and his beliefs.
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