Alterna Savings’ “CSR Idol” Contest: Manila, Philipines

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CSR Idol Discovers Humour, Optimistic Spirit amidst Poverty in the Philippines


Last year, Alterna Savings
held its first "CSR Idol" contest to recognize Alterna staff who are
shining stars in the area of community social responsibility. Staff
nominated a number of their colleagues, and Alterna members voted for
their favourite among three finalists. The winner of the 2007 CSR Idol
was Francine Dick, Certified Financial Planner from
the Bay Street branch of Alterna Savings in Toronto. As part of her
award, Francine spent nine days in The Philippines with the Canadian Co-operative Association observing how co-operatives are helping people help themselves. This is her story.

MANILA
– If the Philippines is described as a nation of 7,000 islands, then
Manila could be described as a city of 7,000 malls. Three alone are
across the street from our hotel, including the SM Megamall, which
sounds ominous.

From the moment we are greeted at the airport
by Milo, our Filipino associate, I am smitten with this city and her
people. Milo’s perpetual smile, graciousness and good humour are
typical of everyone I meet. A born and bred city girl, I am fascinated
with Manila’s energy and sense of self. Life spills out into the
streets, making them lively and communal. A man pushes into stopped
traffic, selling newspapers with one hand and cigarettes tied from a
carton around his neck with the other. Traffic is continuous and
chaotic but somehow works.

There
are people everywhere. Visiting a museum I learn of the Filipinos’
incessant struggle for independence and am surprised that a people who
have been so long oppressed can be so generous. Deeply religious, yet
fiercely democratic it constantly surprises me.

"Not all wives believe in insurance, but all widows do," says Ernesto "Ernie" Galenzoga, the President of RIMANSI

He
is a man after my own heart. RIMANSI is a regional resource centre
based in the Philippines to help rural and urban poor households in
south-east Asia obtain insurance. RIMANSI partners with micro finance
institutions to establish micro insurance programs.

"The poor need insurance more than the wealthy," he says. "They have fewer assets and less wealth."

Like
micro loans, micro insurance is based on the idea that a small amount
can make a big difference. Micro loans are given mostly to women, and
as a condition of the loan, they must get insurance. For 20 pesos
(about 50 cents) a week a woman receives 30,000 pesos (about $735) of
life insurance for herself, 20,000 pesos for her husband and 5,000
pesos for each child. It also offers medical reimbursement of up to
2,000 pesos per year and if she remains in the program for at least
three years, 50 per cent of the premiums are returned as savings if she
decides to leave the Mutual Benefit Association.

After
a wonderful lunch we visit a factory run by the National Federation of
Cooperatives of Persons With Disabilities. Established about 10 years
ago, there are now about 15 primaries in the Philippines. These
differently abled workers fill roles from management to accounting to
welding to sanding. I am surprised to learn that many of the workers
were afflicted at a young age with polio, which was not eradicated in
the Philippines until the early 1980s.

Nonoy from RIMANSI
drives us to Cabanatuan a couple of hours north of Manila. A subtle
jokester, it takes me awhile to catch on to when he’s pulling my leg.
We meet Rolando Victoria, the executive director of ASKI, a micro
finance organization with more than 50,000 members in 21 branches. Many
of these branches have Mutual Benefit Associations which provide
insurance for their members. The clients of the MBA’s are also the
owners, who elect a Board of Directors. At the ASKI office in
Cabanatuan I have the wonderful experience of attending a Board of
Directors meeting composed entirely of women. One woman tells me that
she used to work for someone in the rice fields making about 150 pesos
($3.70) a day, but with her loan she has been able to rise above
poverty.

After a huge and delicious buffet lunch we visit
another factory of the People with Disabilities Cooperative. Like the
others, they have a large contract with the Department of Education
manufacturing school desks. Rudi, the director, tells us that 26 people
work here, including six in the office and eight deaf workers. From
Manila we fly south to Iloilo City and, with typical Filipino
hospitality, are met at the airport with flowers. Iloilo has the feel
of a beach town with broad sidewalks and spacious streets and a
slightly less frenetic pace than Manila. Devastated by Typhoon Frank in
May of 2008, they have rebuilt and carried on. Luis Posa, a long
standing board member of the Association of Differently Abled Persons
in Iloilo Multi-Purpose Co-operative, has more energy than men half his
age. Besides helping run the co-operative he has several projects on
the go, including one for vermiculture with the ingenious name of
Global Worming.

At lunch I am introduced to inasal chicken,
barbecued and skewered on a stick, which becomes my favourite way to
eat poultry. After lunch we witness micro-finance in action as a dozen
women meet, chat, sign for their loans and receive their pesos. Rules
of credit are very strict and full responsibility is placed upon the
borrower. The default rate for these micro-loans is less than two per
cent. We in North America should take a few lessons.

"People
say that high school is memorable, but for me I cannot say that,"
remarks Janine Soliva. "I was very shy, had no self-confidence and had
a fear of rejection."

This
is hard to believe as I watch this dynamic young member of the
Association of Empowered Women speak. The group was formed to give
attention to the special needs of women with disabilities. They focus
on accessibility to schools, finding employment, informing women of
their civil rights, reaching out to isolated women, fighting prejudice
and acting as a support group.

At another factory for disabled
workers I meet Fred Berganio, disabled by polio. At home Fred scoots
about on a small wheeled platform because his home cannot accommodate a
wheelchair. His wheelchair is an ingenious device consisting of a
plastic lawn chair mounted onto a moveable frame. But Fred’s main form
of transportation is his hand-operated tricycle with a bench in the
back for passengers. Fred used to be a cab driver with his tricycle but
now has better work at the factory as a grinder and sander. Married
with five children, Fred exemplifies the modest, generous,
hard-working, humorous and eternally optimistic spirit I found among
the people of the Philippines.

My visit to the Philippines was
the trip of a lifetime. It was wonderful to see the spirit of
co-operation among people, and to witness how small things can make a
difference in people’s lives. I feel very honoured to have been chosen
to represent Alterna on this journey.