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At The Bar: The Genius of the Poor

Leaving your desk job in order to pursue a passionate dream has to be a thought that has crossed many minds at some point. As keen as ever for an inspiring tale, last month we invited author and social entrepreneur Tom Graham to share his story with us at Design Bridge.

On Thursday night, we gave both Tom and our own Richard Rigby the floor. It was an incredible evening with two enthusiastic men who really inspired the audience to experience the richness of the Philippines themselves. Here’s Richard to tell their stories and what they’ve learned.

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Eradicating poverty by 2024

Arriving on a short-term business assignment in 2012, Tom was sent to the Philippines in order to write about one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. After countless interviews with local businessmen and politicians, it was a meeting with one of the Philippines’ most visionary men, Tony Meloto, that would set his life off in a new traction. A regular 30 minute interview lasted three hours as Tom became fascinated by Meloto’s audacious vision of eradicating poverty in the Philippines by 2024. One phrase which particularly resonated was his urge for Tom to discover the “genius of the Filipino poor”. Seeing how confused Tom looked upon hearing this phrase, Tony insisted it could only be truly understood by immersing in the communities that he, and thousands other Gawad Kalinga (literally, ‘to give care’) volunteers, had built alongside the poorest of the poor. Months later, Tom had exchanged his high-rise condo and regular salary for Meloto’s basement, and began to gather stories from communities nationwide that had been enriched by the work of Gaward Kalinga.

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The power of communities

Two years later, with the book published and selling well, I eagerly read about Tom’s travels with the communities where he had been lovingly welcomed throughout his year-long journey. The heart-moving stories that poured from the pages rang true of the title. Those with the least are capable of working the hardest, and yet they become trapped in a cycle of poverty due to factors beyond their control cruelly taking from the most impoverished. With the help of GK, communities have been built and the once-marginalised have been provided with a firmer footing in life, overcoming natural disasters such as flooding, earthquakes and typhoons. Being able to lean on each other in times of need, and work alongside a new wave of social entrepreneurs, has helped provide safe and stable work environments in which local produce is brought to a wider marker and profits shared honestly, giving children the means to dream beyond the slums.

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An article in the Guardian

In April of 2016, I myself flew to the Philippines in order to participate in one of the many GK volunteering programs which support the most in need, taking part in a five day Bayani (Heroes) Challenge. This now celebrated date has begun to gain interest from the west, with The Guardian covering the story and eventually using one of the images that I had taken to lead the article.


My objective was to meet many of the unsung heroes and bring their individual stories to lift through the art of photography. This three-week journey lead me to some of the most remote villages in the Philippines to learn and understand the power of community and the benefits this has on wider society. With such strong platforms as Gaward Kalinga, I am now a firm believer that the 2024 goal of eradicating extreme poverty in the Philippines can be achieved.

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Tom, meanwhile, is now firmly established in the Philippines with his book now gaining much critical acclaim and being translated into French. He has also set up a social tourism travel agency, MAD (Make A Difference) Travel which promotes sustainable, ‘social’ tourism in which guests have fun, learn about the local communities and get to make their own contribution to ‘nation building’.

You can see more of Richard’s photography on his website.


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