Image by Kerry Dean
The last ten days have been an incredibly diverse and eye opening introduction to life in one of the fastest developing economies in the world, albeit one where abject poverty and depravation still typify the lives of nearly thirty percent of the population, one of the highest levels in Asia.
Despite these disturbing statistics, there is a vibrancy and diversity to life in the Philippines that is hugely compelling. Having visited 6 of the 7107 islands that fall under Filipino rule, I can hardly call myself an expert on the country, or the challenges that the future presents here. What I can do is relay my take on some of the people, places and projects I’ve visited and their relevance to the work we do.
There are numerous models and methods being established to improve livelihoods and tackle poverty here, none are exactly new but as always it is the context that creates the unique nature of the work. The Philippines abounds with informal micro economies, many of which demonstrate the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
The Rise Above Foundation based in Cebu city was set up to provide dental care for the poorest Filipinos. Teeth are a big problem for a nation dependent on sugar; sugar cane is a staple crop in the Philippines, whilst sugar laden fizzy drinks are a staple in the Filippino diet; both have a role to play in widespread dental decay. The Foundation has grown and expanded through donations of both equipment and time but as with so many charitable endeavours they have recognised the need for trade as well as aid to lift communities from poverty.
It is remarkable how often people turn to fashion, in the broadest sense, as a way of creating livelihoods and in particular livelihoods for women; Rise Above is no exception. The Foundation have established a relatively new venture making bags and other small accessories using traditional weaving techniques but unusual materials, in this case feed sacks. Dog food, chicken feed, rice sacks e.t.c provide a surprising array of colours and are of course a readily available, durable and relatively cheap waste stream in the Philippines. There is certainly still some work to do to perfect the product, good hard wear seems to be tricky to come by. However the energy and excitement of Abi Biard the French women leading the Recy Bags project, is palpable and the simplicity of the proposal/process and it’s potential to succeed is hard to deny.
Another interesting fledgling project is Bantayan crafts. Bantayan is a small island that was ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda, where a group of women have come together to make simple fashion and home accessories as a means of supplementing their family income. One of the most compelling products is a picture frame made using weathered timber collected from the debris of fishing boats smashed to pieces by the wind and sea during the storm; these boats represent the livelihood of almost all the women involved in Bantayan Crafts, most of whom are married to fishermen. The flaking paint and distressed wood is both beautiful and tells a story of triumph over adversity. Given a little bit of refining, these frames could sell anywhere in the world and needless to say there were many many boats destroyed by Yolanda.
The whole trip has served as a reminder, if one were needed, of how important it is to keep looking beyond the tried and tested models of mass production and consumption for inspiration; without doubt exciting ideas flourish at the margins and in the gaps.