Love, the Northern Territory Intervention's missing ingredient


Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty described as 'devastating' the plight of Aborigines in central Australia after visiting communities in Utopia at the weekend. 'I've been to many places in bad shape in Africa, Asia and Latin America but what makes it stark here is when you remind yourself you're actually in one of the richest countries in the world'.

Many Australians have reached a point of believing that the difficulties afflicting Aboriginal communities are beyond address or that if they are to be overcome, it will take the type of heavy handed, and often humiliating, compulsion that has characterised the Northern Territory Intervention.

There is at least a widening consensus that welfare, beyond being applied for emergency purposes, quickly becomes a poison that destroys a person’s capacity for self-reliance. Generations of welfare within a community, black or white, can produce an almost post-apocalyptic outlook.

But welfare is not the only scourge facing Aboriginal communities. Another, perhaps deeper, malaise is the great loss of confidence which many Aboriginal people feel in their dealings with the main society; a situation bred by decades of misunderstanding and discrimination. It is a malaise that now also extends to their dealings with one another.

In a debate between rights and responsibilities that is becoming increasingly shrill, Noel Pearson has called on us all to look to Asia, and in particular to Singapore, for models of community development that may offer a path out of our national tragedy.

Whether Singapore, which achieved its extraordinary success through a near totalitarian approach, is an appropriate or even possible option is open for debate. Relevantly though, Singapore has its eyes cast eastwards to the Philippines where the National University of Singapore sends its business students to study a grassroots community development model known as Gawad Kalinga.

Meaning 'to give care' in Tagalog, Gawad Kalinga was founded by a Filipino, Tony Meloto, who drew his inspiration while living in Melbourne.  In 1995 he returned to the Philippines to work amongst the gangs in one of the poorest and most violent squatter settlements in the country, a neighbourhood of over a million people in northern Manila called Bagong Silang.

For over a decade, he trialled different approaches to building self-reliant, safe communities before developing a model that is now being scaled across the nation.  Since 2003 Gawad Kalinga has built over 2000 ‘intentional’ communities and directly helped around a million people.  Much of this has been done with minimal government support but with the assistance of over a hundred thousand volunteers.

The model is founded on the building of values within the community, particularly values that reinforce notions of servant leadership.  Whether the villages are Christian, Muslim or indigenous, the value structures have proven to be remarkably similar. It is from these values that villagers are supported in developing constitutions that then govern the affairs of the village. Resources follow, rather than precede the governance. The enterprise is also founded on the confidence which the care and support of committed volunteers bring to an impoverished community.  

Gawad Kalinga is teaching a country to not be afraid of its poor but to see them as their brothers and sisters, the country’s hope and future. Volunteers arrive from the middle class suburbs to work beside the squatters in constructing villages; corporations donate the materials (and often their own labour) and local governments assist by providing land.

Areas that were once no-go zones through gang, ethnic or religious violence are now safe. Areas that once housed their residents in cardboard and tin squalor now boast well built, brightly coloured homes with landscaped gardens that the residents have built for one another.  One squatter helps his or her neighbour build their house, one village helps its neighbouring village rise from poverty.  No one is too poor that they have nothing to give. Each becomes their brother and sister’s keeper.

‘Love’ is not a word that generally finds its way into government policy documents. Yet love is central to our ability to see our own dignity and a sense of that dignity is at the heart of our ability to realise our humanity, regardless of our situation.

Gawad Kalinga by giving care has produced a cultural transformation that is becoming an economic transformation, engaging all sectors of society in a campaign to eradicate poverty through care. Even the national Congress is now coming to the party, having formulated the Nation Building Through Volunteerism Bill which aims to support the work of Gawad Kalinga and other volunteer driven organisations with resources and while tuning government agencies to complement the communities’ efforts rather than dictating the approach.

This Saturday (15 October) the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and Sydney University Law School are hosting the 2011 GK Global Summit at the University.  It will be an opportunity for Australians to consider whether a third way, built on ‘the giving of care’, lies between apocalypse and humiliation. 

Andrew ChalkAndrew Chalk is a Sydney based lawyer who has represented Aboriginal communities across Australia for over two decades. He is chair of Gawad Kalinga Australia.

Topic tags: Gawad Kalinga, NT intervention, poverty, transformation, love, care, Philippines, GK Global, Aboriginies



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for letting us know of this remarkable organisation.

This is the answer to many world problems.

Compassion and action !.

A response to the Gospels.

I will be eagerly waiting for the outcome of the 2011Gk Global Summit, and hope the mainstream Media will back and promote this radical, though ageless initiative.
Bernie Introna | 11 October 2011

Andrew, why would you expect this organising framework to transfer successfully to the radically different circumstances of Aboriginal communities, in which many people with hunter-gatherer ethics compete to maximise personal and family shares from the welfare benefits easily available to all, and where the mutual benefits from civil society activities often barely register on the local consciousness? Asian peasant and worker societies are radically different kettles of potential.

Aboriginal groups have to develop and forge their own methods for salvation, with help from people of sense and goodwill; I doubt whether the way forward is as simple as that which you are proposing.
Robert Patrick | 12 October 2011

In Australia we also have an organisation that has very similar beliefs and operational methodology---ie the people themselves must be listened to and heard and have the opportunity to design their own development paths. That organisation is Idigenous Community Volunteers (ICV)Through this organisation Australians have the opportunity to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Communities. We believe in doing things with rather than for or to people.
Bill Armstrong AO | 12 October 2011

Thanks Andrew for that inspiring article. It is so easy to feel hopeless about the situation here and yet we cannot give in to despair. God bless you for your work and words.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 12 October 2011

I am a fervent supporter of Gawad Kalinga, especially of its efforts to spawn and nurture and grow social entrepreneurs and enterprises throughout the Philippines and throughout the globe. has more information.
rick passo
@rictandag las vegas, nevada
Returned US Peace Corps Volunteer
Gawad Kalinga Advocate
GKCSI Daily 500,000 SocialEnt by 2016
rick passo | 22 October 2011


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