Building community | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Building community

/ 05:07 AM December 26, 2023

Many say that we Filipinos are fond of self-flagellation. We talk endlessly about what’s wrong with our country and our people and cap it by saying “Only in the Philippines” with a sigh. Maybe it’s true some of the time, or maybe even most of the time. But maybe it’s also a way that we deny personal responsibility for our nation’s shortcomings. The more we think that “the problem is with them, and not me,” the less likely that we’d follow the Gandhian admonition to “be the change you wish to see”—and the more likely we are to withdraw into our own chosen little comfort zones, or even our own individual shells. The prevalence of the “kanya-kanya” or “to each his own” attitude could well be our tallest hurdle to building our nation.

Mainstream economic theory since Adam Smith has been premised on human beings acting in pursuit of their self-interest, and as they do, market competition supposedly acts as an “invisible hand” that allocates the economy’s limited resources efficiently. The problem is that conflict and tension are inherent in the market economy; as such, misery cannot be far behind. Consumers want prices low, while sellers want them high. Workers want high wages, but employers want them low. Borrowers want interest rates to be low, while lenders want them high. But Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for showing that communities tend to spontaneously develop mechanisms to handle conflicting interests. While humans act selfishly as individuals, they act altruistically when moving together as communities. There’s new economic thinking that better collective outcomes come not from individuals pursuing their individual greed (“greed is good”), but from communities that work collectively for the common good. We need not look far for proof; many community-based coastal resources management and forest management schemes have led to sustainable marine and upland ecosystems that raised incomes and uplifted lives for formerly poor fishers and upland dwellers.

Motivated by this “primacy of community” philosophy, my wife and I have, over many years, put our energies and resources toward helping strengthen communities, especially disadvantaged ones, in our vicinity in Los Baños, Laguna. We work through an organization called LCOoP, for Learning Community Organizations of PEACE (in turn standing for People Engaged in Active Community Experience). More recently, we sought to revive the community spirit in our own subdivision, which used to have an active neighborhood association and owns a small lot beside our barangay hall. I had been co-opted to be part of its current board, but since I joined it years ago, it has never mustered a quorum to have a meeting we could consider official. All told, it’s a neighborhood association largely in name. With the goal of enlivening the neighborhood once more, we at LCOoP spearheaded last year a regular “community yard sale,” with the idea of offering a venue for our neighbors to come together for a communal garage/yard sale where they could dispose of white elephants in their homes. More importantly, it was to be a bonding activity for us neighbors, to rekindle a sense of community among ourselves. But after running it for nearly a year, we found it was attracting more regular bazaar merchants, while the neighbors we targeted—and very few responded—opted to just donate their used items, rather than physically come and man a stall. As for the other board members, hardly anyone even came to witness the activity, and invitations I post in the board’s Messenger group chat are largely ignored.

We have since shifted to a monthly “Bayanihan sa Pamayanan” gathering that fosters community learning, combining discussions on community engagement with engaging and fun activities, culminating in a communal dinner with food prepared by local women. With local organizations like Rotary and Lions Clubs, Knights of Columbus, Purok Women’s Brigades, and others now engaged, we have managed to run initiatives to feed stunted children, organize local women to run a food enterprise, set up a children’s playground, and later, provide recreational activities for the elderly, and more. In true Bayanihan spirit, some community members have provided volunteer labor as well as plants to improve the facilities in the neighborhood lot, transforming it into a community park for everyone’s benefit.


Still, the work remains a struggle. Building community is not easy in a society where ironically, greater digital connectivity seems to have increasingly detached people, especially neighbors, physically from one another. It will take all of us consciously taking to heart the need to reach out, think beyond ourselves and our families, care more for our neighbors, and share more of ourselves.

A blessed Christmas season to us all.


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TAGS: Community, economy, neighbors

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