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Primacy of community

ROSETO, PENNSYLVANIA is a town that became known for its residents’ seeming immunity to heart disease. It received wide attention in the early 1960s when researchers descended upon the place to study why almost none of its men in the normally high-risk age group of 55 to 64

suffered heart attacks, the top killer of American men under 65 at the time. Moreover, Roseto men over 65 had an unusually low death rate of 1 percent, half of the national average.

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And yet, Roseto residents seemed to be breaking all the rules of a healthy lifestyle. Researcher Dr. Stewart Wolf observed that both men and women drank wine “with seeming abandon” in lieu of soft drinks and milk. They loved meatballs and sausages fried in animal lard with hard and soft cheeses, all oozing with cholesterol. Obesity was common. The men smoked unfiltered old-style Italian stogie cigars. And they worked in the slate quarries where they constantly inhaled gases and dust.

Further deepening the puzzle, Wolf and his team also found that suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime and peptic ulcers were virtually nonexistent in Roseto. After extensive study that ruled out one plausible explanation after another, they finally zeroed in on what really distinguished the people of this town, who were almost exclusively composed of or descended from migrants from a town of the same name in Italy: their strong sense of community.

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Wolf attributed Rosetans’ low heart disease rate to low stress. “The community was very cohesive,” he wrote. “There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Houses were very close together, and everyone lived more or less alike. The elderly were revered and incorporated into community life. Housewives were respected, and fathers ran their families.” In a profession not used to thinking of health in this light, Wolf faced skepticism from peers on his unusual findings. The phenomenon by which a close-knit community experiences a reduced rate of heart disease has since become known as the “Roseto effect.”

Roseto’s experience affirmed the critical importance of that institution now upheld by development analysts to be a powerful base on which to build initiatives to uplift people’s lives: the community. Based on global experience, the World Bank and other development institutions now swear by community driven development (CDD) as a most effective tool in pursuit of sustainable and inclusive development.

In the Philippines, CDD takes the form of the Kapitbisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-CIDSS) program, whose distinctive feature is the direct unloading of funds to poor communities. The Republic of Korea has had an even longer history of CDD via the Saemaul Undong movement launched by President Park Chung-hee in 1970. Communities decide what their most pressing needs are, and take responsibility for identifying and implementing interventions to address them. In line with this, local governments have increasingly found community-based monitoring systems (CBMS) useful for better understanding the needs of their poor, hence are more responsive in meeting those needs. I’ve personally witnessed how CBMS and CDD have worked well in some of the poorest barangays in the country.

In 1995, the Philippine government adopted community-based forest management (CBFM) as a national scheme to promote sustainable forest governance. The country’s forest cover that spanned 21 million hectares in 1900 had dwindled to a mere 5.4 million hectares by 1988. CBFM replaced the traditional centralized “top down” approach with a participatory “bottom up” approach to sustainable forest governance. It directly harnessed communities in sustaining the forest, with projects such as timber harvesting, agroforestry and livestock raising. By 2005, some 5,503 projects had been established across the country, and forest cover had reportedly risen to 7.2 million hectares. Not only did CBFM help reverse forest depletion; it also tangibly improved the welfare of the upland poor.

Similarly, community-based coastal resources management schemes have achieved positive results around the country and overseas. Where communities take the lead in managing coastal resources, depletion of fisheries has been arrested, fish catch increased, and destructive fishing methods effectively curtailed.

In basic education, there is now wide appreciation among educators that effective learning takes place well beyond the walls of school classrooms. Not only must communities be part of their children’s education; communities and families also stand to learn and benefit from the education process itself. The school is the community, and the community at large is in turn the object and beneficiary of the education system. The community, after all, holds the greatest stake in its citizens’ education.

All these point to what more and more analysts have come to believe: that the community, more than the individual or household, should be the unit of analysis and intervention in development work. Perhaps the time has come for a new paradigm that sees collective outcomes arising not from individuals pursuing their individual greed (a la Adam Smith), but rather, from communities whose members work collectively for the common good.

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There is a sad epilogue to Roseto’s story. “Americanization” of the populace over the years has reportedly made the incidence of heart disease and other problems no different now from elsewhere in the United States. As they lost their sense of community, the people of Roseto lost far more.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: healthy lifestyle, heart diseases, opinion, PENNSYLVANIA, ROSETO, stress
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