Archive for the ‘Popular education’ category

Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

June 27, 2015

NMP Book cover

Yesterday, I was invited to introduce the book of Nestor M. Pestelos at its launch in the Quezon National High School.

While waiting for him to arrive, some students of QNHS interviewed me. One question which I sought to answer is how poetry relates to development work. Nestor is better know as a development worker, with international agencies, the province of Bohol, and now with his NGO. But listening to yesterday’s stories about him, his schoolmates and teachers knew him as a poet, with a “magical realist” style and sensibility.

Listening to him tell the story of his move from Quezon to Bohol, I realise better why he calls himself an “old warrior.” He was part of our Dekada 70 generation. He was hunted, eventually captured and detained, many of his closest friends tortured and killed.

Yesterday, I reflected aloud on how poetry is important for development work. But after knowing more about Nestor’s life, I want to rewrite what I said.

In the meantime, let me post the short essay I contributed to his book:

Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

Prose is the default language of development.

His lifetime commitment has given Nestor Pestelos a rich development vocabulary, including key words like logical frameworks and SWOT analysis, performance indicators and means of verification, benchmarks and baselines, milestones and timelines, impacts, assumptions and risks.

Nestor is also familiar with the math and algorithms of development. He even spent his retirement funds developing software for mapping and measuring poverty, the Poverty Database Monitoring System.

Now, late in his life, he has published 33 poems.

Are these poems his escape from the prose of development? A way to set his spirit free from the limits of development discourse?

Nestor explains: “I was writing these poems as therapy. As I approached and turned 70 I became increasingly self-critical of the road I had taken. I felt that all my hard work in development, which claimed most of a lifetime, had not amounted to anything significant at all…

“I needed again to believe in something – to gain optimism despite moral setbacks everywhere. In writing the poems, snatching time in- between meetings or worrying about them, I gained emotional distance from events or personalities which frustrated me.”

Two successive events jolted Nestor and his wife Jojie. His father in-law died a day before the magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Bohol in October 2013: “We realized much more how fragile life was. Images of corpses on the streets in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in Samar and Leyte reinforced this feeling.”

He stopped writing poems.

Nestor and Jojie plunged into distributing relief goods, raising funds and soliciting construction materials to build transition core houses so that families could move from their tents and makeshift shelter.

There was overwhelming response from within and outside Bohol. The earthquake victims and communities moved as one to help build their houses.

Nestor writes: “The disaster galvanized whole communities again towards a common goal. Indeed, the earthquake restored our waning faith in local communities. We were surprised by their capacity to fight off dependency and hopelessness.”

Did Nestor give up poetry when he decided to focus on relief, reconstruction, and development? Not really, if we believe Juan Galman, an Argentinian poet:

Poetry is a way of living.
Look at the people at your side. Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?

Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their letter a and their letter h, for their past — were they not children? — for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?

Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, ana, maria, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.

Poetry is this. Afterward, write it.

In his introduction, Nestor links his initial “dimly-perceived need to publish a collection of poems” to his advocacy to build more core houses for those rendered homeless by the earthquake: “We will then go beyond therapy if we again venture to write and publish another set of poems.”

As he pours his energy into reconstruction and development work, Nestor is doing poetry.

We hope he will write it, soon.

3 Lessons about Popular Education from Johnny Flavier

November 1, 2014


Juan Flavier RIPIn death, as in his life, Juan Flavier, or Johnny, as he preferred to be called, is deservedly hailed for his many achievements in public service,  as Secretary of Health and as a two-term Senator.

Let me add to the tributes, and give special thanks to him for these lessons about popular education.

The Power of Parables

The two volumes of his Parables of the Barrio continue to be best sellers.

According to Jimmy Tan, when Secretary Flavier had to give a speech without time to prepare, all he needed was a list of the main points. Then he would develop them by telling stories, usually spiced with humour.

I first got to know about Johnny Flavier through his use of metaphors from agriculture to explain issues of reproductive health. A parable is like a metaphor, expanded as a story.

We can apply to his parables the description of UP historians about history – sanaysay na may saysay. In more contemporary Pilipino – kwentong may kwenta.

Laugh and Learn

His sense of humor is legendary. And it was never malicious. At most, it was mischievous. Given his size, it can be described as “elfin.”

The absence of malice reflects his persona. Boy Morales once told me that Johnny Flavier’s advantage is that he comes across as non-threatening.

His humour combined with his use of metaphors and parables, enabled him to explain difficult and sensitive topics.

Although his quips and jokes came across as spontaneous and effortless, he said that he would repeatedly rehearse any fresh material before a full length mirror.

You can’t please everyone

Despite his efforts and skill at communication, he did not persuade or convince everyone. This was particularly true of his advocacy on reproductive health. Many conservative church and lay leaders mounted a negative campaign against him during the elections.

Did they refuse his explanations and advocacy because they did not understand him? They did understand him only too well.

Their hostile reaction is not due to Johnny Flavier’s lack of skill and persistence. It is proof of the aphorism of Aristotle adopted by Thomas Aquinas: “Quidquid recipitur, recipitur secundum modum recipients.” 

Kailash and the Global Campaign for Education

October 12, 2014

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Malala and to Kailash is welcomed by education campaigners as a recognition of our campaigning work. I am reposting my reflections in 2007 after listening to Kailash in Phnom Penh.

Campaigning Inside and Outside

At the Asia-Pacific conference of GCE members in Phnom Penh, the speeches of Kailash Satyarthi the president of GCE offered useful perspectives on advocacy work by civil society organizations or CSOs.

In 1990 at Jomtien, Thailand, where the first Declaration on Education for All, or EFA, was signed by governments, he said that there was no civil society participation; though Aloysius, the Education International representative said EI was there. But in the run up to the 2000 conference in Dakar, Senegal, the two international organizations, Global March against Child labor and Education International, decided to actively get engaged, together with other INGOs who are both funding and campaigning agencies.

The first GCE included national campaign coalitions notably CAMPE, the Campaign for Popular Education in Bangladesh which had been set up in response to Jomtien. According to Kailash, it was through CSO advocacy that “education as a fundamental human right” was included in the preamble in the Dakar declaration, unlike in Jomtien. They also insisted on establishing an international monitoring group that would insure that governments fulfilled the commitments they signed; this is now called the High Level Group which is meeting tomorrow in Dakar.Later, GCE also played a crucial role in establishing the Fast Track Initiative (FTI), a funding facility specific for EFA.

From service delivery to policy advocacy

Kailash emphasized that GCE represents a successful example of the changing role of NGOs and civil society from service delivery to policy advocacy. For CSOs this means going beyond previous roles of delivering services to the people, either autonomously (usually funded from abroad) or subcontracted by governments, though this continues to be needed and valid. To create impact on a wider scale, CSOs need to engage in advocacy campaigns to hold governments accountable and fulfill their responsibilities to their citizens.

Development jargon has picked this up as a “rights-based approach” to development. The “3 Rs” campaign of Enet Philippines is in the same spirit – Rights, Responsibilities, Resources.

Since I am posting this on December 10, Human Rights Day, I recall the additional perspective that Kailash presented. He said that the right to education was included in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, but until Jomtien or 40 years later, the United national did not hold any high level conference, much less a summit, on education.

Without an organized campaign and constituency, declarations will not be followed up by action and funding. The lesson is that rights, like freedom, will not be given motu proprio, even by those who have pledged to deliver them.

But we cannot simply take care of ourselves in the name of self-reliance, and let governments go scot free of their responsibility. CSOs have arrived at the same conclusion in their respective national contexts. What is more difficult and which makes GCE’s achievement remarkable, is doing this globally.

The level of frustration that we experience in dealing with individual governments is multiplied when dealing with intergovernmental institutions. And the level of resources needed – not just funds, but time and skills – is much greater. No wonder international NGOs who are both funders and campaigners play a more dominant role, even if most members of the global network are based in individual countries.

Acknowledging the limits of campaigning

Despite the specific successes that Kailash asked us to celebrate, he also acknowledged the sobering limits of CSO campaigning.

At the High Level Group meetings, few “high level’ heads of agencies and states attend. The funds committed to the FTI are less than what is needed. The role of UNESCO as convenor leaves much to be desired. But compared to where we started, and would surely have much less achievement, there is more hope than frustration.

There is of course the problem of attribution. How much of the results can we claim is due to CSO campaigning? Would governments have done them anyway even if we didn’t pressure them? Proving causality is a tricky challenge. Perhaps we can borrow from an unlikely source – Mao Zedong’s aphorism that the reason for change is internal, but for it to operate it may need external conditions, like the egg that won’t hatch unless there is enough heat from outside. Sol Alinsky has a different and slightly more cynical comment: “People in high places can be made to do the right thing, usually for the wrong reason.”

The mid-term external evaluation of GCE adds another caution. Its effective engagement with the global institutions may eventually brand it as just another “insider,” the latest in international power players who meet and debate and issue declarations. This is an important agenda in the run up to the GCE World Assembly in Sao Paolo. How does GCE insure that its “outside” campaigning is given its due emphasis?

Claiming space inside, maintaining pressure outside

Enet Philippines is facing similar challenges. We have been designated as the CSO co-chair of the National EFA Committee. From a comparative international perspective, this is quite an achievement, and the Philippine government has used this and other forms of CSO engagement to claim “pogi points.”

When this happened, I wondered aloud if we should claim it as a success or worry that it is a way of being coopted. Does being co-chair mean that we are co-responsible for the poor performance of the education system? After all the mid-decade Philippine EFA report (2000-2005) admits that we have fallen short of almost all targets.

What about our role as citizens demanding government to fufill its responsibilities? There is need to put pressure from the outside. After all the “partnership” of CSOs with government does not make us co-equal or co-responsible. It is still government that has the main responsibility to deliver on its EFA commitments. It is our responsibility as citizens to claim our rights and call on government to fulfill its obligations.

Those who have managed to claim space for inside campaigning need the voices and numbers of outside campaigners. This is not easy. The annual GCE global action week has mobilized over 5 million in hundreds of countries this April 2007. But what about the rest of the year? The same challenge faces Enet within the Philippines. In addition to taking part in the annual April global action week, we have a second campaign in September on adult learning and lifelong learning. They take a lot of time and energy, and we have limited funds.

And there is always the nagging question – to what extent have our activities not only created public awareness, but have brought about policy or program changes?


Paris 2011


Lav Diaz and Our Remembering Self

September 22, 2014

Sine ni Lav Diaz

Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, that we have two mental operating systems – our experiencing self and our remembering self.

The first is voiceless and immersed in the moment. The other is occupied with keeping score and learning from experience. His proposition is that it is our remembering self that is more dominant.

Remembering Mula sa Kung Ano Noon

Yesterday at the MOA Centerstage, for over five hours, my experiencing self was immersed in the flow and life-rhythm of Lav Diaz’ Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon.

Girlie and I had traveled across town to experience the movie together, as our September 21 act of remembrance. Thanks again to Joel Saracho (Father Guido in the movie) who kindly reserved tickets for us.

The day after, before I sleep, I want to write my initial remembrance of what we experienced.

Had it been our first Lav Diaz movie, it would be its length that would be most memorable. But Girlie and I had already watched his four-hour Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.

Thanks to different reviews, and especially the interview done by his fellow film maker Pepe Diokno, I had even acquired basic literacy (and appreciation) about the film vocabulary of Lav Diaz.

Some critics’ describe the black and white film as “luminous.” It is.

As I write my remembrance of Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon, I can’t help but relate it to the remembrance by fellow activists of martial law and resistance, which are posted on our Facebook timelines and group pages.

Both teach us that remembering is selective. There are memories that are sheer survivors from the inevitable process of forgetting. There are memories that we consciously choose to remember, even with painful effort.

The remembrance of a community

Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon is the remembrance of a community and its stories – specific, personal, in their complex simplicity.

Although the stories are about people, nature is more than a backdrop or a stage. The images and sounds of fields and mountains, river and sea, rocks and mud, rain and wind are an integral part of the stories. In sequence after sequence, Lav shows people first as barely perceptible figures at a distance, and after they leave the frame at the foreground, the camera lingers for a while on the scene.

With this approach, indigenous beliefs and rites do not come across as esoteric. They make sense, even though unfamiliar.

The pace of the movie is slow and lingering. It reminds me of a note Grilie wrote to me in prison, which cited a line from a poem about the “slow furious passion of a snail.”

At some point, my mind strayed to the young people in the audience, used to a faster-pace in movies and life. Would they be thinking “Let’s move on”?  Stop dwelling longer on more details. We get the basic picture. Get going with the action. But Lav Diaz asks us to look longer than we are used to. He offers no quick relief, no easy resolution.

No wonder the audience laughed extra loud at the comic relief provided by the Batanguena vendor. But later, toward the end and her revelation, her persistent laughter was met with silence.

The remembrance of a movement

On the way back to Quezon City, I texted Joel what Girlie said, that we found Mula sa Kung Ano Noon a different but  effective way of remembering martial law.

As movement activists, we tend to remember martial law as part of the larger national narrative. We tend to start with the general theme of political repression and resistance, and from there, consider the impact on specific sectors and communities.

Mula sa King Ano Noon tells the stories of a community in its own terms. But it is also a metaphor of the national community, neither forced nor comprehensive. Lav leaves it to us to make the comparisons.

Our history and location in Metro Manila make us part of the national discourse, but the movie spoke to my preferential interest in the discourse of the local community – komunidad, pamayanan, katilingban.

But local communities, no matter how remote, are not insulated from outside forces and processes. Between neglect and intrusion, what is preferable?

The movie’s critique of the national government is clear and compelling. Its comment on the revolutionary movement is implied and open ended. I hope there is a movie about that in Lav’s combined memory and imagination.


Wanted: Community Organizers

July 6, 2014

On July 11 at the PRRM, we are launching the third edition of Organizing People for Power.

Two-thirds of the book is a slightly edited reprint of Felipe Maglaya’s 1974 Manual for Organizers. The remainder are short comments on the text and short reflections on organising in the Philippines since 1974.

One of the sections of the Manual lists the desired qualities of an organiser – irreverence, a sense of humor, creativity, flexibility, tenacity, and a deep respect and love for people.

I made a simple poster of these qualities for easier recall. But added other qualities mentioned in an unpublished manual written by Francia Clavecillas for AFON, which was partly based on the Felipe Maglaya Manual.

Qualities of Organizer


A Trinitarian Look at CO

July 3, 2014

Fourth excerpt from the Manual for Organizers.

CO PopEd

This manual focuses on organizing people and communities, but I want to unbundle the concept. Instead of what may be called a unitarian understanding of organizing people for power, I prefer a trinitarian interplay of organizing, education, and leadership.

Of course, the process of organizing includes education and learning, and also the identification and development of leaders. But its primary indicator is of people acting together on common issues, and after a series of mobilizations, setting up structures that represent their collective power.

In addition to the learning that happens while preparing for mobilization and reflecting after, organizing programs include more purposive education activities. And if there are competing theories and methods of organizing, there are also competing theories and methods of education.

In the classical organizing tradition in the Philippines, Saul Alinsky and Paolo Freire represent the key ideas that have exerted explicit influence on our understanding and practice of community organizing (CO) and popular education (pop-ed).

Although there is an organic interplay between organizing and education, there is often a disconnect. Organizers may focus mainly on actions and numbers, quality of issues and mobilization, and results of negotiations. Educators may focus mainly on individual learning and the change in consciousness.

The late Odette Alcantara had this quotable quip about the disconnect between organizing and education, parallel to body and spirit: “Ang katawang walang kaluluwa ay bangkay. Ang kaluluwang walang katawan ay multo.”

In the trinity of community organizing, popular education and grassroots leadership, I identify most closely with the third. That’s why my institutional base continues to be the Education for Life Foundation, whose core program is “grassroots leadership formation for grassroots community empowerment.”

Like organizing and education, there are also competing theories and methods of leadership formation. But as Fr. Paking Silva declares: “Our bigger problem is not poverty, but lack of leadership.”

birds fish

This metaphor of birds and fish has been a continuing source of insights into the relationship between the committed professional, as organizer, educator or formator, and the grassroots communities and leaders.

Birds that fly can change change course quickly, almost as fast as our minds. From their vantage point, they look down on the fish below the surface waters and ask “Why are they not moving?”

The fish could answer: “Come down into the water, and you’ll realize it is harder to move in it. It is thicker than air, and polluted. But come close enough and you will also see that we are moving, though not so visibly to those flying far above.”

The bird must do more than a flying visit. Learn to swim with the fish. In organizing, we call it immersion. Swimming with the fish, the bird will understand the structures and culture that make them reluctant to change. But also appreciate that the fish are trying to change as much as they can in the given circumstances.

An educator from the Carribean said that we should not be too hard on birds asking questions from the outside. There is value in an outsider asking, “How is the water?” The fish may very well answer, “What water?”

The bird, having swam with the fish, can then talk with great credibility about swimming with the fish. But is that all? Be an advocate for them, even a sympathetic scholar? Could the bird not teach some of the fish to fly, to also theorize and not just to give personal testimony?

I dream of a learning community that is a partnership of birds who have learned to swim and fish who have learned to fly. The name of that dream is Komunibersidad.

Another story of birds and fish

There is the story of a bird who saw a fish struggling in the water. Thinking that the fish was drowning, the bird dove into the water, plucked the fish and brought it to the safety of its nest.

Will the fish die, or will it adapt and become a bird?

This one made we wince, because of my background in TESDA: “If fish were assessed according to their competency to climb a tree, no one would be certified.”


Make Our Learning Greater than Our Experience

July 2, 2014

The start of a series of reflections on Organising People for Power in the Philippines


The following short reflections on organizing people for power are written as a series of blogs. Hence I decided to use the same title of my regular blog at

Between Honesty and Hope is a framework that I have chosen for my work and my life, because it because it captures the tension similar to what Gramsci called in another context “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The phrase comes from the 1968 collection of documents from the Latin American Bishops Conference.

I was much taken by the phrase because it captured the two realities – persistent problems both structural and historical, and persistent efforts to bring about changes toward a better future.

Hope is the driving force. An obsessively honest look at the dominant present can lead to anger, depression, cynicism and despair. Hope gives us the energy not only to imagine a better future, but also to see and pursue present possibilities.

But to avoid illusions, we must temper our hope with honesty. Honesty about the daunting obstacles and the power of those who resist change. Honesty about the state of our own shared commitments and capabilities.

But hope. Nonetheless

Make Our Learning


Soon after turning 64, I felt a sudden intimation of mortality. Was I about to enter the pre-departure lounge for the other life? But I was not yet ready to write my memoirs. As a lifelong learner, there was still a lot to learn, and as a social activist, a lot more to be done.

To shake off that mood, I browsed a bookstore to find some reading that may inspire me to continue achieving. A title caught my eye: The Laws of Lifetime Growth by Daniel Sullivan.I thought of buying it, but the price was too high and I didn’t have enough money. What I did have was enough time, so I was able to speed-read the book.

Make your future bigger than your past. This first law made immediate sense. But I thought “bigger” is too limited and limiting, so I added “better”and “brighter.”

Obviously if our past is not particularly significant, this is easy advice to follow. But it is quite a challenge if we apply it to the past of organizing people for power in the Philippines. We have a history that we can be proud of, more significant than what has been remembered in print. It has even been mythologized because of EDSA 1986.

So, how to make our future bigger, better, brighter? The second law offers us part of the answer: Make your learning greater than your experience.

How do we make our learning greater, to help us make our future better?

First, we need to reflect more regularly on our experiences. In addition, we must also allow ourselves to be “interrogated” by others outside our circles. An outside view can help us discover angles we may have missed. We also need to compare and exchange experiences and learnings with other countries. I think especially of Korea which had a parallel organizing program in the 1970s, supported by a similar international ecumenical coalition.

The “classical”approach to organizing described in the manual is strongly influenced by Alinsky’s ideas. These ideas traveled to the Philippines via Korea, through Herb White who was trained by Alinsky. He had been invited to Korea to set up a new training program for organizers. From there he was asked to come to the Philippines to set up a community organizers’ training program sponsored by PECCO.

In both countries, the organizing program developed in the context of an authoritarian regime, and a resistance movement that pursued a radical political alternative. Some of the passages in the Felipe Maglaya manual can be better understood if they are read as a response to concerns raised by radical political activists.

Community Organizing is like Ballroom Dancing

July 2, 2014

After posting my Foreword to the Manual for Organizers, I am posting the Afterword, which is Oca Francisco’s essay on CO and Ballroom Dancing. A first installment of what we still need to do – publish Oca’s writings on CO, his deathbed wish.

OcaThe organizer must be like the dance instructor who does not view dancing as routinary work but as an act of creation and celebration. Today’s organizers have been molded in a particular ideological crucible which demands one vision and line of action. The effects of this totalization of perspectives are so well-entrenched that new ideas are immediately suspect.

If organizers are committed to effect societal change, they need to develop a world view that does not pretend to exhaust description and analysis. The challenge of reeducating them involves not only introducing them to other theories or modes of social analysis and paradigms of development but also finding out how old concepts could now lead to new actions.

Organizers have simply begun to rediscover voices of history drowned out by louder ones. These voices are reasserting themselves in the current discourse. The re-visitation of the humanities, especially the study of representations, could be an attempt to recapture such voices. After all, imagination allows us to see the moment and beyond.

Oca 2

Though the years, CO has had considerable achievements in empowering communities and has contributed to the cumulative development of people’s movements and coalitions that achieve both social and political power.

More importantly, CO discovers and develops the power that lies in ordinary people, in the poor and the powerless which, like oil or water, may be found deep inside the earth. This is combined with the fundamental faith of CO that ordinary people have the capacity to better their lives within existing structures and to participate in transforming these structures.

Empowerment, like art, has many different expressions and methods because it is a process of releasing the potential and creativity of people. The people’s path to empowerment is a long and winding road. With the best of intentions and skills, we make mistakes and suffer defeats.

Oca 3



40 Years of Organizing People for Power

July 1, 2014

In the run up to my 71st birthday, I am posting excerpts from the third edition of the Manual for Organizers, which will have a launch on July 11 at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.

This is the foreword to the third edition.

Foreword OPP

For this third edition, I used a mimeographed copy of the second edition which Girlie Villariba found in an old box of papers from martial law years. Rereading its yellowed pages, I reimagined those early years of uncertainty and excitement, and was happy to still figure out what had been retained from my original draft, and what new material had been added.

In the same spirit, I have retained the text of the second edition with minor edits, and added some new materials. The new materials are some comments on the text, and a series of short reflections on 40 years of organizing work in the Philippines.

Why republish a text from 1974?

Why not write a new organizing manual?

One reason is that there is an interest in the original manual, and copies are not readily available. The content of Organizing People for Power represents what may be called the “classical” approach to organizing in the Philippines, field-tested through the years and still relevant, like any classic.

But we must acknowledge the many changes in the Philippines and in the world, and their impact on organizing work, including those  rooted in the classical CO tradition. There are many other organizing initiatives and innovations from which we need to learn valuable lessons .There has been talk of veteran organizers coming togetherto do another summing up, perhaps through a Tagisan III.

My comments and reflections are initial contributions to such needed conversation. Given the constraints of time and resources, I have relied mainly on what I can retrieve through my “remembering self.” A more extensive and intensive research awaits.

Other than marking the 40th anniversary of the first edition, this is an auspicious time to re-publish the manual. There are many new opportunities for organizing, among them the government’s programs on community driven development and participatory local governance and development. Some international and local agencies are also open to include community organizing as an integral part of “building back better” in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction.

While reading this manual is not a substitute for the action-reflection method of training organizers, it can be used for individual and group reflections. May it serve as a bridge from our generation to a new generation of organizers.

The format I have chosen for the third edition of the Manual is a bit different from the first two editions. I designed it to have features of a popular education workbook, for self-directed learning.

Hence I have included questions plus some spaces for you to write your answers. The same spaces are there for you to pose your questions and post your reflections.

My hope is that every copy of this Manual will be unique, as you become a co-author of your personalized edition.

Filipinos in 2014: What Can We Learn from Grundtvig?

March 22, 2014


At least two things, maybe more.

But first, you may ask, who is Grundtvig? He is a Danish pastor, poet, historian and educator, whose full name is Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig. He lived from 1783 to 1872, and was the contemporary of two Danes who are better known internationally – the  existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and Hans Christian Andersen, beloved author of fairy tales.

So, what does Grundtvig have to say to us, Filipinos in 2014?

“Outer loss, Inner gain.”

Am not sure if this saying is from Grundtvig’s own words, but it is, as Danes would say “Grundtvigian.”

The historical context for this saying was the loss of territory in the southern part of Denmark, which the Germans took over. According to historians, the saying may have had a literal meaning: The loss of the rich farmlands near the German border forced the Danes to develop the farmlands deeper into Denmark, particularly in Jutland, which led to the expansion of Danish agriculture.

But over the years, the dominant meaning of “Outer loss, Inner gain”  has been the philosophy of Grundtvig, and the Danes, that even if a superior nation-state conquers the territory, the people can develop a stronger sense of national identity and independence, if they dig deep into their history and culture and cultivate it, resulting in “people’s enlightenment.”

So what’s the relevance to us in 2014? I think of the continuing tension in the West Philippine Sea, as China with its superior naval forces asserts its claim on a part of our land and sea. And if that is not bad enough, there is the realpolitik response of the USA offering to establish greater presence on Philippine soil as a counterfoil.

Other than feeling dismayed and aggrieved, and debating about the danger of deepening dependence, can we have a national conversation about what we, as a people, still have and can develop?

Grundtvig 2

“When few have too much, and fewer have too little.”

These are definitely Grundtvig’s words, from one of his many poems. He had a prodigious output of poems and hymns, over 1500, many of them still being sung today in Danish churches and folk high schools.

The idea of nationalism as a response to external threats can be misused in an elitist fashion: Forget our internal differences. Unite against a common external enemy.

Grundtvig had a core concept that is difficult to translate, but I think it is captured by the hyphenated phrase “national-popular.” I am reminded of Rey Ileto’s thesis, distinguishing between the call for “independencia” by the ilustrado leaders of the Philippine independence movement, and the vision of “kalayaan” by the peasant libertarian movements.

Even the present administration accepts the criticism that the Philippine economic growth is not inclusive, and we remain a very inequitable society.

A Grundtvigian dialogue of life does not limit itself to seeking and strengthening our shared national culture and identity. It must ask and decide on the actions that are needed to make our country stronger, because it is more equitable.

Maraming salamat Grundtvig!

Thanks to Boinikko who shared a link to an interview about Grundtvig, where Professor Clay Warren mentioned my name as someone from the “resistance movement” who was influenced by Grundtvig. That led me to write this blog.