by Vanessa Velasco

It all started with a single question: “Why are there poor people in a country with so many resources?” And her search for answers launched a two-decade-long journey for Dr. Ruth Callanta, taking her from the comforts of a middle-class home in Manila, to development studies in universities and higher learning institutions, and finally, to the founding of an organization that supports the micro-businesses of the entrepreneurial poor. Now the founding president of the Center for Community Transformation (CCT) and 2005 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Dr. Callanta shares her journey of finding the answer to poverty alleviation.

“I was raised in a middle-class Christian family where everyone lived in harmony,” she started. It was a very ideal family setting where there was an abundance of food on their table, where it was common for people to share possessions and resources with one another, and where generosity went beyond the walls of their home to outsiders who were in need.

So when the young Ruth took an undergraduate degree in Anthropology in the University of the Philippines, she was surprised to discover a world where suffering existed, where poor had nothing to eat, and no homes to stay in. So started her search for a way to help these people out of poverty.

“I thought I could help by volunteering in a charitable organization,” she said. But she soon realized these organizations may only provide short-term relief for poverty – the donations of food and clothes to the poor may be enjoyed for a while, but when the food is consumed and the clothes worn out, they would once more feel the hunger pangs. It seemed like an endless cycle. She knew then that short term solutions are not enough for long-term problems such as poverty.

Soon, she pursued graduate studies and academic work in higher learning institutions. She enrolled in a master’s degree program in Community Development and Social Work in UP and afterwards, while working as research assistant at the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP). Later, she took a Master in Management at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), the same institution where she became part of a team that developed the curriculum for their Master in Development Management program.

Through these two institutions, Ruth learned the languages of both business and social development, allowing her to “unite the concepts of business with the heart of social work.” She then introduced this model to the poor by establishing micro-finance programs among them, and equipped them with the skills in money-making.
“But I soon realized,” she recalls, “even when you if you lend money to the poor without any real transformation in the hearts of these individuals, the money will only be used for their selfish interests.”

The founding of the Center for Community Transformation

Ruth’s teaching job at AIM provided several opportunities for service, one of which was a stint as CEO of the Asian Resource Center. When the Center closed down after a year of operation, she incorporated the Center for Community Transformation in 1992, and absorbed the 13 staff of the Asian Resource Center – paying their salaries initially out of her own pocket.

The first funding for CCT came when San Miguel Corporation (SMC) hired the organization as consultant during a time when SMC was reducing its manpower. CCT provided entrepreneurial training for the retrenched SMC employees, equipping them with the necessary skills needed to generate income for themselves and eventually establish their own businesses.

Soon, they entered into another contract with SMC’s subsidiary, La Tondena, whose factory in Tondo was about to transfer to Pangasinan. CCT was commissioned to do a research study on the effects of the factory’s transfer on the immediate community where it operated. Results showed that the community surrounding the factory was dependent on the workers for their livelihood and income – the sari-sari stores and carinderias of the community members were established to cater to the La Tondena employees.

With the community’s micro-businesses in peril of closing down due to the factory’s transfer, CCT started its own community-based program that equipped the micro-entrepreneurs with tools that will enable them to find other ways of generating income. Seeing that CCT can already sustain its own operations and start its own community-based programs, Ruth enrolled in UNDP’s micro-finance program, which led to the formation of the CCT Credit Cooperative.

The micro-finance programs of CCT soon gave birth to several other ministries that provide a holistic approach to poverty alleviation. A scholarship fund was set up for the education needs of the beneficiaries’ children. A housing program was initiated where men are trained to do carpentry, plumbing and electrical works – with the possibility of landing in contractual jobs for CCT’s corporate partners in its housing projects. Trainings are provided to the poor to enable them to live sustainable lives – continuously earning income for their families through the capital provided by CCT’s micro-finance program. A trading company was established to provide low-cost products to the poor, making available to them quality products at affordable prices. And, CCT provides a way for the poor to have social security and medical benefits by facilitating for them their contributions to Social Security System (SSS) and Philhealth. “As we help increase their income,” Ruth explains, “we also help decrease their expenses, and give them access to social security for their future.”

The Heart of the Problem

Beyond the poverty alleviation programs that she started through CCT, Ruth made sure that these communities who benefit from their programs would experience real transformation. “No real transformation can take place unless the heart is changed,” she says, “and the only person who can change the hearts of men is none other than Christ.”

It is through the values formation programs of CCT that all its members have been faithful in paying their loans and their contributions. Because of this, the organization is highly liquid, enabling it to expand its operations. Each membership meeting starts with a Bible Study, where the values of stewardship, honesty and integrity are taught to the CCT members.

The organization also partners with Christian churches that conduct the Bible studies and assist in CCT’s community programs. Now, CCT sites have become thriving communities of micro-entrepreneurs who are honest and ethical in their deals, and trustworthy in their partnerships – which eventually made them prosperous their small businesses.

What Ruth then started as a small organization with only 13 staff in 1992 grew to an enterprise with around 850 full-time workers, 130 branches and more than a hundred thousand beneficiaries nationwide. The rapid expansion and growth of CCT and the blossoming micro-businesses of its beneficiaries validate Ruth’s claim that “the poor can pay for their own development and non-profit organizations can achieve sustainability without having to rely on grants and foreign funding.”

The Road Ahead

Even after the success of CCT’s work among the entrepreneurial poor, Ruth’s journey did not stop there. She continues to look for ways to expand the organization and reach more urban poor communities. Part of her future plans for the organization includes the construction of the CCT Training Development Institute building where micro-entrepreneurs can be equipped with skills that will enable them to sustain their businesses.

“If those who work in big business corporations can avail of education such as MBA and graduate studies that allow them to be effective managers,” she explains, “the Institute will do the same for the entrepreneurial poor.” The Institute will train the micro-entrepreneurs with livelihood skills that they need in operating – and possibly, expanding – their small businesses.

CCT also partners with big business corporations who can provide low-cost products, training and other business opportunities to the micro-entrepreneurs. “There are a lot of possibilities for the micro-businesses,” Ruth says, “they can be both the market of the big businesses’ low-cost products, or they can also be the suppliers – just like what Cityland is doing, when they contract the people they train in some of their housing projects.”

There also exists a plan to develop the industries that produce Philippine-made products such as weaving, dyeing, and pottery. This program by CCT seeks to develop the indigenous industries in the provinces by promoting products that are distinctively Filipino. The program is a response to the current trend of purchasing affordable imported products from other Asian countries, which has significantly reduced the interest of Filipinos in the country’s native products. In patronizing Philippine-made products, indigenous people can earn additional income from crafts that can actually compete in the market.

A Vision Fulfilled

Both Ruth’s passion and innovation may have won her the title of the 2005 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. But what causes her to continue her pursuit of poverty eradication? “It’s a vision I received while reading Isaiah 65,” she replied. Quoting the verses from that book, she mentioned of “a world where no infant will die of malnutrition; that the old will live up to a hundred years; that people will live in houses they built and eat the fruits of their labor.” She added that all these things are actually indicators of development that are used by several non-profit organizations. She points out: “The concept of development has been there even during Old Testament times.”

Her journey may have been long and challenging, but in stepping out of the comforts of her middle-class home to embark on a search to eradicate poverty, Ruth transformed depressed areas into thriving communities of micro-entrepreneurs – and enabled these people to experience for themselves, that same comfortable life and ideal home that she knew as a child. Now these people have homes with enough food on their tables, a shelter to protect them, and a spirit of sharing among the community members – just like the kind of home where the young girl named Ruth grew up.

And, inheriting the generosity of her parents who shared the food on their table to needy strangers, she shared her life so that people need not ask for food from strangers again.