Empowerment and Rights First, Livelihoods Second; Good Practice Strategies for supporting Inclusion and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in the Philippines
October 26, 2017
Members of Pagasa Cooperative in front of their grocery store
As we walk into the small grocery store in San Miguel, Leyte, Philippines, we duck as strips of plastic packets filled with shampoo and other items hanging from the ceiling brush our heads. A group of people in blue shirts excitedly greet us. They are members of the Pagasa (meaning hope) Cooperative that has newly formed with the support of the Foundation for These Abled (FTI) people, a Philippine organisation working for a supportive and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities and their organisations. Four months ago, in an area that had been severely affected by the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, the Pagasa Cooperative was established and officially opened its grocery shop selling day to day grocery goods such as soap, noodles, rice and snacks. Today we were going to learn from the cooperative, made up of persons with disabilities and carers or guardians of persons with disabilities from San Miguel, about developing cooperatives and the importance of understanding rights.
We were quickly escorted to the back of the shop, where we sat listening to stories of personal and collective transformation, while fanning ourselves with pieces of cardboard in the midday heat. Stories of how learning about rights helped members to gain confidence, take on leadership roles, advocate to government, take on work and start the cooperative were shared. Maria who is a cooperative member and one of the Board of Directors spoke of how things had changed since they started working with FTI, “we became confident and realised that we are useful and could work just like other people to develop our potential and knowledge”. Mark, one of the members of the cooperative and a community development actor said, “before we didn’t have confidence to mingle with people. They (FTI) gave colour to us. They changed our lives by giving us knowledge and braveness to be able to join and go along with other people.”
FTI has been working with members of the Pagasa cooperative, as well as supported establishment of 7 other cooperatives in Leyte, under the project Persons with disabilities leading Transformation Process towards Resilience and Inclusion: Capacity Building and Livelihood start-up, since 2015 with the support of Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB) and Aktion-Deutshland-Hilft (ADH). The projects objective is empowered persons with disabilities are leaders and equal participants in socio-economic activities leading to increasingly resilient inclusive communities. While supporting development of cooperatives is a common strategy to support livelihoods of persons with disabilities, the approach FTI have used in focusing on capacity development, empowerment and rights of people before establishing the cooperatives, has been very successful and has the potential to be utilised more broadly in development projects that are supporting inclusion of persons with disabilities.
With an understanding that it is social and environmental barriers that are disabling, and that there are limited understanding of rights, particularly in rural areas among persons with disabilities and others in the community, including government duty bearers, FTI, with partner Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) Life Haven, saw the need to focus on persons with disabilities capacity, their understanding of their rights and ability to play roles as community development actors. For the first year of the project, a series of capacity development initiatives and mentoring was undertaken that supported this. This capacity development was led by experienced advocates from Life Haven in Manila, who are also persons with disabilities. That the support was persons with disabilities to persons with disabilities was a key component of the project, enabling role modelling and shared experience and insight. Bilma, one of the cooperative members said that “through the trainings they learnt about our rights and applying our rights… now we don’t have as many barriers.” She explained that she had always been bullied, before she ignored it, but now she fights it because she knows her rights. She also spoke of her ability to now engage with the government, when before she was too shy to do so.
FTI have also learnt through the project that rights based training must also be for government duty bearers. If it is only persons with disabilities that understand their rights, yet government representative are not yet aware of this, then the government representatives are less likely to be open and receptive to persons with disabilities’ advocacy and to support change. Disability awareness and rights training for government members also supports relationship building between government and persons with disabilities and can have broader impacts related to inclusion. The process of capacity development led by FTI created a core group of persons with disabilities community development actors in target communities who engaged with government to make change, and have led other initiatives including accessibility initiatives and disability data collection, training of other persons with disabilities and government and taking lead roles in the development of the cooperatives.
Yet, as Bilma outlined, capacity development and understanding of rights doesn’t address all the challenges facing persons with disabilities, including the need for an income. This is where livelihoods and cooperatives come in. People that were interested in joining the cooperatives, on top of learning about rights and advocacy, were trained and mentored in business development and management, and the development of policies and structures related to cooperative registration and governance. Each cooperative went through a long process of research to develop business plans. Including often multiple ideas before reaching one that was viable. Cooperative Pagasa did research into three different business plan options, this included tailoring/dressmaking and egg laying, before settling on a grocery store. Other FTI supported cooperatives looked into even more business options before finding one that was viable for them. For Cooperative Pagasa this process took over 9 months and was important in ensuring the cooperative focus that was settled on was viable, as well as was an important step in developing skills and understanding about small business and team work.
Running the cooperative is not easy, challenges Cooperative Pagasa have faced include issues between members and the need for team work, needing to replace a manager due to the person being more interested in personal interests then the collective, shoplifters and the challenge of managing shared capital. But already they are seeing benefits. Cooperative member Angela, explained that before the project you would never see her outside of the house due to bullying, but now she works at the store and knows how to stand up to the bullies, and that she knows she has a right to be working and participating in the community. Additionally, “it was my dream to have small capital to start something; with my first capital from the shop I used it to start my own stall at home”. Her small home store utilises stock from the cooperative store, thus also supporting the cooperative.
National cooperative laws mean cooperatives don’t pay full taxes like a normal business supporting them to keep their prices competitive. Cooperative Pagasa have also learnt from FTI that they need to compare prices in three locations every time they buy new stock, to ensure that they are getting the best price available. Additionally, the community, while sceptical at first that a group of persons with disabilities could run a grocery store, are now proud and regularly promote the shop, telling people they should shop there. Advocacy has also been integrated into the cooperative. It is government law that cooperatives must put 3% and 10% of profit to community services and community education and training respectively. The cooperative plans to use this on raising awareness and advocacy on issues related to persons with disability inclusion in communities – already they have plans to run awareness trainings at the municipal level for Local Government Units.
Recommendations for setting up cooperatives led by persons with disabilities include:
- Empowerment, understanding rights and focusing on capacity development, including training and mentoring is an important first step.
- Research well – consider lots of different business options, does the location fit your idea, will it be financially viable? Make sure you give a lot of time for this, including lots of opportunities to throw an idea out and start a new one. It will pay off in the future
- Ensure that there are people or organisations cooperative can draw on for support across different areas (eg. Management, finance, business planning, team conflict) and that they can access this over a long period of time.
- Support cooperatives to be linked to available government support.
- Cooperative interpersonal dynamics can make or break a group. Support cooperatives team building, governance mechanisms that can deal with conflict, and conflict resolution mechanism. And recognise that this is a normal part of people working together.
- Create written policies, as one Pagasa Cooperative member said “they become like a bible”.
- Incorporate social components into your cooperative, this will give the cooperative greater purpose and mean the cooperative will play a greater role in the community and potentially open doors for other opportunities.
When our time was up with Pagasa Cooperative we said our goodbyes, standing for a big group selfie surrounded by the goods for sale. Inspired by the enthusiasm, pride and change that was clearly evident in this little grocery store and taking away the importance of focusing on empowering and rights of persons with disabilities within projects, to support meaningfully participation and leadership and broader social transformation. (Annie Sloman)