Best gifts for the season

By Jaime Aristotle B. Alip, PhD

Pandemic or not, the Christmas season is here. With the cool amihan wind comes a hopeful air, so soothing after almost two years of uncertainty and fear.  These days, Christmas carols play in malls and radio stations, parols light the streets, and holiday decorations brighten our homes. Many Filipinos, young and old, are preoccupied with gifts: what to gifts to give, what gifts to receive, worries about being unable to give to loved ones. The devastation wrought by Typhoon Odette has put a damper on things, but, like what happened in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, the catastrophe has brought out the best of the Filipino. People from all walks of life are trying to chip in, with social media filled with news about donation drives, prayers for those affected and a myriad of stories of how people are reaching out to those affected.

Gift giving at Christmas is a Christian tradition that is widely practiced around the world, symbolic of the tributes made to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men in the story of the Nativity.  It is heartening to see that in this difficult time, in the wake of Odette’s devastation, even with the threat of Omicron and fears of another COVID-19 surge, people are rising above difficulties to give the best gift of all: themselves.

Unusual, but Necessary Gifts

We all strive to give gifts that our families and friends would appreciate. The internet is full of lists of gift suggestions – food, toys, bags, shoes, books, household, and office items.  Everything from day-to-day stuff to the bizarre and unusual is being offered.  And there is also my personal favorite, the list of gifts that give back.  These are the ones that support important causes, with proceeds going to charities, non-profits, and communities.

This year, I hope we give gifts that transform lives.  We can still give our loved ones their favorite stuff, but we can buy from sources where part of the proceeds goes to charity.  We can also make donations in the name of our loved ones to support causes that are important to them.  Maybe, instead of giving cash or toys to our inaanaks, we can open a kiddie savings account for them, giving not just the monetary value of the items we originally intended to give but also paving the way for financial literacy.  This is important, because recent studies show that Filipinos struggle to understand basic financial concepts, with a Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) survey showing that 41% of Filipinos can only answer one of three financial literacy questions correctly and a meager eight percent can answer three. BSP data also show that about 36.9 million Filipino adults have no bank accounts. This significant number of unbanked Filipinos (48% of the country’s adult population) is brought on by factors other than low-income levels.  To address the situation, BSP is promoting financial inclusion.  The DepEd is integrating financial education in the K to 12 Basic Education Curriculum. The private sector is also helping, with fintechs and banks reaching out to low-income groups and helping microfinance institutions serve the poor in remote and underserved areas. This Christmas, we can help their initiatives in our own little ways. Aside from kiddie savings, we can get kids started on financial literacy by giving them books or board games that help explain basic financial concepts.

We can also give the gift of education, probably the most transformative gift of all. We can donate to scholarship funds. Finance a poor kid’s education for a semester. Or enroll family members in online courses or projects that will give them new skills – painting, designing, photography, pottery, cooking, baking.  The possibilities are endless.

The gift of livelihood is another great offering.  While not everyone is in the position to offer direct employment to others, we can still open doors by giving referrals and linking people to those with job openings.  We can also tell our kasambahays about government offices or MFIs that provide livelihood opportunities so they can encourage their family members to join.  Maybe, we help someone turn their hobby into a business. If your teenager enjoys writing fiction, you can give him a subscription to online resources that would help him get published. If your sister makes lovely artworks or handicrafts, you can enroll her in courses that would help her sell her creations online. You can help your titos and titas who like to bake get started on their online food delivery business. Or you can refer them to organizations like the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI), which supports micro-small-and medium enterprises.

As we are now almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, health is important.  Let us give loved ones gifts that will help them take care of their health.  Give healthier versions of your friends’ favorite foods. Give them fitness tracker gadgets to help them monitor their daily goals.  Or give them yoga mats, water bottles, small exercise gears like dumbbells and jump ropes. And because we live in the midst of a pandemic, the best gift of all would be face masks. Washable ones, so we can minimize the carbon footprint.  In fact, it would be good if we can give away face masks to strangers.

And in the wake of Typhoon Odette which displaced hundreds of thousands of our kababayans, let us give the gift of charity. Join one of the many donation drives to assist victims. Government agencies and private sector have called for volunteers. Many MFIs and mutual benefit associations are also playing a big role in helping clients in relief and rehabilitation. Let us all join these efforts and help affected communities in Palawan, Southern Leyte, Eastern Samar, Agusan, Surigao, Cebu and Bohol. They have lost their homes, livelihood, loved ones. The communities are still submerged in floods, infrastructures had been destroyed, and so they lack food, water, clothing, and other basic necessities. Helping them would be among the best gift we can give this Christmas.

Letting Gifts into Our Lives

It has been a difficult two years since COVID-19 entered our lives. Then, just as things were beginning to improve, Typhoon Odette came. Yet, amidst its devastation, the all-important Filipino value — malasakit – still pervades. Filipinos are helping those affected by Odette, giving their resources, time and effort to even in this difficult time of pandemic. It is a giving of self that should be celebrated.

Gifts are signs of affection. It is an important part of human interaction, defining relationships and strengthening bonds. And it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest rewards from a gift.

And so, as we greet the holidays, let us give the best gifts we can: gifts that will help our loved ones cope with the changes and challenges of the times. Let us give lasting gifts. The gift of hope. The gift of education. The gift of trust. The gift of livelihood opportunities. The gift of financial literacy. Gifts that contribute to people’s financial security and health.  These are unusual gifts, true, but they have the greatest potential for transforming people’s lives.

Life itself is a gift. Let us give gifts that will keep on giving.

Dr. Jaime Aristotle B. Alip is a poverty eradication advocate, with more than 35 years of experience in microfinance and social development. He is the founder of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI), a group of 23 organizations that provide social development services to 7.8 million economically-disadvantaged Filipinos and insure more than 27 million nationwide. CARD’s innovative financial and enterprise development services targeting the poor has won many accolades, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2008, and for Dr. Alip, the prestigious Ramon V. del Rosario Award for Nation Building in 2019.  Dr. Alip is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, the Southeast Asia Interdisciplinary Development Institute, and the University of the Philippines.