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Filipino Values Pt 1: Bahala Na

When I was in grade school, we would start every year of Pilipino class with a lesson on what the Filipino traits were. The ones I particularly remember are: bahala na, pakikisama, hiya, mañana habit, and utang na loob. These five values inform every Kiva Fellow’s experience in the Philippines but also explain why many of the micro-entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to become borrowers in the first place. Literally translated, these words sometimes seem pejorative in English yet without understanding them, one would be hard-pressed to understand how microfinance works in the Philippines.

Bahala na- From Bathala na, there is no direct translation but more or less means “Leave it to God” or “Come What May”. When I was in school this was taught to me as a negative character trait of ours- it meant we were defeatist in our attitude to life and were only willing to do as much as was necessary, preferring to leave the rest up to God’s will. In fact, during my time here, I’ve been thinking that my Grade One teacher was really right. The Bahala Na attitude got us nowhere.

I’ve had the same conversation with almost every borrower I’ve met. “I do the best I can and the rest I leave up to God. I try and pay back my loans to the best of my ability and God makes the rest of the decisions.” This can often seem infuriating to those brought up with more Western ideals and are used to taking control of their lives and making their own decisions. That’s partly how I felt anyway. It was particularly surprising to me given the fact that these people had taken action in their own little way– they ran their own businesses which was more than I can say for myself, still stuck to the corporate world.

But when you think about it, entrepreneurship in the developing world as opposed to the entrepreneurship of Google, Amazon, and yes even Kiva. Entrepreneurship in America and the rest of the developed world has a daring, even romantic appeal to it. Be free! Unchain yourself from the shackles of your corporate 9-to-5 desk job and do something that inspires you…AND you’ll be rich at the same time! Not so for the developed world. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor in 2006 “early-stage entrepreneurial activity is generally higher in those countries with lower levels of GDP” yet this is because the very entrepreneurs we laud here on the ground are often “pushed into entrepreneurship because all other options for work are either absent or unsatisfactory(necessity entrepreneurs).” Many of these micro-entrepreneurs then are not entrepreneurs by choice but because they’ve been forced into it from unemployment or the death of a loved one or the need to support a family of five or six or more. Understanding this fundamental difference in the attitudes to entrepreneurship makes a big difference in understanding the effects of microfinance.

Let’s face it. Not everyone has the entrepreneurial spirit. One can understand all the business metrics, the numbers and the system but one would still have to be willing to take on the risks. Most people, lower-class, middle-class, upper-class, whatever, are much more risk-averse than your successful entrepreneur. The other day, a couple of PMPC staff officers took me to the field with them and I met Nestor Parcutilo.

Nestor told me how he had spent 25 years working at the shipping docks in Manila. When the time came to renew his contract, the company decided he was too old and let him go. He was unable to find another job in the city and had to move back home. Here, he opened a “sari-sari” or general store, which has done pretty well. He’d found a good location and stocked it with popular items. At the same time, Nestor admitted that he would still prefer the security of employment and a steady paycheck then the constant risks of entrepreneurship. He even showed me the ring from the shipping company he still wore everyday, commemorating his 25 years with them. Nestor hasn’t failed though; his business has grown but at the same time, he just doesn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit, nor does he want it. All else equal, he’d really rather have his job back and be in Manila, with his friends, with his regular salary, with an active life. Yet, as he also said with a smile, “Bahala na sa Diyos”, I’ll leave the decisions up to God and do the best with what I have.

So it turns out that an attitude that was always presented to me in school as defeatist changed in meaning entirely after that conversation. There was nothing defeatist about the way Nestor played his cards so far but at the same time, it does show how rarely microentrepreneurship and the availing of a microfinance loan is a choice yet it still provides an option where there might have been none otherwise.

A skyline of Manila- where Nestor worked for 25 years

Nestor's home town today

To learn more about the lives of micro-entrepreneurs like Nestor and the choices they make, click here and make a loan or join our lending team

Posted in Anti-Poverty Focus, Entrepreneurial Support, Facilitation of Savings, Family and Community Empowerment, Innovation, KF10 (Kiva Fellows 10th Class), Paglaum Multipurpose Cooperative (PMPC), Philippines, Social Performance Tagged: Anti-Poverty Focus, Bahala Na, Borrowers, bottom of the pyramid, Entrepreneurial Support, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurshial poor, Facilitation of Savings, Family and Community Empowerment, Filipino values, innovation, MFI, microfinance, social entrepreneurship, social performance

About the author

Nasha Virata