PART 2 Why I Left England to Live at a Dumpsite in the Philippines; A Brief History of FFA

After sharing a bit about myself and why I got into development work, we left off with how things had just kicked off at the Fairplay for All Foundation.

Back in 2011 I formed Payatas FC early in the year and Naomi Tomlinson had come over from the UK after some fundraising and we pooled resources to start the foundation here in Payatas. We rented a place in and Naomi took charge in renovating and opening the drop-in centre, taking care of the day to day operations, while I ran Payatas FC, fundraised in the Philippines, researched, and planned. We started with practically no budget, no network, but we immersed ourselves in the community.

Find the Cure, Don’t Treat the Symptoms

That immersion was step 1. A necessary step. It’s a shame but so much charity goes on without ever asking people what they need or want in the first place, nor asking the people who they’re trying to help for any input at all. I often use the example of a charity being like a doctor. You go to a doctor because they will analyze the symptoms and provide the right treatment for a disease (a good doctor anyway, minus the kickbacks from big pharmaceuticals). In many ways poverty is a disease, just a man-made one. And with any disease if you only treat the symptoms you’ll never find a cure.

In charity that is all too common, as people think that a feeding program, giving school supplies, and similar handouts are effective. Someone ate today, but they’re hungry again tomorrow. In few cases do people stop to think why they lack food, school supplies, or whatever particular thing is being handed out. The root cause of poverty is never as simple as just lacking something. That is the symptom. And unless we find out what the underlying cause is, we can find out how the disease started and we can never cure it. It has to be about sustainability.

A good charity works like a good doctor, treating the cause to find the cure. A bad doctor and a bad charity both treat the symptoms, and end up doing more harm than good.
A good charity works like a good doctor, treating the cause to find the cure. A bad doctor and a bad charity both treat the symptoms, and end up doing more harm than good.

Again you go to a doctor not because he’s kind, or gentle, or has good intentions – but because he can understand what the problem is and prescribe the right treatment for a cure, so that you become well and never have to go back to the doctor again for that issue. Feeding programs and other handouts have their place, whether getting people back on their feet after a natural disaster or in similar emergency situations. But as a long-term policy handouts are not only ineffective, they create dependency and make those symptoms worse in the long-run. Not least because they treat the recipient as the traditional charity-case, rather than empowering them to find and work their own solution. Always treat the cure, not the symptom.

So that was the basis of why we immersed ourselves in Payatas, the basis of why I moved from England to the foot of a dumpsite in Payatas, the Philippines.

The First Drop-in Centre

And that’s why we opened the drop-in centre; a safe space for the kids in the area to come and learn, play, and hang out. Here we got to know the kids and their individual circumstances, and got a glimpse into how we could be of some use in the long run.

Very quickly we had 30 kids coming by each day to the drop-in centre, a dingy wooden building which I believe is scientifically known as a ‘craphole’. But that craphole served us for the time.

There were challenges of course. In the first week we came back from dinner to find half the door was sawed off. Someone had broken in and stole the rice cooker and stove we just bought. Six months passed without incident then someone broke through the window. We believe it was the same people who broke in the first time. This time they took my laptop, which was on the table as I was working on essays for my Master’s Degree at UP Diliman, and put it in the nearest bag – a bag which had my passport in it as I left it by the kitchen because I was extending my visa at the time.

By then we’d hired a local mother at the drop-in centre to manage the kitchen. And after a security guard across the road said that someone was near the area looking suspicious, had long hair, and something as innocuous, she and the other mothers said it was probably a guy they knew. Turned out it was. Everyone knows everyone in slum communities and if you’re part of the community people look out for you.

So a father in the area, whose sons were in the football team, took it upon himself to track the guys down on his day off. Within 24 hours I had my passport back, in 48 hours I had my laptop back. By then the laptop had already been wiped and sold to a store in Ever Gotesco along Commonwealth Avenue, but they tracked it down (the thieves had been caught and told them where they’d sold it). Now I’d lost all my research and other files, but that was still a big win.

The old drop-in centre: this picture really doesn't do justice to how rundown a building this is.
The old drop-in centre: this picture really doesn’t do justice to how rundown a building this is.

I made a deal not to prosecute the guys for their cooperation getting everything back, under the idea that if they tried to steal from anywhere else again they’d be prosecuted for this too. A couple of weeks later they broke into another place, got shot by the security guard, and that was the end of that.

You learn very quickly in poor communities that nothing is ever so black and white. You can study poverty, human behavior, rationality, psychology, you can study anything at all in the pristine objective laboratory of school, but all of the theories, the data, and objectivity mean so little when you actually live it out. In an easier sentence to understand, if you’ve never experienced life in poverty you can never truly understand how difficult it is.

Becoming part of the community of Payatas we’d seen how difficult things are, how smart and hardworking the people here are, and you sympathise much more. Imagine you’re a smart 15 year old. You know more than your teachers, you realize your education in a public school is practically useless crammed in a classroom of 100 other kids to a single teacher, not leat because you’re hungry and can’t concentrate on the lessons or afford the materials to do the homework. Now imagine you realize the only job you’re gonna get is scavenging through trash and you can either go to school hungry, or you can work and get food. For us we can think of it for a moment, but for everyone here that’s daily life. So they face the choice of working their asses off 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, for less than P5,000 a month (often much less) to barely feed their family, or turning to crime. I’m not surprised by how much crime is in the slums, I’m surprised there’s not so much more.

It’s also why by helping out such communities, by developing these areas, we can make everyone in Manila better off. Check out my article here about why reducing poverty will make us all better off.


But back to FFA. After a couple of years in the craphole, we were able to fundraise and buy a bigger place. With the help of Alasdair Thomson in particular, we bought the rights to a house nearby and renovated it. By mid-2013 it was ready to move in. Overnight we went from 30 kids each day to 100. The kids really want to learn, to play, and to learn again… all that’s missing is the place.

The new drop-in centre
The new drop-in centre
Much bigger, far better
Much bigger, far better

So by now the team has grown to three teachers, a social worker, an admin assistant, a largely full time volunteer and myself. We handle roughly 100 kids a day here. Our education sponsorship program grew from 20 to 60 kids, while our baon store and urban farm typically break even and sometimes make a profit each month – all with the main purpose of providing healthier food to the kids and the community.

Naomi had contracted whooping cough and returned to England. After recovering, she’s now studying and will take her bachelor’s degree. And back in the Philippines we have big plans.

The Corkboard of Learning
The Corkboard of Learning: come teach whatever you want!

The first step for this has been to start open source education. Anyone can post anything they’d like to teach or learn, and when there’s a match they study together. As I write this, two kids are learning to play the keyboard, a group are doing acting class in the library, a couple of kids are having small tutorials in the study room, there’s a sewing class upstairs, some of the kids are exploring the urban farm, and the rest are making a mess of the main area with toys. Play is essential to childhood and to learning, it is entirely underrated in academics, and so unless a child is ready to learn, asks to learn something, we don’t push them. Open source education, driven by the student and what they want to learn, has always been more effective. And as we learn from experience, and continue learning from our own and others’ research, this form of education has massive potential.

Of course it’s not easy – but the potential is huge. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming article on education specifically.

For now, though, I can wrap this up by saying how things continue to grow. Everything started very, very small and has grown organically since then – with community input, research, and being residents of Payatas ourselves. From two of us living in a wooden shack falling apart and no budget, to a secure, larger building, organizing Team Philippines in the Street Child World Cup, a team of 10 full-time staff, 57 kids sponsored in full-time school, and big plans for the near future, we’ve at least doubled financially and operationally every year. There’s a lot to be excited about – particularly in what happens next. So look out for the third and final part of this series of articles to know more about what’s next with FFA.

You can also get involved and teach in Payatas too. Teach anything at all: a musical instrument, a language, a skill, a hobby. Email us at to teach one day a week. 

And if you’d like to support the projects and help us provide facilities for innovative education, grassroots football, and sustainable nutrition, you can donate here:


One thought on “PART 2 Why I Left England to Live at a Dumpsite in the Philippines; A Brief History of FFA

  1. Sam Divinagracia December 4, 2014 / 11:13

    awesome. i wrote you a while back (on facebook i think) of a possibility of my family doing something similar in iloilo, and we’re on track to do that after my contract ends. your story is definitely inspiring. I hope we can visit your drop-in center someday – Sam

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