Building and Crossing Bridges Together
Global Philanthropists Circle Annual Meeting
Brooklyn, New York
November 2, 2005
Bridging leadership, as championed by Synergos, is a fascinating concept in light of the complexities of today’s world. The advent of globalization, coupled with the quickening pace of technological change, has widened social divides in its interim phase long before we can even catch a glimpse of the promise of greater social equity.
The challenge to leaders all over the world, therefore, has been to bridge varied—oftentimes conflicting—viewpoints so that key stakeholders can somehow agree to blaze a common trail toward development.
Our experience in the Philippines validates the need to adopt this bridging approach. The metaphor is in fact very apt for an archipelagic nation like ours. Those of you who are fairly familiar with our culture must know that we Filipinos tend to be very individualistic—to a point where we seem to lack a sense of nationalism, except in times of war, crisis…or a sporting event.
1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law ostensibly to quell rebellions sparked by a communist insurgency in the hinterlands and a secessionist movement in the Muslim South. According to his propaganda, Mr. Marcos wanted to reform Philippine society. Actually, he just wanted to be president for life. Under our constitution then, a president could only stay in office for two terms of four years each, and he was on his last year of his second term. By jailing his political opponents and controlling the armed forces and the mass media, it seemed that Marcos would indeed be president for life.
Things began to unravel for Mr. Marcos in 1983. Rumors were rife that he was struggling with a serious kidney ailment. Meanwhile, the communist insurgency had re-intensified, and military reformists were emerging from the cracks. The fragmented political opposition was concerned about the chaos that could ensue if he died with no orderly and credible succession.
At that time, my husband Ninoy Aquino, the dictator’s chief adversary, was living happily with us in exile in Boston, following heart surgery after seven years and seven months in prison. Ninoy was concerned about the impending crisis in our country and so in spite of warnings from friends and foes alike he decided to return home, hoping he could somehow convince Mr. Marcos to agree to a peaceful return to democracy. My husband never got around to doing that. He was assassinated at the airport tarmac moments after he landed on Philippine soil.
But what Ninoy failed to do as a live bridging leader, he accomplished as a martyr. Millions of Filipinos came to view his bloodied remains and to escort him to his grave. The silent majority suddenly found their voice. Ninoy’s courage and self-sacrifice emboldened Filipinos to follow his lead. People Power was born.
Unexpectedly, the role of bridging leader was placed on my shoulders when Mr. Marcos called for a snap presidential election and scheduled it for February 7, 1986. Most of the leaders of the opposition impressed upon me that I alone could unite the opposition. Some of them who had presidential ambitions themselves had publicly declared that they would only give way to me. It was already such a formidable task to even try to defeat a dictator one on one. To have more than one opposition candidate would be like handing over the presidency to Marcos on a silver platter. And when more than a million people signed up to convince me to be their candidate, I finally agreed to accept the challenge.
As you know, I was carried to the Presidency by an awesome wave of People Power. Some of you might still remember the inspiring images of office workers, professionals, students, nuns, priests, seminarians and other volunteers keeping vigil at polling precincts, escorting ballot boxes, braving thugs and exposing irregularities. These same Filipinos would be undaunted by fully armed soldiers and tanks as they put their lives on the line to protect a breakaway military faction trapped inside a camp at the heart of Metro Manila. They would eventually win the battle of wills that spelled the end of the Marcos dictatorship.
And then came the real test of bridging leadership. As President of a reborn democracy with bankrupt coffers, I had to swiftly harness the talent and energy of as many of my countrymen as possible. In this spirit, I set free all political prisoners, including top leaders of the communist party, some of whom later joined non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Through a program I called “KABISIG”, which in Filipino means “arm in arm”, government agencies worked with NGOs and people’s organizations (POs) in helping communities out of poverty through livelihood projects such as reforestation, environment concerns, health programs, school houses, water projects, etc. I was particularly pleased with the school-house project because the people were able to build the school-houses within the budget and on schedule, sometimes even ahead of schedule.
On another track, I made an effort to build bridges of understanding between the civilian and military sectors to heal the wounds inflicted by martial law. I organized a group composed of the wives of cabinet members and the wives of generals and also wives of businessmen. At their suggestion I called the group “Bigay Puso” which literally means “giving of the heart”. They were tasked to take care of delivering relief goods in times of natural calamities like typhoons and earthquakes. Along the same lines, we invited cadets from the Philippine Military Academy to come to Manila and interact with the university students. We did encounter problems in the beginning but after they all got to know each other, the “Bigay Puso” ladies became the best of friends and the military cadets and the university students learned to like each other. In fact there were a number of students and cadets who ended up getting married. In every instance, I tried to impart the message that we had much to learn from each other by simply building on a foundation of trust, humility and openness.
What we did not factor into the equation was the fact that many of the so-called military “reformists”, whom thousands of civilians protected with their lives, had their own political agenda. These forces on the extreme Right of the spectrum would have nothing to do with our democratic revival. They were involved in seven coup attempts against my administration. Although the coup plots failed for lack of popular support, they stunted the growth of institutions that would have sustained our democratic gains. They also stunted the growth of our economy.
When my term ended on June 30, 1992, I resolved to do my share as a private citizen to try to reinvigorate these democratic institutions. Through the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation, I have continued linking up with particular sectors of civil society which could help bring People Power to a new level, particularly in the socio-economic sphere. This led to my involvement with programs to help strengthen the cooperative movement in the Philippines. With the support of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the Aquino Foundation established the Institute for People Power and Development (IPPD) to document success stories and lessons learned from cooperative experiences around the country. These data are made available to all groups working along the same lines. Beyond these, we have extended technical assistance to cooperatives. Again with the help of Hanns Seidel Foundation, the Aquino Foundation in partnership with the Philippine Normal University established a curriculum on human rights education for the Philippine Public Safety College and the Philippine National Police.
Years after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption of 1991, damaging lahar flows in succeeding years continued to displace thousands of families. When friends in Manila asked how they could help, I called up the former governor of Pampanga province, which had been the worst hit by the volcanic eruption. When we met with the former governor, it was suggested that we involve ourselves in housing projects. We then met with the Archbishop of Pampanga and he introduced us to a family who was willing to donate land for a housing project. With the donated land, we were able to raise enough funds to build 150 houses. When we were told that they would need schoolhouses, we approached a Chinese-Filipino association and they readily donated two schoolhouses. Since we would also need school desks, we were able to get the Ayala Foundation to donate the required school desks.
Two years ago, I was invited by the Couples for Christ to be part of their housing program for the poor, the Gawad Kalinga program. To assist the Couples for Christ chapter in my home province of Tarlac, I was able to get the necessary funding from Senate President Franklin Drilon to build 100 homes. The Lopez family through their ABS-CBN foundation is very much involved in this worthy endeavor.
Most recently, I have been refocusing my energies on what I deem to be a highly strategic intervention in our continuing effort to fight poverty and to take People Power to a higher level. I refer to microfinance within a broad anti-poverty strategy that involves NGOs, banks, the academe, big corporations and foundations, government agencies and millions of micro-entrepreneurs—many of whom we hope to bring to the small and medium enterprise level by themselves or as cooperatives within a given time frame. Just last week, I met with a group of some of the best minds in microfinance, banking and business. And, already, fresh ideas were emerging on how to strengthen the reach and capacity of microfinance institutions and how to rope micro-entrepreneurs into the value chain of mainstream players in the Philippine economy.
Through the years, I have learned from experience that, ultimately, People Power is about finding and unleashing the leader in each one of us. It is about harnessing the inherent integrity, the sense of compassion, the will to make sacrifices, and the courage to take risks to achieve goals that would serve the common good. Each of us is called to do our share. It is about building little bridges to people who can make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others. But let us not forget --- it is also about entrusting ourselves to Almighty God through Prayer Power.
Hopefully, I will live to see the day when People Power will have fulfilled its promise of making a dramatic impact on the quality of life of my countrymen.
Let us continue building—and crossing—those bridges together.