Cory Aquino

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Financing for the Poor: Beyond the Numbers

Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle
Learning Visit to the Philippines
February 25, 2005 

Dear friends in the service of humanity, good evening.

I am certain that it is more than serendipity that brings us together today, the 25th of February, which we Filipinos traditionally celebrate as the anniversary of our peaceful “People Power revolution” of 1986. Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle could not have chosen a better time for their Learning Visit to the Philippines. Beyond the historical and cultural context which the celebration provides, our visitors are likely to find us in a particularly introspective mood as we look toward the event’s 20th year milestone 365 days from now. It would therefore be an opportune time to welcome a fresh perspective as we ponder the future of People Power.

Unfortunately, since its grand entry into the global consciousness 19 years ago, People Power has become a rather maligned, abused and misunderstood term today. Perhaps that’s because its champions are an eclectic, heterogenous lot which might not have deemed it necessary to articulate and steward the concept as a unifying political and socio-economic philosophy. It might have been enough for most of them to have People Power enshrined as a fundamental principle in the Freedom Constitution of 1987.

In spite of this lack of deliberateness in forging and pursuing a common People Power agenda, it must be said that we have nevertheless reaped substantial benefits over the years. For instance, Philippine civil society today is among the most vibrant in the world, and the cooperative movement has made great strides in a diversity of fields across the country. What seems to be lacking is the impetus to carry their successes into the political and economic mainstream. Left-leaning political parties have proven that it can be done. Through superior organization, they have made headway in the electoral process through the Constitutional party list system.

In the course of the Global Philanthropists Circle’s Learning Visit, I am sure that some discussion will be devoted to ways by which cause-oriented groups and cooperatives can scale up to achieve greater impact. But I suspect that an equally important aspect of the challenge is how to scale in. What do I mean?

Heretofore people power initiatives by Philippine civil society—with the help of international groups like Synergos—have largely focused on community organization, intersectoral cooperation and advocacy at the subnational level. Since individual human development is subsumed under most of these programs, it is often taken for granted as a vital byproduct, so to speak, of the entire change process. It would be illuminating to follow the lead of some of our colleagues which view the process from a reverse perspective—to start with individual human transformation as a means of triggering social change.

Of the Philippines’ rich endowments, its most precious resource is its talented and highly adaptive people. My husband Ninoy’s words, “The Filipino is worth dying for”, became immortal after his assassination in 1983. But few recall that the sentence lifted from his 1980 speech before the Asia Society in New York ended with the phrase, “because he is the nation’s greatest untapped resource.”

S. Bruce Schearer, Synergos President, echoes this sentiment from a global perspective: “Despite unprecedented prosperity and opportunity in many parts of the world, far too many people are directly affected by persistent poverty, conflict and unfulfilled human potential. These problems reach beyond those living in situations of poverty and conflict to undermine efforts everywhere to create peaceful, just and prosperous societies. “

This is what I would like to refer to as the inner dimension of People Power.

In our country, all the efforts of civil society since 1986 have been geared precisely toward tapping our human resources. Unfortunately, a pervasive culture of poverty, spawned by centuries of social inequity, has stripped millions of Filipinos of their basic human dignity. This has left many of them trapped in survival mode, powerless to uplift the quality of their lives and to contribute substantively to national development.

These Filipinos have to be empowered at the most basic human level. Beyond simply organizing groups and communities for self-help and for political and socio-economic advancement, we need to focus on helping the individual recover his or her sense of dignity and self-worth.

Before we can realize strength in numbers, we must first unlock the full human potential of every Filipino. Empowering the individual is akin to unleashing the nuclear energy in an atom—ultimately it energizes the entire community.

Recently, I was invited to visit a group of women—all microfinance clients—during one of their fellowship and collection meetings in a depressed community in Tatalon, Quezon City. And I must tell you how great a relief it was to see such a joyful and hopeful gathering in a very humble setting—in stark contrast to the routine expressions of hopelessness, despair and cynicism I hear in plush neighborhoods. The same optimism at the micro level is palpable among families who have constructed their own modest homes with the help of the Couples for Christ Gawad Kalinga community building program.

In both communities, I have also witnessed how such small groups of positive-thinking, purposive individuals are being transformed into a potent vehicle for building spiritual and nationalistic values and for strengthening the family. It is inspiring to see how so little in investments, relatively speaking, can yield so much in terms of human productivity, potential and hope.

What accounts for this phenomenon? As we say in Filipino, mababaw ang kaligayahan nila—it takes so little to make them happy.  Simply responding to their immediate needs—giving them the means to build their own small home or to earn extra income with which to buy food, medicine or school supplies—already gives them a sense of empowerment.

As they reinforce their sense of self-worth in striving to uplift their families’ quality of life and as they start to feel that many others like them are on the same track, they will evolve into full-fledged citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities. The microfinance sector alone is reaching out to over 1.5 million demonstrably credit-worthy clients who meet in small groups regularly every week. Right there you have a fast-growing informal network of responsible, productive and highly motivated Filipinos who are learning more and more to think beyond themselves and to develop a vision for their country. From their ranks are emerging a new breed of moral leaders who will eventually define the new shape of governance. 

In my view, this is People Power at its most potent and, yes, its most revolutionary: common folk associating with one another in the absence of crisis, building institutions on the ground. What used to be simple venues for loan payment collection have become a new experience for creative action for the social good.  In time, the material improvement in their lives feed into a rising human spirit as well, and even geographically dispersed communities begin to feel their affinity with one another. Further down the road as activities, networks and services converge, they might just look at themselves collectively as a movement for national transformation. At that point, you and I know that change will happen for the better.

We in civil society, business, government and the international community can help accelerate this process by bridging the self-help initiatives among the poor with the resources and value-added input they will need. We should just take care not to make our support inadvertently debilitating among people it is supposed to uplift. As you very well know, in a culture of patronage that has persisted for centuries, even the most well-meaning external support to supposedly self-help programs runs the risk of becoming a crutch unless the larger social environment is managed properly. I suppose this is where “bridging organizations” and “bridging leaders”, as Synergos calls them, play a vital role, so that the old shackles of largesse can be replaced by what your Chair, Peggy Dulany, refers to as “chains of trust”.

The complexity of the situation is illustrated by the experience of Philippine civil society groups engaged in microfinancing programs as part of a more holistic human development agenda. According to them, attracting funds to the microfinance sector is the easy part. They say that, with a well-managed program, it would take only 18 to 30 months to recover one’s investment. The hard part manifests itself on the ground. I am told that, under a microfinancing program, it takes five to eight years to pull a family out of poverty—and those on the microfinance frontlines are constantly on their toes to prevent their clients from sliding back. The challenge for them is to gradually raise their clients’ level of aspiration and to match this progressively with affordable new financial instruments that will open access to social services that will meet other basic needs. Beyond boosting the financing, in other words, we have to nurture the capacity of bridging organizations to sustain the growing sense of humanity in their sphere. 

Our common desire to resolve such complex issues gives me great confidence that the Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle Learning Visit to the Philippines will be richly rewarding for both sides. Indeed, we have much to learn from each other. Your extensive grasp of the big picture—thanks to your keen sense of impactful social investment based, among others, on your experience in resource mapping and your expertise in building financial sustainability and in forging successful multi-stakeholder partnerships—can be complemented by our intensive understanding of social dynamics in our communities.

I wish Synergos all the best in your drive to make Philanthropy an invisible yet ever-more-effective catalyst of peaceful social change. May you continue to empower people everywhere, quietly creating a culture of compassion all over the world that would gradually shift the prevalent social mood away from despair, hopelessness and deeply polarized class conflict into a growing sense of community built around our common humanity.

After all, philanthropy in Greek stands for love of mankind. And that, when all is said and done, is what brings us all together.

Thank you very much and good evening.



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