MANILA, Philippines – After 6 years as education secretary, Brother Armin Luistro says he couldn’t just go back to La Salle, where from 2000 to 2010 he was provincial (i.e., country head) and then university president.
“After we saw the students in the public schools, it was a bit difficult for me to go back to La Salle,” he said over coffee a few days before we sat down for an interview. “The reality I saw, the students and teachers that engaged me continued to beckon.” (WATCH: What's the big idea? Brother Armin Luistro musters collective impact)
The job he got was president of Philippine Business for Social Progress, an almost 50 year-old organization that spends P2 billion a year on health, education, environment and livelihood projects. We spoke as the school year was starting, a time when PBSP helps many of its 280 member companies engage in Brigada Eskwela activities. Days later, there was war in Marawi, prompting PBSP to launch a lightning 5-day campaign to raise P10 million for 10,000 families there.
On a day to day basis, PBSP’s 2015 report says the organization treated as many as 80,000 tuberculosis cases in a year, built 60 school structures and trained 3,000 teachers and school heads and gave access to credit to 130,000 MSMEs and livelihood assistance and training to thousands more families, farmers and micro and small enterprises. Those are just the highlights.
PBSP’s 280 member companies contribute about P80 million per year. Over the decades, grants and other contributions, from foreign partners and non-member companies have come to dwarf that: P2.1 million in 2015. PBSP talks about how it can harness these members, partners and funds to produce “collective impact.”
Brother Armin seems to look at “collective impact” from the beneficiary’s point of view. He has seen how individual projects or interventions -- a schoolhouse here, more teachers there -- can get overwhelmed by surrounding circumstances -- a lack of roads or transportation, or empty stomachs. For him, collective impact means addressing related issues at the same time. So that it’s not an ordeal for a kid to get to school, and once there, he can study better because he isn’t hungry.
PBSP is just one of the best examples of the role non-government, non-business organizations play in our lives. You might get a clearer idea of the breadth from how management guru Henry Mintzberg ticked them off in a 2015 article: activist and other NGOs, professional associations, industry associations, foundations, coops, think tanks, some hospitals, even religious orders. Or from the names he rattled off: civil society, the NGO or non-profit sector, the volunteer sector, social sector, even “the third sector.”
Mintzberg said there needs to be a better name to emphasize the sector’s parity with the public and private sectors. He proposed “plural sector,” which he says has the benefit of being a third “p.” So far, I don’t think it’s catching on.
Mintzberg says that his plural sector should have a voice, or a stronger voice, in some of the debates or activities we leave to the government and business. He says this is essential for a balanced society. He even suggests that more activities should be run not by the government or by business, or even by public-private partnerships, but by his “p.” (Donald Trump has just backed privatizing air traffic control but not by selling it: by organizing it as a non-profit. I don’t know if that’s the right application of the idea though, especially given Trump’s motives.)
“The plural sector is not some middle position between left and right, but as different from the other two sectors as they are from each other. Its particular focus is on communities, whereas the other two sectors focus on governments and businesses,” Mintzberg wrote. “It is time, therefore, for the plural sector to take its rightful place alongside the ones called public and private.”
My guess is that the Philippines is relatively ahead of other countries in terms of the role played by and given to civil society, perhaps because many of them and the leaders of others were strengthened and emboldened by Martial Law and EDSA, even when some of them returned to their non-political missions. We forget that we had arguably the first successful people power revolt. (That letter “p” keeps coming up.)
But civil society is also an avenue for trying to accomplish things that government and business can’t or don’t. Or even to do some good amid all the suffering around us.
I asked Brother Armin, fresh from a pilgrimage to Fatima, what he would counsel Filipinos grappling with the reality that thousands have been killed or orphaned by President Duterte’s war on drugs. He humbly said prayer and reflection, because the response is probably not any of the actions we have tried before.
It’s difficult to think of what hasn’t been done before in a world where nothing is really new. But maybe “new” just means what new to us: what you and I haven’t participated in. We know people who have taken a stand by helping prosecute legal cases, or taken the sublime road of caring for the families who have been left behind. Some may be called to counsel the men who pull the trigger. While others may increase – or start to do – seemingly unrelated work that helps maintain the balance between good and suffering.
I spoke to Brother Armin before Marawi gave us thousands more victims to think of. It seems like civil society, whether old or big organizations, or you and your friends, are being beckoned yet again. – Rappler.com
Coco Alcuaz is a former Bloomberg News bureau chief and ANC business news head and anchor.