November 23, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Spirituality and social service

Being mindful of the needs of the people we serve and giving these priorities in our programs seems like a no brainer. Yet, often, in government, business and nongovernment organizations the needs of the bureaucracies that run these organizations become the paramount concern, and the wishes of the managers become the primary concern.

For businesses, even those that make it a point to place customers and communities at the top of this list, stockholder requirements can easily trump service to customers and community. In government bureaucracies and NGOs, sticking to rules and regulations trump the aim of providing needed services.

Over the years I have been asking myself what makes people with a strong sense of service the way they are -- so strong that they would dare defy organizational “givens” if they get in the way of providing the needed services. And what makes the people who are more oriented to the needs of the bureaucracies and the managers more attentive to organizational and managerial requirements?

I have not studied enough people globally to draw strong conclusions, but enough to draw theories that may be tested. To avoid controversy, I will write about my own case, my own stand, if you will. It applies to me and am not imposing it on others. I am sharing it to stimulate discussions.

I start with my basic belief that there is a Maker -- a belief shared by most great religions and belief systems except Buddhism -- that put me here for a purpose, a purpose best by the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic faiths; first to love the Maker above all, and to love the least of the Maker’s Creation, understanding that what we do the least of Creation we do to the Maker. The Greeks translated this last line to, “For what you do to the least of your brethren you do to me.”

How is this? Everything that exists comes from the Maker and has elements of the Maker’s divinity; is of the Maker; and seeks union with the Maker. This belief is strong in not only in the three religions that were established by the Children of Avram/Abraham/Ibrahim but also in Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and polytheistic religions globally. It seems to me the underpinning principle behind the Jewish concept of Kosher and the Islamic Halal (both go beyond the concept of how animals are slaughtered).

It took decades for me to realize and fully accept the full extent of these admonitions. In the meantime I was pretty much the product of the programming imposed by the culture I grew up in. Clearly ego and pride got in the way and so did the seduction of the three “Ps” -- power, popularity, and (material) prosperity, the very temptation both the Buddha and Yoshua bar Mariam (Jesus) rejected.

Perhaps I was fortunate. As a boy I enjoyed growing up in a family of privileged in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, and Jaro, Iloilo. Alongside, however, the family owned business and farms that also exposed me to the realities of the life of our poor. A UP-educated father made sure I had a more balanced view of Philippine society.

I was also fortunate that as a boy to have seen movies like LVN’s Anak Dalita, Biyaya ng Lupa and Badjao. I read Leon Maria Guerrero’s translations of Noli and Fili before I finished high school -- in UP -- and had the chance to ask questions from teachers and professors about the two books.

These exposures had so influenced me that by the time I got to college, public service loomed large in the horizon for me. I had seen families destroyed, including my father’s, by squabbles over material wealth and I was resolved never to have this happen to the family I would establish. This decision would affect my choice of life partner.

I was primed to go to Universitaats Munster in German after graduation from sociology in 1968. But parental pressure landed me in the Asian Institute of Management working for a Masters in Business Management.

I worked in advertising and did not like its effects on me. I opted to work with the Harvard Advisory Group to figure out where I really wanted to go. At the age of 24 I had the opportunity to work with the Office of the President of the Republic as an associate director in charge of logistics. I grabbed the opportunity, partly because of the desire to serve a development agency but also because of vanity! How many 24-year-olds get to be associate director of a major government commission?

The five years I spent in government (1971-1976) had a very deep effect on me. I realized the POPCM cannot serve our people properly if, one, we did not know what was happening in the field; two, if we did not talk to our people and listened to their world view and aspirations; and three, if we were bound by world views and mental models developed in the industrialized west. We had to have a model native to the country.

This point of view got me in trouble with the gate keepers of the POPCOM Secretariat and members of the Commission itself -- people who were eager to please the biggest donor so as to curry favor and more grants.

I had an ace up my sleeve. After a year-and-half no single official in POPCOM could claim to have been to as many municipalities -- including island and mountain municipalities as I had and counting! The agencies we were working with openly stated that they wished to work with the logistics division because we understood their problems and we imposed no unrealistic quotas on them, quotas that forced them to cheat on reports.

I saw how badly served our poor municipalities were by the national bureaucracies -- Rural Health Units with three walls instead of four, half a roof, equipment that didn’t work, and expired medicines. I saw health facilities including provincial hospitals only the desperate and the dying would gladly be checked into.

I saw government schools in similar conditions and teachers desperate to do well but defeated by unresponsive national offices ran by officials whose idea of rural inspection was to visit regional capitals and the better off provincial capitals where they summoned municipal officer to meetings to discuss mostly what national offices wanted accomplished. I decided to fight against this.

Dr. Conrado Lorenzo, POPCOM’s first executive director had the foresight to establish regional offices. But it was in the second executive director of POPCOM, himself a field man, the late Rafael Esmundo and the enlarged team he assembled, that I found a strong ally.

I had to leave POPCOM as I could no longer countenance the corruption of the Marcos government. I joined an Asian Institute of Management under Gabino A. Mendoza and Gaston Z. Ortigas that was ready to go into rural development.

It would be an uphill battle once more. We were working with business people who saw the business of business as making profits; with bureaucrats that wanted bureaucratic “integrity” -- observing rules and regulations.

In the battlefield of the classroom I found new arena. In retirement, I am less inhibited by organizational considerations. I am convinced that unless social service begins to underpin our work, we cannot lift our country out of poverty. For so long as we stay selfish the poor will stay dismally poor.

If we are truly a Christian nation, we can do no less than follow the Maker.

Mario Antonio G. Lopez is a member of Manindigan! a civil society group that helped topple the Marcos Dictatorship.