“Reflections at 90 (part 2)” by Washington SyCip (July 4, 2011)

Suits The C-Suite By Washington Sycip
Business World (07/04/2011), Page S1/6

Second of Two Parts

In the first part of this article, I ended with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that says, “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.” I hope that those who read it have pondered on what this means.

Fifty years after I established SGV & Co. from a one-man operation, I retired from the company and confidently left it in the hands of much younger partners. Today it has become a 2,700-strong firm, the largest in the Philippines. I had passed on the value of stewardship — that no one person owns the firm and partners are only caretakers of the company for future generations to come.

What retirement brought me was the freedom to be involved in various projects and to sit in the boards of companies. What retirement actually taught me is that it does not exist; that time is finite and too precious for anyone to waste. What keeps me preoccupied is the knowledge that there are so many problems to be solved in the country.

On my 90th birthday last week, I was given the opportunity to address a large group regarding my current advocacies. I welcome every chance to speak about these causes and I now would like to share them in writing.

There are three causes that I am passionate about. To reduce the high percentage of poverty in our country, I am convinced that we should concentrate our attention in three areas.

The first is to have every Filipino child complete basic education. If a child drops out and is illiterate he or she is sure to be poor. It gladdens me that President Benigno S. Aquino III and Secretary of Education Bro. Armin Luistro are united in focusing on improving basic education and hopefully reducing to zero the dropout rate. This is a major component of the President’s Agenda for Basic Education which he spoke of in his very first State of the Nation Address.

What I know about basic education I learned from Dr. Nene Guevara of Synergeia Foundation. Synergeia works closely with local governments, the Department of Education, schools, parents, students and socio-civic groups to improve the learning and teaching processes in public elementary schools. Its programs aim to improve the proficiency in reading and math of students in Grade 1 to 6 so that they do not drop out and hopefully, can move on to high school. I have personally seen how Dr. Guevara worked with three Muslim communities, reducing their dropout rate in basic education from 80% to 30% in three years. This has completely changed the lives of the people in those three communities in Mindanao.

Another organization that works to enhance education is the Philippine Business for Education or PBEd led by Ramon del Rosario, Jr. PBEd believes that by filling the gaps in the system — such as providing quality training to teachers — what is wrong can be corrected.

The second major concern that I am helping address is the cost of credit to the poor. This is an issue that has given rise to micro financing as an institutional option for the poor to gain credit. In this matter, I have worked closely with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development or CARD led by Dr. Aris Alip that has evolved into an outstanding microfinance institution in the Philippines. Since it started in 1986, CARD has reached out to more than 700,000 clients. It has a portfolio of over P3 billion with a repayment rate by its poor borrowers of 98.4%. Dr. Alip has a very successful small loan fund for basic education. He has enthusiastically responded to my suggestion of expanding this fund to significantly reduce illiteracy in poor communities.

My third advocacy is rural health. I am currently learning from the Zuellig Foundation about how to improve the health of the poor in rural areas. Stephen Zuellig, the best strategic thinker I have met, has kindly set a fund in my name with this Foundation to combine the improvement of rural health with the other factors to reduce poverty.

Filipino and foreign donors are noticing the positive results from Synergeia’s and CARD’s programs. This is important because we need more people who believe that poverty can be eradicated and who are willing to invest in the programs that address the problem. Very recently, an American investor and philanthropist, Paul Kazarian, has generously presented me with a fund to expand services in basic education and microfinance. The Kazarian Foundation has also set aside a second fund for research, education, and training on microfinance to see how their studies can benefit our microfinance industry and to assess how CARD can also help other microfinance organizations abroad. All these will supplement an amount that I have set aside to provide Synergeia and CARD with funds for basic education that I hope will help in President Aquino’s program to reduce poverty.

Being a public school graduate, I have always maintained that education is the greatest of equalizers. We all can help in improving the lives of our people through better basic education.

The late former President Cory Aquino led efforts to spread microfinance throughout the country and Stephen Zuellig’s Foundation is working on improving rural health. All this will contribute to make a more equal and prosperous Philippines!

Lao Tzu’s words that I borrowed to start this article were meant to inspire you. We all know what problems exist but it is a matter of making a commitment to be involved in them. I personally hope to continue using my time and resources for these worthy causes for the remaining years of my life because as the great philosopher also said, “If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.” In other words, for as long as you keep yourself useful, life will be worthwhile.

(Guest Columnist Washington SyCip is a retired Partner and the Founder of SGV & Co.)

This article was originally published in the BusinessWorld newspaper. It is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.