Poverty eradication. Indigenous people’s rights. Social justice. Peace building. Each of these issues involves complex aspirations, seemingly intractable conflicts, radical implications. All are interconnected, elusive, yet crucial to building a progressive, inclusive society. In the Philippines, no one private citizen has been as directly engaged in addressing all these issues as HOWARD DEE.
DEE was born to a middle-class Chinese family engaged in the lumber business. Living in Tondo, Manila, working in a lumber yard while a student, and raised in the values of frugality, hard work, and concern for the poor, DEE developed his social sympathies early. After his studies at Manila’s University of the East, he carved out a successful business career as shareholder and president of United Laboratories (Unilab), a pioneering local pharmaceuticals company. Even then, his interest in social work was evident, when in 1970 he helped establish Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), composed of business corporations, modeled after a Venezuelan initiative in which member-companies commit to donate 2% of their profits to social development. PBSP was a response to a deep political and economic crisis that would lead to the declaration of martial law in 1972.
This historical moment marked a crisis of conscience for DEE. He withdrew from Unilab; feeling that PBSP was “too little, too late,” he decided to commit himself wholly to the cause of social development. With Jesuit priest Francisco Araneta he founded Assisi Development Foundation (ADF) in 1975, a foundation that, invoking the saint who loved the poor and lived with them, seeks to “pursue peace through development with justice.”
Peace, development, and justice are the intertwined issues driving DEE and ADF. In over four decades of work, ADF has implemented 4,123 projects that have served 10.5 million Filipinos. It incubated ASA Philippines, established in 2004, that has become one of the largest, best-performing microfinance institutions in the country. Working with the Catholic Church, ADF initiated Hapag-Asa, an integrated nutrition program that has fed 1.8 million children. During the period 1998-2002, DEE initiated a concerted response to life-threatening emergencies in Mindanao, southern Philippines, caused by drought and famine, people displaced in the armed conflict between Muslim separatists and the government, and the deportations of Filipinos from Sabah. Mobilizing a multisectoral task force of corporate, civil society, media, and church groups, the Tabang Mindanao (“Help Mindanao”) program provided over 2,000,000 families with food relief, shelter, water systems, farm support, and health and education assistance. Subsequently, ADF took up the cause of indigenous peoples (IP) rights through legislative advocacy, scholarships, leadership training, and IP development programs, like the innovative Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People’s Education in Mindanao.
DEE does not present himself as a “leader” but a “convenor” choosing to remain mostly invisible as he resolutely assembles people, institutions, and resources in addressing a societal problem. It is in this role that his impact has been far-reaching. He is a person who thinks strategically and works quietly but effectively, one whose dedication to social service and personal integrity are unquestioned. For this reason, he has been asked by government and civic leaders to lead peace-building and reform initiatives such as the National Peace Conference (1990-92), Social Reform Council (1993-95), Peace Talks with the Communist Party (1993-94), and the Bangsamoro Basic Law Peace Council (2015). That he did not shirk the challenge of facing the most intractable issues demonstrates his deep capacity for service. That he served five Philippine administrations in four different capacities shows the deep trust he enjoys across sectoral and party lines.
If DEE sees his many engagements as part of an integral whole, the work he does is also integral to the man. Deeply spiritual, DEE explains himself thus, “Loving others is an expression of being human. We can’t be human unless we are just.”
In electing HOWARD DEE to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his quietly heroic half-century of service to the Filipino people, his abiding dedication to the pursuit of social justice and peace in achieving dignity and progress for the poor, and his being, by his deeds, a true servant of his faith and an exemplary citizen of his nation.