The Many Crusades of Howard Dee

2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Howard Dee

2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Howard Dee

Why is peace so elusive in the Philippines? This was the vexing question that 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Howard Dee sought to answer in his lecture, which officially ended the RM Awards Festival season. Dubbed as the “Man of Peace,” no one is perhaps more qualified to talk on the subject.

Ambassador Dee was appointed by then-President Fidel Ramos as chairman of the first peace panel from 1994 to 1998 and continues his quest for peace, in various platforms, to this day.  

He still laments the failure of the talks with the National Democratic Front of almost 30 years ago.

He recalls that the negotiations were hampered by major differences: The Communist-led National Democratic Front had its own definition of national sovereignty and were “not ready to accept non-violence as superior to war.” Moreover, both sides “failed to do their part.” He says there was a lack of goodwill, and “without goodwill there is no chance for peace.”

Main Hurdles

Going to the heart of the problem, the Dee cites the main hurdles, which included massive poverty and inequity; poor governance; flawed political systems; and marginalization of indigenous people. He stresses that the common denominator of all the problems was injustice in many forms -- economic, social, legal, cultural and distributive (land distribution).

Dee eloquently posits that peace is the fruit of justice (man must be given his due). And justice must be animated by love; thus, peace is the fruit of love. “There is no peace because there is no justice in our land; no love for our fellowmen.”

It’s no consolation that the failed pursuit of peace is global.  Dee points out that 100 million people have been killed in violent incidents in the past century and that the wealth of just eight families is more than that of 3.5 billion of the world’s population. He then proceeds to expose the flawed approach to the problem: “Peace is not in peace talks, not with governments, presidents, business, or advancements in science. Peace is in us; in the way we conduct our lives.”

Name the challenge, Howard Dee has faced it with resoluteness, faith and equanimity.

Howard Dee receiving Ramon Magsaysay Award from Vice President Leni Robredo

Howard Dee receiving Ramon Magsaysay Award from Vice President Leni Robredo

Five-Decade Career

In a career that has spanned five decades, Dee has found himself in the vortex of the most daunting challenges, from poverty eradication to social justice and indigenous people’s rights. His aspirations for peace, development and justice have driven his work.

Responding to a deep political and economic crisis that would lead to the declaration of martial law in 1972, Dee helped establish Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) in 1970, composed of business corporations. Member-companies committed to donate 2 percent of their profits to social development.

Deciding to devote himself wholly to the cause of social development, Dee founded Assisi Development Foundation (ADF) with Jesuit priest Francisco Araneta in 1975. In over four decades of work, ADF has implemented 4,123 projects that have served 10.5 million Filipinos. Working with the Catholic Church, ADF initiated Hapag-Asa, an integrated nutrition program that has fed 1.8 million children.

A severe crisis hit Mindanao in the years 1998-2002. People were being displaced by drought, famine, the armed conflict between Muslim separatists and the government, and the deportation of Filipinos from Sabah.  Dee responded by mobilizing a multisectoral task force, the Tabang Mindanao (“Help Mindanao”) program, which provided over 2,000,000 families with food relief, shelter, water systems, farm support and health and education assistance.

Dee at a Tabang Mindanao activity

Dee at a Tabang Mindanao activity

Deeply concerned about the plight of neglected and oppressed indigenous peoples, Dee and ADF took up their cause through legislative advocacy, scholarships, leadership training, and IP development programs, like the innovative Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People’s Education in Mindanao.

Recognizing his personal integrity and dedication to social service, five Philippine Presidenthave asked Dee 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). 

An Abiding Faith in the Almighty

Ambassador Dee is a prayerful man; he offers everything he does to God and credits Him with keeping him steadfast in his mission to lift the lives of his countrymen and overcoming the trials and difficulties confronting his advocacies.

Unrelenting in his quest to deliver justice to the marginalized, Dee has embarked on a program called Zero Extreme Poverty or ZEP. In partnership with civil society organizations, the government, the private sector and multilateral agencies, ZEP aims to reduce extreme poverty and inequality among millions of Filipinos by the year 2030.  By this time, the beneficiaries should transition from being abject poor to sustainable poor.

It is an audacious goal, but extreme challenges have never deterred Dee. His weapon is love, and he believes it has the power to achieve the improbable. The former ambassador to the Vatican recalls what Pope John Paul II called the “civilization of love.”

He tells the story of a 16-year-old indigenous girl who ended up with the rebels and was shot in the stomach during an encounter.  She passed out and woke up in the hospital beside a soldier who was donating blood to her. To him, this is an inspiring example of love for one’s fellowmen.

And he asks: “Do we love our fellow Filipinos? Do we, reallyIn his response upon receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award last August 31, Ambassador Dee  said: “Some of you have written me, and I detect a general sense of discouragement and even despair during these difficult times. This is my advice: Do not be discouraged. Do not despair. It is in the darkness that our lamps should be lit. It is in the darkness that we see the stars of heaven. The victory promised by our Blessed Mother at Fatima is near. Goodness and righteousness will triumph! Justice and peace will reign in our land.”

Manuel “EG” Hizon is a development specialist who is currently engaged as communications director for the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

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