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Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Philippines: Imagine 30% of One Third

Howard Dee, founder of the Assisi Development Foundation, recently hosted David S. McKenzie on a visit to the Philippines. HOPE International Development Agency and Assisi have collaborated for decades on strategies to combat poverty and establish peace in the Philippines. Behind this institutional partnership are many long-standing friendships, prominent among them being the one between Howard and David.

Howard Dee is a quiet dynamo. A former ambassador to the Vatican, former advisor to the government on Indigenous Affairs, and recipient of many of the international peacebuilding community’s highest honours, he remains an elegantly humble presence. For example, when receiving the 2006 Aurora Aragon Quezon Peace Award, an event that saw his country’s luminaries gather to fete him, Dee said:

"My heart is filled with gratitude yet I feel no sense of triumph. I feel no pride of achievement in the face of so much injustice and widespread poverty that condemns so many of our people to a life of subhuman existence."

During their time together in February, Howard explained to David, in a typically transparent moment, how much it grieved him that one third of the Philippine population is under 12 years old, and a full 30% of these children are malnourished.

It is, naturally, a stunning statistic, and a surprising one at that—especially when the Philippines’ reputation as a ‘better-off’ developing nation is taken into account. The fact remains that many nations totter between security and dreadful instability, if they are not already failed states, and that this fearful margin is populated by young children—those who will succeed and those who will starve. The Philippines is no exception.

It takes intelligent policies to tackle systemic problems like war and poverty, and the people of Assisi certainly do not lack these. But it takes something else to get to the point of seeing the problem and demanding a solution. This is a quality that men like Howard Dee possess in abundance. It might be called an imaginative heart. When Howard talks about one third of the Philippines’ children, he is truly grieved because he is not engaging with a statistic, but rather his real knowledge of children, of their faces and hands and voices. Howard Dee is a man who can feel the presence of people, and this presence remains with him, informing his ethics, his interests, his sense of the way forward.

In order to address a problem as tremendous as malnourishment among children, we need to invest in the solutions that we know work. But perhaps to get to the point of being ready to make this investment, we need to exercise that quality that comes so naturally to men like Howard Dee. We need to simply see people, even when it pains us.

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