SPEECH OF VICE PRESIDENT LENI ROBREDO ON THE 2021 RAMON MAGSAYSAY AWARDS
Former President Fidel V. Ramos; Excellencies of the diplomatic corps; the members of the Magsaysay Family; Chairman Aurelio Montinola III and the members of the board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation; Ms Susan Afan, President of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation; the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees and the past awardees; my fellow workers in government; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat!
Over the course of its 63-year history, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation has had to cancel its annual ceremonies only thrice. First, during the 1970 financial crisis, and the next one in 1990, when a powerful earthquake shook the island of Luzon.
In those first two instances, the awards had to give way to pressing crises here in the Philippines. The third one was last year, which, as you all know, was a year of great disruption—not only in the country that the RMAF has called home since its inception, but across the entire globe.
Today, we gather not because the pandemic is over. Our presence in this virtual space is proof enough that uncertainties remain. Vaccines notwithstanding, we have seen how new variants of the COVID-19 virus can emerge, threatening our momentum towards normalcy. Hospitals are just now getting a breather after a year and a half of tremendous strain. Economies around the world have yet to recover. So many have lost their jobs or their entire savings; so many have lost loved ones; so many have died.
We resume this annual tradition not necessarily in triumph over a darkness that still lurks, but in recognition of the human spirit that cannot be dimmed despite that darkness—that persists despite adversity; that, in the face of suffering or desolation, does not turn away or shrink, but rather expands with courage and compassionate resolve.
We honor in these ceremonies four individuals and an organization that embody this spirit:
In 2001, Muhammad Amjad Saqib and a group of friends came together seeking to put in practice a concept one would consider radical, were it not based on the Islamic tradition of Mawakhat: The idea that if one has a loaf of bread, half of it rightfully belongs to a person who has none. Two years later, they opened Akhuwat, offering interest-free loans to the people of Pakistan. They have, to date, served three million families, and built a sense of trust and communal responsibility among their borrowers.
In Bangladesh, Dr. Firdausi Qadri dedicated her life to the laboratory—and her skills as a biochemist became instrumental in developing a more affordable oral cholera vaccine and a typhoid conjugate vaccine. In the years before the pandemic, she led a team that delivered vaccines to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, preventing what could have been a mass cholera outbreak in the largest refugee camp in the world.
Stephen Muncy, along with his colleagues at Community and Family Services International, has spent the past four decades working to help the most vulnerable among us: Those “uprooted by persecution, armed conflict, disasters, and other exceptionally difficult circumstances.” His humanitarian mission continues, building peace and providing assistance to refugees in some of the most challenging environments in Southeast Asia, including Marawi, where I myself stood witness to how the effects of war can linger long after the last rifle has been put away.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership has traditionally been given to individuals. WATCHDOC is the first organization to be granted the award in this field—and rightfully so. For the past decade, WATCHDOC has been shifting the media landscape in Indonesia through fearless, people-oriented, and digitally-resonant investigative journalism. At a time when narratives have become malleable, often to serve powerful interests, it takes leadership to dig for the truth and present it in a way that elevates public discourse.
Our final awardee's story is one that is very close to my heart. Roberto Ballon—Ka Dodoy to those who know him—is a fisherman whose efforts resuscitated the ailing seas in his province of Zamboanga Sibugay. When unsustainable practices led to dwindling catch, he pulled his community together to plant mangroves, achieving a delicate, compassionate balance in an ecosystem that has been a life source for generations of fisherfolk. Ka Dodoy then expanded his efforts to neighboring municipalities, planting hundreds of hectares of mangrove forests and improving the quality of life for many in the entire province.
When poverty strips people of their ability to take hold of their own destiny; when disease threatens those who have already lost so much to prejudice and inequality; when conflict tears people from their homes, their culture, their hope and memory; when silence and lies shrink the space for important stories to be told; when even the seas cry out for reprieve from the insatiable drive to extract and consume—we look to people such as the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay awardees and their fellows from across the decades as examples of how humanity ought to respond.
We look to them now, in the face of ongoing crises, and in anticipation of those yet to come. The world is still reeling from a pandemic that has exposed entrenched injustices in many of our systems. The pursuit of a better normal in its midst requires us to take stock—to ask ourselves whether the way we live, the way we see our fellow human beings, the way we dream, will yield the future that we want for coming generations. As the novelist Arundhati Roy said early in the pandemic: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.... We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”
And so we ask now: What is this future we are tasked to imagine? Examining the lives of our awardees, we find powerful clues. It is a future where, as the Mawakhat teaches, loaves of bread are treated not as leverage to move ahead of others, but as levers that can pull them up. Where the yields of human knowledge are not stockpiled to save only those who can afford it, but are shared with all. Where those who have lost their homes to war can not only expect shelter, but are welcomed and shown pathways to their dreams. Where the truth does not need to be dug up and sorted from the debris of disinformation, but is treated as the very baseline of communications. Where we see ourselves not as overseers free to exploit the resources of the planet, but as one nexus among many in an intricate and interdependent web of life.
It is a future where rights and freedom and fairness and dignity are upheld not only when convenient, but as a matter of human survival. A future where empathy is the default; where every child grows up valuing every other human being, knowing that to devalue another, to hurt another, means to hurt ourselves. This is the lesson of the pandemic: We need to build a future of true and radical solidarity.
Reflecting on these thoughts, I now ask: Is this not the future that governments should be dedicated to building? This future, where private individuals and organizations need not fill the gaps in the system with their compassion, because the system itself is compassionate. For too long, service has been treated as taglines at worst, and as acts of charity at best. When people are in dire need, it is supposed to be the structures of society that address these needs—and not some benevolent leader handing down projects and programs as a lord of the manor does to his servants.
Inclusiveness should not be a matter of charity. It is the very rationale of governance. And this revelation can only be put into practice if those who govern truly understand the meaning of solidarity—walking in the slippers of the people not for show but for real, feeling their despair, carrying their burdens as their own. Only then can the structures blurred by patronage be seen with moral clarity—and be reformed, reoriented, or even dismantled to give way to a society animated by radical solidarity.
Such change will not happen overnight, or in three to six months, or even the span of a single presidency. It might take lifetimes. But much like Ka Dodoy's mangrove forests, we need to start walking into the brackish waters, bending our backs, and planting, seedling by seedling, until the sea itself notices. This is what it takes to build a future.
Thank you. Again, congratulations to our awardees, and to the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation for their tireless efforts to recognize the greatness of the human spirit.