MANILA’S poor live in tiny shacks of scrap wood and rusting tin on mud. Even those
not in squatters’ settlements are in tiny houses of one or two rooms One home was no more than a few weathered boards between the branches of a tree.
Like their counterparts in other countries Manila’s poor left the land where they were often exploited and headed to the city looking for a better life only to be disappointed. In the poorest areas morality is low, sometimes non-existent. It is  not unusual for a youth to have seen several murders before he has reached maturity.
The Philippines has been a troubled country since the 19th Century when it began to strive for independence. Most recently the country has suffered from a stifling dictatorship.
It  was against this background that the People’s Power revolution came about in 1986. After the dust of the uprising settled the effects of the years of dictatorship remained. One figure tells the story: 70 per cent of Filipinos live below the poverty line.
At my lodgings in Manila, a small apartment building in San Juan, one of the oldest areas of the city, there was an armed guard in blue stationed at the entrance. His presence was a reminder of the desperate poverty all around.
Confronted with this suffering many Christians assume the only choice is between doing what Mother Teresa of Calcutta does—going out into the streets and ministering directly to the poor themselves—or giving to those who do. But even Mother Teresa recognises charity is only a temporary cure. Another response to the problem actively promoted by the Church is the way of social justice based on Christian social principles. It is a way that seeks to avoid the extremes of exaggerated profit capitalism on one hand and totalitarian systems on the other.
It was this alternative, the challenge proposed by the Church’s social teaching, which a small band of Filipino university students had taken up long before the 1986 revolution. When they came together in the mid I 960s, they were aware that although the Philippines was a predominantly Catholic country, it had paid little heed to the Church’s social teachings. They were young men, without social, political or economic influence; all they had was their education and their youth. Two members of that initial group were Dr Bernardo Villegas and Dr Jesus Estanislao, both economics graduates from Harvard.
“We wanted to create a social service which would be both professional and secular and which would answer the most pressing social needs,” Jess said. “It had to be educational, apostolic and open to everyone because we wanted to reach out to as many people as possible.”
The group set out to show that corporations could be socially responsible. But one of the first hurdles was the fact that the government was going one way and business was wading in another. While the government spoke of social and economic programs, it had very little communication with private enterprise. On the other hand business was only interested in making profits, not in social and economic development.
“We wanted to have a center which would research these things and communicate to both government and private enterprise,” Jess said.
The result was the Center for Research and Communication, which opened in 1967 at rented premises at 1607 Jorge Bocobo, Malate-a far cry from the centre’s latest home, a modern building at Pearl Drive in Manila’s  Ortigas Commercial Complex, with its modern seminar, rooms, lecture halls and offices. Soon after its birth, the CRC  gained a reputation as a dependable business training center offering courses in economics and as a think tank giving economic forecasts. (The center’s economic forecasts came to be resented by the government which did not appreciate an independent body highlighting the ailing country’s poor economic performance). The CRC trained businessmen to run their businesses on sound economic principles. And then it urged them to try to identify areas where they could help Combat poverty—to respond to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”. For instance, it asked each company to find out the real incomes of its own workers, the money they had available to give their families food and shelter; if the employers did not have the figures the CRC supplied  them.
Bernie explained: “What we have always said to the different firms is: ‘This is what your employees get and this is what they need to live as human beings’. Then we have gone one step further. Take rural development for example. If a client is operating a sugar mill we tell him he must make sure he is helping to develop the community, by putting up schools, hospitals, and so on. There is a common belief around that capitalism is without any conscience. That is what we have been seeking to disprove. We are trying to make business aware of everything that the Church has said about wages, about labour unions, work, cooperatives and all the social problems that a third world country like the Philippines has. We have found that those businesses we have been able to reach are ready to listen once they understand the problems and that they can do something about them.”
Businesses which came to the CRC for economic advice soon began to respond. Some began to expand into rural areas to contribute to rural development; others established foundations for the training of technical workers or farmers; some produced high quality products which helped the poor economise. Meanwhile the CRC pressed for land reform, encouraging large landholders to divide up their lands into parcels for small farmers.
“The message we have always tried to put across,” said Jess, “is that in business before we start looking into the distance, into the future, we must remember the poor are with us, that they are our drivers, our janitors, our clerks, our farmers. We have insisted that corporate executives must take care of these people first, give them an opportunity for further education, treat them very well, provide for their necessities in terms of their cultural, spiritual, professional, educational development; to take care of their material adv too, within the resources of the company. Those  who have looked into it closely have found this approach works both ways. When corporations take good care of people a close affinity is established between the corporation and its employees. The corporate operations become viewed as a joint venture between the lower level people the owners and top management. As a result, productivity increases.”
The social doctrine of the Catholic Church has always rejected the notion that the solution to economic ills lies in ideologies such as socialism, capitalism or liberation theology. What the CRC was doing was based on three basic pillars. First, the principle of subsidiarity, which says what can be done competently and efficiently by individuals or by small groups should not be absorbed by larger bodies, least of all by the State. (This is the approach which has become popularly known as the “small is beautiful” approach. It requires that all workers should be part owners in the great work bench of production.) Second, the principle of solidarity, which says that individuals and private groups and associations should always work in unity and Cooperation. The third principle is that each individual and group in the community should try to work for the common good. This does not mean seeking the greatest good for the greatest number, but rather the total good of each and every member of society.
“This is where CRC’s distinctive competence comes in,” Bernie said. “There are other institutions like CRC doing economic business research but I  think we stand out for the emphasis on the principles of subsidiarity  solidarity and the common good. We are making it very clear to businessmen that there is no invisible hand, notwithstanding what Adam  Smith said, that automatically promotes the common good if you encourage individuals to be selfish. That is the biggest lie in economic history. Each individual must consciously and actively contribute to the common good through each decision they make.”
All of this might seem attractive idealism but not really practical in a world where businesses strive to extract as much profit from their workers as possible to survive. In fact the opposite is true. Companies which exploit workers and make big profits in the short term are sowing the seeds of their own demise. The CRC has been able to convince enough hard-headed businessmen of this fact of life to attract widespread support. A tour of the building on a busy day reveals packed lectures, seminars and conferences. Every six months briefings are given at the Manila hotel to hundreds of businessmen.
Even though the people at the CRC are united in promoting basic principles, they sometimes have different views about how these can be put into practice. The centre stresses that the economic opinions of its staff are their own responsibility. For example, though Jess and Bernie have worked together for many years they have different views on how to tackle the Philippines’ economic problems in several areas. Bernie believes “agribusiness” is the key to the future. Jess emphasises rehabilitating industry and Preparing for a new phase of industrialization.  They also have different opinions about tariff protection. Each respects the others opinion but they have agreed to disagree.