A Discussion with Jose Luis Clemente, Executive Director, Socio-Pastoral Institute
December 2, 2009
Background: The context for this discussion was preparation for a consultation on faith and development in Asia held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 14-15, 2009. The consultation is an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation. The event aimed to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was a telephone discussion between Jose Luis Clemente and Michael Bodakowski. In this interview Mr. Clemente focuses on the importance of faith in development, as a foundational force, and on the power of faith to harness interfaith cooperation around common goals. He speaks about the challenges of working in the Filipino context, and the role of the Catholic Church (in all its diverse complexity) in reaching out to the poor. His observations about the role and significance of evangelization are worth special note. He focuses on the power structure within the Philippines as a central challenge to inclusive development.
Can you tell me about your experience and inspiration throughout your career and how you arrived at your present position doing development work in the Philippines?
I began my career with a local secular organization, which allowed me to travel the Philippines and see the various development initiatives being done at the local level. I became involved with Socio-Pastoral Institute in 1995 when I was hired as a film maker. I worked in that capacity for quite a long time until I slowly became more involved in development work and social dialogue of the institutional church. I now find myself working in a faith-inspired organization on development projects, using spirituality as the core of my work.
What about your experience in media and film? What inspiration did you draw from it?
I worked for two NGO media organizations in the Philippines covering peoples’ development initiatives that are “off the radar” of main stream media outlets. Though my work, I found that the problem with information in most countries is that main stream media sets the agenda. A lot of the activities that are happening in marginalized communities do not make it to the public eye, yet they are very important for the development of the country. So that was basically what I was working on: covering initiatives for people to better their lives and participate in the democratic process, and we endeavored to bring these stories to the public sphere.
Can you give us a brief overview of the work that you are doing now with Socio-Pastoral Institute, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Filipino context?
We are working on the one hand with the institutional church (the Catholic Church in the Philippines), and on the other with Muslims in Mindanao. With regards to our work with the Catholic Church, we accompany local churches and parishes in their journey to become the Church of the Poor. The Philippine Church, in accordance with the Plenary Council of the Philippines II, has at its core the vision that we become a community of disciples, a Church of the Poor. Unfortunately a lot of the local churches do not translate this lofty vision into reality. Socio-Pastoral helps them to focus their programs towards the new, emerging historical model of the church: the Church of the Poor, one that is geared towards preferential love and the option for people living in the margins of society. We have a program that promotes spirituality of stewardship, which we use as a springboard to shape and influence the local churches and communities to adopt this new model of church that is at the service of the poor and oppressed.
With regards to our work with Muslims, we find that genuine spirituality is in the heart of all transformative development and peace work. We have always believed that human liberation and development is at the heart of all faith inspired work. We therefore promote development for peace, using spirituality and the common ground found between faiths as a basis for collaboration.
What this really means in programmatic terms is that we have 1) community organizing for community development, and 2) interfaith dialogue, not only to develop fellowship among the religious leaders but also to challenge them to address issues (housing, governance, etc) faced by the impoverished communities. We also have a formation-education program, which is the engine for the development of new community leaders to who will take the initiative on community development projects. Our projects, therefore, embrace the dimensions of the spiritual, economic, political, and the social.
More specifically, how does your Catholic identity affect and shape your relationship with Muslim organizations?
We are working with Muslims that have been marginalized for hundreds of years, and we have to break through that history of animosity and bloodshed between the two faiths. That is a major challenge we have to hurdle. Our Muslim partners and the communities have to realize that we are not there to convert them or that we are there to further a political purpose, but rather that we are there to help in the empowerment of their own communities so that they may embark on development work for themselves.
Do you see any contradiction, coming from a Christian perspective, to train leaders to lead through and by inspiration from their Muslim beliefs?
There is no problem, because the main mission of the church is evangelization, and evangelization has many dimensions. The dimension that everyone knows is overt preaching of the gospel, while few realize that promoting human liberation and development are integral and essential aspects of evangelization. In an interfaith setting, we can share our social beliefs and faith, and they are also free to share their beliefs about Islam. That is important but also key is that we work together to address the pressing socio-economic-political and spiritual issues that besiege the depressed communities.
How has faith inspired your work?
It has affected me deeply. What I can share is that my view of development work had always been programmatic. Now it is more mission focused. It has become more of a way of life and not limited to just work. So today, the development work I do is now a key aspect of what I consider as a life that is in harmony with the spirit.
What is your experience working with International NGOs?
We have very good relations with other NGOs. The thing is that, we are all working to promote fullness of life for all and I think international NGOs, whether secular or faith-inspired, are all working towards that same goal. We therefore do not have any difficulties in finding common ground, and are appreciative of each other’s work.
How do you see the main challenges facing the Philippines today? What do you see as the role of NGOs in Philippine society going into the future? Does religion play a growing role?
We have so many problems in the Philippines. A lot has to do with governance, and a lot with the structural adjustment plans that were forced onto the government in order to get loans by the World Bank and the IMF.
As far as governance is concerned, the ruling elite that has controlled politics in the Philippines for several hundred years, fears public participation. Most of the political and economic agenda is decided without even the knowledge of people. The only participation in the political process that most people have is during elections. Socio-Pastoral Institute is trying to address these issues at the local level, entering into partnerships with communities and engaging them on governance issues; working with them to make their voices heard and claim their rights.
The other thing is with regards to the Phillippines’ massive debt; development is almost impossible because of this. For every one peso the government is able to raise, about 60 centavos or a large amount of the money goes to the servicing of the debt. Very little money is left for infrastructure, health, or social services.
I think most players in civil society have come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to effect genuine change at the national level because the institutions are corrupt and the whole system is under the control of a few families. Small NGOs do not feel they have the resources and influence to be able to do much on that level.
The Church has a long history of standing up against corrupt government in the Philippines, not only in the Marcos era, but also in different administrations. I think the church plays a very important role in that it can be a political witness. It can stand up to evil when it sees evil especially in the halls of power.
Is the Church in some respects a neutral actor?
It is difficult to give one characterization of the Church because the Church is not frozen, a homogeneous entity. It is made of different elements that are constantly evolving. On the extreme right you will find religious leaders who side with the rich and the oligarchs, but on the other hand we also have Church leaders who denounce corruption and the evils of corporations, the excesses of capitalism, and the failures of democracy in our society.
You recently attended a conference in London. Can you speak about your experience there?
It was a meeting of various development agencies who wanted to share their concrete experiences about faith and development. We were at first quite intimidated, having only very limited experience in a certain urban poor setting so finding ourselves in the international and scholarly environment of Cambridge was quite dizzying. We learned, however, that there really is something we can share with other international agencies. A lot of development organizations we met who are involved in faith and development are not doing enough to engage and explore the dynamics between spirituality and development. A lot of what we heard was more about using faith to ensure the objectives of the project, rather than harnessing faith as a foundational force for development. So honestly, I was a little disappointed.
Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor that should be given ample consideration, especially in Asia. What, from your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?
For example, the first thought that comes to mind is that whenever the development agenda and the development discourse is brought come up, religious leaders are often absent from the table. I think they are an important resource and must be consulted in the shaping of that agenda. I think that this is a huge oversight and a problem. You always find economists, social scientists and politicians around the table, but you do not find religious leaders. This is because in the public mind and in the mind of the power elite, faith has nothing to do with development; faith is all about one’s pie in heaven.
Where do you see the Philippines in the next 20 years? What do you envision as the role for Socio-Pastoral Institute?
It is a very dark time in our history because of how the present administration is putting warlords in power in the Mindanao. They have a mutually beneficial relationship: warlords ensure votes for the present administration and in turn the administration allows the warlords free reign in their fiefdoms. The trend now is to build powerful elites that can dictate its will over the people and the democratic institutions. They are not beholden to the rule of law, they abhor checks and balances; they are focused on consolidating their own power.
Given this, most civil society actors are disillusioned with our democratic social institutions. Though we have the trappings and the facades of democratic institutions, from the perspective of the poor, they do not really function. Our democracy is under the control of corporations and a few families.
I think our Institution will continue to achieve small victories in the provinces and the Catholic Church will continue to chip away at corruption in the government, but I don’t see how all these small efforts can really transform the institutions of the state. What we need are social movements that will act as the wind behind the sails of genuine change. So in the long-term, we should shape all the little works of civil society towards the building of social movements, because in those lie our ultimate deliverance.