IT HAD been a few years since I last sat down for a chat with the accounting and business guru Washington SyCip, whose biography (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper, published in 2009) I had been privileged to write, so I was only too happy to oblige when our mutual friend Marlu Balmaceda asked if I could spend some time last week to shoot the breeze with Wash.
Both Wash and I had aged a bit since we started working on his book back in 2006—I more so than he, who last month turned 93. Having just gotten my senior card in January, I’ve been feeling entitled to some relaxation, but Wash SyCip was right at his desk in his old 14th floor office where I last saw him, working away, surrounded by a growing menagerie of owls, turtles, and roosters, the gifts of friends. On the wall was a Chinese painting of a dignitary, perhaps the Emperor himself, seeking the counsel of a wizened turtle. Wash caught me looking at it and told me what the turtle’s sage advice was: “Take it easy.”
As cool and dapper as he is, Wash makes it look like he’s taken it easy all his life, but I know for a fact—having chronicled that life—that it just isn’t so. No slouch could’ve put up and sustained what became the regional accounting giant SGV.
But this time, Wash wasn’t talking about himself, but about a new program for education that he and a friend began three years ago, called the Zero Dropout Education Scheme, which seeks to put and keep poor Filipino kids in school. “The country’s biggest problem remains poverty and the wide gap between the rich and the poor,” Wash says. “For me, education is key to alleviating poverty, but ironically, the poorer you are, the more children you have, so half go to school and half don’t. Those who don’t will stay illiterate, and will be resigned to poverty all their lives.”
Seeing that illiteracy still afflicted millions of Filipinos, Wash resolved to do something about it and committed US$1 million of his own money to a fund aimed at the problem. Helping him along was his friend, the Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist Paul Kazarian, who pledged to match Wash’s contribution dollar for dollar. But even with that funding, Wash was modest and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t do the job by himself. “I don’t really know the poor, and how best to reach them,” he admits. “So I got in touch with CARD-MRI, which has been a leader in Philippine microfinance, to help us out.” Radiowealth Finance Corporation has also geared its CSR program toward the Zero Dropout scheme, and committed to provide P30 million.
The Center for Agriculture and Development-Mutually Reinforcing Institutions or CARD-MRI goes all the way back to 1986 when Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip and 14 other rural development practitioners got together to set up CARD specifically to help empower women in poor communities. In 2008, it received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. “With over 1,400 units all over the country, CARD had a network in place we could tap for our program,” Wash says.
Initially available to CARD members, the Zero Dropout scheme offers small renewable loans ranging from P1,500 to P3,000, at a monthly interest rate of 1 percent. “Basic education may be free,” Wash acknowledges. “But families still need money for school supplies, slippers, clothes, and other expenses. That’s where we come in. We’d like to provide not just the money, but an easy way of getting it, with as little red tape as possible.”
As of March this year, the program had supported over 46,000 students through loans totaling over P160 million, out of which P130 million in principal and P6.5 million in interest has already been paid back. They expect to hit 100,000 beneficiaries by year’s end.
While most beneficiaries come from Region IV-A (the Calabarzon area), the program has expanded to the ARMM in Mindanao, where the dropout rates are the highest. Typical beneficiaries include Lucena native Lilia Fernandez, a mother of nine who works as a manicurist alongside her husband, a construction worker; her son Erick dreams of becoming an engineer.
Unlike the government’s conditional cash transfer program, which gives cash direct to poor beneficiaries, Zero Dropout is a loan program. “They repay the loan through microfinance, by increasing their income with a loan for a store, a tricycle, and so on,” adds Wash.
If you think poor borrowers can’t or won’t repay their loans, think again. CARD has made a name for itself making sure its system works, basically because it’s led by people from the very grassroots it serves. Wash tells this story: “I had CARD’s management people over for dinner at my house once, and discovered that none of them were from Makati or Manila. They were all from the rural areas, and they were mostly women, very bright women. I was very impressed with their dedication. CARD knows its clientele. It works with groups of 20 women who guarantee each other. I’ve attended meetings with these groups and I can see that our poor communities are full of people with initiative and drive.”
I came away most impressed by an incident that Wash related: “When Yolanda hit, 8,000 students under the program were affected in Leyte and other places. My first reaction was to cancel their loans, as the least we could do to help. But Dr. Alip said, Wash, no—the poor are more honest than the rich. And as reconstruction took off, the loans also began to be repaid, even if the borrowers had lost their homes.” If that’s not inspiring—in the context of billions lost to crooks and scammers—I don’t know what is.