Zuellig foundation’s heart beats for health
Unlike the organizations that catapulted to infamy a businesswoman and several lawmakers who allegedly pocketed public money by hiding behind bogus charity works, this foundation keeps its operations going by sourcing funds from its own coffers without much fanfare and boasting.
Except for its expertise in medicine distribution and its technologically advanced skyscraper in Makati City overlooking its more famous neighbor Ayala, the name Zuellig and its other persona as a foundation do not really ring a bell with a lot of people.
But lending credence to this almost two-decades-old foundation are names that have helped transform over the years leaders within and outside the government.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo, who has channeled all his diplomatic energy to the foundation at 77 years old, says, “[Dr. Stephen Zuellig] is low profile until he built this business. Very few people know he exists unless you are in the medical business… He’s very typically Swiss. He doesn’t want to be mayabang [arrogant] or anything.”
Romulo, who used to be chair of the holding company of the Zuellig Group, says he even had to pressure the philanthropist and businessman to attach the Zuellig name to the building the company owns along Sucat Road in Muntinlupa.
The Zuelligs came to Manila in the early 1990s when the family patriarch, Frederick E. Zuellig, was looking for possible business ventures outside Switzerland. Frederick came to love the Philippines. He raised his family here and then later built a successful trading business.
World War II brought down the firm, but Frederick’s sons, Dr. Stephen and Gilbert, eventually rebuilt the business and later shifted to healthcare that expanded across the Asia Pacific.
Having found its niche in healthcare and insurance, the company then decided to put up the Pharmaceutical Health and Family Foundation in 1997. It was renamed Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF) in 2008.
In a previous speech, Dr. Stephen’s son, David, said the name change also came at a time when “my father expressed his preference to address the health of the poor. This was timely because health indicators had plateaued and were unlikely to improve unless major interventions were initiated.” The foundation’s predecessor focused on the neighborhood poor, while the successor went on to help rural areas across the Philippines.
Romulo says Stephen came to him one day and asked him to lead the foundation. “Dr. Zuellig said, ‘All the companies I have are obviously engaged in corporate social responsibility. This is the family organization and we will fund it not out of corporate funds but out of our own money.’”
He managed to persuade Former Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao, whom he has worked with in the Ramos administration, to join ZFF as president. Romulo is chair.
Romulo says the Zuelligs fund the foundation with a “tidy sum” of P150 million a year to jumpstart rural healthcare.
And long before the noise brought on by the pork barrel scam, the foundation already made it a mantra not to beg for even a single centavo of public money. “We made it a policy that we will never blend Philippine government funds. We will never accept it,” he says.
This is the reason why the foundation, amid the uproar caused by the scam and its effect on nongovernment organizations and foundations with the same goals, is unaffected by the controversy. It remains silently working in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs), resolving a problem literally killing Filipino families.
Romulo says the foundation’s early success in bringing down both infant and mortality rates in its then 30 partner-municipalities caught the attention of the Department of Health (DOH).
“We have succeeded, in most instances, bringing down the maternal mortality rate to 52 [deaths per 100,000 live births]. And I think that’s why the DOH decided to talk to us. When we first told them about this, they kind of ignored us,” he says.
Prior to the entry of ZFF, project areas were suffering from a maternal mortality rate of more than 200 deaths per 100,000 live births. With DOH as its partner fixing all the infrastructure needs of the healthcare system, ZFF’s intervention has to date expanded to more than 600 municipalities across poor regions in the country.
So what does the foundation actually do?
Garilao says ZFF is not a grant-bearing institution that gives out medicines to the poor. Several times, lawmakers have tried reaching out to them asking for free medicines for their constituents.
“We offer them something else, we offer them capacity building programs and they say, ‘Ano ‘yun? [What’s that?],’” Garilao says.
With a laugh, Romulo chimes in and says, “How much is that? My children said never to use ‘capacity building’ on Instagram.”
But it’s a jargon that communities now appreciate and understand.
Simply, stakeholders from local communities, including mayors, get leadership and governance training to enable health workers to address the needs of families. Interventions come in the form of identifying pregnant women, providing them prenatal services and then seamlessly giving them access to provincial hospitals, among others.
ZFF calls it the “Health Change Model,” which means teaching local government officers understand their role in the whole process and making them responsive to the health inequalities.
Elsewhere in the process, DOH comes in to provide the necessary infrastructure and professional care.
To this day, Romulo and Garilao say they still hear about mothers and their children dying before they get proper hospital care. Based on data received by the foundation, 68 percent of the maternal deaths in 2014 happened in hospitals because the mothers, carried via makeshift cots by neighbors who had to walk along uneven roads, arrived too late.
Garilao says the serious inequities can be traced to the devolution or transfer of healthcare services in the hands of local governments. Back in the 1990s, mayors were unprepared for this new role and they did not have sufficient funds to address the needs of residents.
He says the second problem is that, “for a long time, the poor were not demanding health. It was OK for them to die.” While on the other hand, “mayors will say, ‘Well, healthcare is the role of doctors,’” he says.
“What is critical here is we introduce the whole issue of self-awareness, of leadership purpose—why are you a leader? Why is this your mission as a leader?” Garilao says.
It’s also not an easy job penetrating areas steeped in unhealthy cultural practices and deeply rooted in religious beliefs, but Garilao notes of the change in mindset.
“We’re not using doctrine anymore because of the pope, I think. We say, you look at it from the pastoral side of the issue. These are women dying very poor in far away areas, because they don’t have family planning knowledge and services,” he says.
Romulo says it also helped that the national government, amid a devolved setup, has beefed up its health budget to address the infrastructure needs of their local counterparts.
“Their budget is far more this year than it’s ever been. I would suggest, and I’m not one of those Aquino people wearing yellow all the time, that’s one of the achievements that the Aquino administration has done. I never thought I’d say that,” Romulo says with a laugh.
Moving forward, ZFF will still be there to help the communities in the next few years or so by realigning its strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals, new socio-economic benchmarks that replaced the Millennium Development Goals that lapsed in 2015. One of the goals is to bring its strategy to urban areas.
“Statistics really show that in the future, the poor in rural areas will keep moving to urban areas. So it has reached the point where I think we would also have to help in the urban areas. And we’re starting to do that,” Romulo says.
And while ZFF continues to shun financial assistance from the government, it recognizes the latter’s role in nation-building.
“My original concept was, do not deal with government at all because of the graft and corruption issues. Let’s just do it ourselves. But [Garilao] proved that the key to success was really what we are doing now. If you look at it, it’s also the training of future leaders,” says Romulo.
Back when “PPP” (public private partnership) was still an abstract term, ZFF was already initiating partnerships with government officials by making them “own” the health setup.
As a side note, Garilao says the active role of local governments has even helped officials win fresh bids for public offices.
“One of our aspirations when we started Zuellig Family Foundation was that we will become a model in public health systems, which will be picked up by the government or the leaders. And we’re fortunate the DOH early on picked this up. And we hope that we’ll continue, we can’t handle 1,500 municipalities ourselves. That’s impossible,” Romulo says.
And where are the Zuelligs in all these? They continue to keep a low profile amid constant reminders that the foundation needs to get all the publicity and support it can get.
“They go around, they visit and double-check what we’re doing. They go to the region. They go to the remote areas, the GIDA areas, which will be a continuing problem for us,” Garilao says.
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