People displaced by war, natural disasters, and extreme privation is one of the great tragedies of our time. It is an urgent challenge governments and international bodies must address; it must be faced as well on the ground with the victims of such displacement.
This is the lifework of one person and the organization he founded. STEVEN MUNCY, a sixty-four-year-old American, was raised in a humble family grounded in the principles of Christian love for others. In 1980, he enlisted in a Baptist journeyman social ministry program that brought him as a volunteer to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan, a transit center for Indochinese refugees of the just-ended Vietnam War. Seeing the dire lack of psychosocial services in the camp, he formed a non-governmental organization (NGO), Community Mental Health Services, to address this need with support from the Norwegian government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1989-1993, the NGO was also tasked by UNHCR to do similar work in the Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong.
Renamed Community and Family Services International (CFSI) in 1989, it defined itself as a humanitarian organization committed to “the lives, wellbeing and dignity of people uprooted by persecution, armed conflict, disasters, and other exceptionally difficult circumstances.” Based in the Philippines, it would soon serve for varying lengths of time in ten Asian countries, with its longest involvement in the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Over the years, CFSI has assisted refugees from forty-eight countries and territories. In the Philippines, it has provided relief to thousands of families in natural disasters. Today, it is responding to the humanitarian disaster of the Battle of Marawi in 2017. With the Australian government’s support, it is implementing the Marawi Recovery Project, aimed at providing livelihood and other assistance to some 40,000 persons. With the United Nations Children’s Fund, CFSI helped with the transition of some nine hundred former child soldiers, assisting their families to get them back to school and lead peaceful, productive lives. In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, CFSI helped hundreds of thousands by providing literacy and reproductive health training for women and girls and working with communities to build water and sanitation facilities. CFSI also initiated a program that has enabled more than three hundred individuals from the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia to get advanced university degrees in social work.
A major CFSI engagement is its role in the Reconstruction and Development Projects of the Mindanao Trust Fund (MTF), a multi-donor effort administered by World Bank to aid in the socioeconomic recovery of Mindanao, carried out in 2005-2021 in the context of negotiations for a comprehensive peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. As project manager, CFSI implemented a large portfolio of sub-projects, ranging from water systems and health centers to alternative education, reaching at least 727,000 beneficiaries in nineteen provinces. Part of its work was capacitating local partners, work critical to a new regional government coming out of a history of conflict. In this engagement, CFSI demonstrated most clearly the links of the various aspects of its mission, from relief and recovery to reconstruction and development, to the building of peace.
From a few workers in 1981, CFSI has a current staff of nearly four hundred in three countries. What it has achieved is the effort of many. Yet, it is also the creation of its founder and leader. STEVEN MUNCY has been on this mission for more than forty years, living outside his own country, working in a difficult environment, with no thought of material rewards for himself. Asked about his career, MUNCY self-effacingly said: “I am so grateful for the opportunities that have allowed me to help a little; grateful for the people who have been involved in this organization; grateful for the blessings I have received from the community.”
In electing STEVEN MUNCY to receive the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his unshakable belief in the goodness of man that inspires in others the desire to serve; his life-long dedication to humanitarian work, refugee assistance, and peace building; and his unstinting pursuit of dignity, peace, and harmony for people in exceptionally difficult circumstances in Asia.
Each year, Community and Family Services International (CFSI) formulates a Plan of Action reflecting the theme for the year. The theme for 2021 is “Exceed Expectations." Being named a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee during this, our 40th Anniversary Year, was a wonderful surprise, far exceeding even our wildest dreams. We still worry someone is going to pinch us and say wake up. Please don’t!
This award is for we, not just me. The rest of the ‘we’ is almost entirely Asian, younger, and far more attractive—which is good news for all! The existence of CFSI is a response to man’s inhumanity to humankind. And I do mean man, as it is rarely women who deliberately bring about such harm to others. Discrimination, violence, and persecution continue to force people to flee their countries, resulting in refugees in various parts of the world, including within Asia and from Asia. In addition, injustice, armed conflict, and disasters lead to lost lives, physical and psychological suffering, and persons displaced within their own countries, sheltering in forests, evacuation centers, transitory facilities, anywhere but where they truly want to be—home.
Most of the people served by CFSI have been forcibly displaced, some repeatedly, within their homelands or across national borders. Some have been denied citizenship, becoming stateless, in the land that has always been their home as well as the home of their ancestors.
While refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are resilient and have many strengths, let us be clear: forced displacement is harmful and painful. We believe such vicious assaults on the lives, well-being, and dignity of children, women, and men must come to an end, now. Although our roles may differ, we believe it is the responsibility of all to address human suffering wherever it is found, to protect our brothers and sisters from harm, and to promote respect for the universality of human rights. We also believe it is our collective responsibility to invest in disaster risk management and climate change adaptation to prevent forced displacement.
The people of CFSI come from diverse backgrounds, including different races, ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientations, experiences, and stations in life. We are, like you, part of the family that is humanity.
Numbering in the thousands over the past forty years, with most locally recruited, we have a common purpose—rebuilding lives. Specifically, protecting people from further harm; getting children into safe spaces and back into school; enabling crisis-affected communities to access basic services like food, water, shelter, and health care, including vaccinations. Rebuilding lives also means facilitating the resumption of livelihood activities and the development of new skills; the reconstruction of community infrastructure; fostering safe returns home; and promoting social justice. Our approach is needs-based, rights-oriented, empowering, and focused on solutions.
Our work has benefitted millions with operations in ten countries/territories over different periods of time. These include the Philippines, Myanmar, Viet Nam, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. In addition, outreach efforts to many more countries. Our current top priorities are expanding ongoing humanitarian activity in Myanmar and the Philippines.
The work is challenging and sometimes dangerous, but we are inspired by the resiliency, courage, and efforts of the affected populations. Think about the Vietnamese boat people who, thirty years after resettlement in other parts of the world, raised half a million dollars for Filipinos displaced by Super Typhoon Haiyan. Grateful for help given in their time of need, they gave back without waiting to be asked to help.
Think about Timor-Leste, the new country that emerged from the ashes of violence just two decades ago, now working with its much larger neighbor — Indonesia — to create a shared future for the youth of both countries. Or those in Myanmar helping to protect and assist communities affected by persecution, violence, and the pandemic. Think about the brave souls throughout Asia, both near and far, who have stood up — are standing up — for the rights, wellbeing, and dignity of others, risking their own futures, indeed their very lives. And those working to build a just and lasting peace in war-torn Mindanao, helping children learn that arms are for hugging.
What now for CFSI? We are firmly committed to working in partnership, over the long haul, with a range of stakeholders, especially affected communities and local actors, to provide humanitarian and development assistance, help build peace, prevent disasters, and promote social justice throughout Asia. This includes capacity strengthening efforts, where necessary or advantageous.
We ask for your help to do much more, better. Concretely, to strengthen local capacity, we want to see at least another 500 persons in Southeast Asia obtain a master’s degree in social work and at least ten with a doctoral degree in the same field by the end of 2027. The aim is to ensure highly competent and committed social workers are prepared to help lead humanitarian, development, and peace-building efforts in the future, helping to bring an end to forced displacement. Let us, together, enable more ordinary people to have extraordinary impact.
On a personal level, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for recognizing my efforts and, more importantly, those of CFSI. In so doing, you have encouraged us and called us higher. I would also like to thank— as well as hug — my family, loved ones, colleagues, friends, and supporters. None of what I have achieved in life would have been possible without you, each playing a unique role that, combined, made all the difference.
In addition to my dear colleagues at CFSI, I would like to thank the Members of our Board of Trustees, both present and past, for your many years of voluntary service, as well as your guidance and support. Lastly, my thanks to our partners — the communities, those who serve with us in the humanitarian and development arenas, and those who provide us with the funds required to carry out our work. Your acceptance and support have been, and remain, crucial. More so as we, encouraged by this Award, move forward, together, in rebuilding lives.
A parting thought. Many have asked what has kept me going in this work for more than 40 years and counting. Quite frankly, I believe every person is a holy place. Meaning, there is something of the Divine in each of us. This, my brothers and sisters, is the basis for my firm conviction that we are indeed members of the same family: humanity.