Crown jewel of social workers

/ 05:04 AM February 18, 2019

My first cousin, Bituen Fonacier Pablo, comes from a line of distinguished servants: servants of the church and servants of the people. Her father, Santiago A. Fonacier, was a congressman, senator, UP regent and Obispo Maximo of the Aglipayan Church, a direct successor of Gregorio Aglipay, founder of the nationalist religious movement that broke away from Vatican rule. Her husband, Rizalino Pablo, was executive director of the National Economic Council, now the Neda (National Economic and Development Authority) while an uncle, Cornelio Balmaceda, served as secretary of commerce and industry under Presidents Elpidio Quirino and Diosdado Macapagal. Balmaceda was the key figure in securing the presence of the Asian Development Bank headquarters here in Manila.

Bituen, Ilocano word for “star,” is now 98 years old and still strong in mind and body. The legacy from the family continues among her children with two undersecretaries belonging to different departments. Lualhati “Lulu” Pablo served with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) from 1997 to 2010, while a younger brother, Mabini “EQ” Pablo, was undersecretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways from 1994 to 2003. Keep in mind that in our system of government, Cabinet secretaries come and go. It is the undersecretaries, mostly from the ranks of career civil servants, who provide the knowledge, experience and continuity that are necessary to keep the department running even in times of crisis or political shake-ups.


Last week my niece, Lulu, passed away after a valiant three-year struggle with cancer. Lulu was a phenomenal social worker, a career civil servant and a community advocate who remade social work in the Philippines.

Undersecretary Pablo, a graduate of the College of Social Work at the University of the Philippines, and a topnotcher of the first social work board exam, served under three Philippine presidents and five DSWD secretaries. She herself was acting secretary from 2005 to 2006. In the DSWD hierarchy, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries are drawn from different professions: psychology, economics, political science and medicine. Lulu brought with her the sheer weight of a lifetime of social work, education and experience and quickly found herself at the very heart and soul of the department’s operations. In 2009, the Professional Regulation Commission recognized her work and named her “Outstanding Professional in the Field of Social Work.”


Present at Lulu’s necrological services were department secretaries she had served: Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Esperanza Cabral, Lina Laygo, Dinky Soliman and Corazon Alma de Leon, testimony to the high esteem and respect in which she was held by the high and the mighty of the department.

Her younger brother, former DPWH undersecretary and Philippine Red Cross governor, Mabini “EQ” Pablo, spoke in tribute to the big sister who from the start took him under her wing.

“You fought for society’s most vulnerable in a country that has been mired in poverty for decades. You were expected to care for children and the elderly and the displaced and the victimized with budgets that were scandalously low by First World standards. You were expected to do so much with so little. And  people expected miracles. But that was the profession you chose and that was what your life was all about, an unfolding series of quiet little miracles.

“A friend on Facebook described her as ‘fierce and funny.’ I think the description is absolutely perfect. She was fierce about her commitment to children, especially those in conflict with the law, women, families, especially those in need, refugees and internally displaced people, disaster victims, the disabled, senior citizens.

“In her 13 years as DSWD undersecretary, she took up arms against poverty on a national scale and helped design and implement the two largest antipoverty programs the country has ever known: first, a community-driven development program known as ‘Kapit Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan, Comprehensive Integrated Delivery of Social Services,’ and second, the flagship conditional cash transfer program, known as the 4Ps, both of which she served as the national project director. Prior to these programs, she had already gained international renown as associate director of the Community and Family Services International, an international NGO seeking to uplift the psychosocial wellbeing and quality of life of Indochinese refugees at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan, and later, in other refugee camps in Southeast Asia.”

We should take a moment to remember people like Lualhati Fonacier Pablo. Their names do not trigger immediate recall or  attention but they have nevertheless, left lasting legacies that have reached farther and wider than they ever dreamed, simply because they toiled quietly and unceasingly in the war against poverty here and abroad.


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TAGS: Bituen Fonacier Pablo, Ramon Farolan, Reveille, Santiago A. Fonacier
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