Rafael M. Salas: The Filipino who looked far into the future - Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc.

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Rafael M. Salas: The Filipino who looked far into the future

The world’s first-ever population program was created by a Filipino.

While the debate over Reproductive Health and family planning over the years have taken on different slants, narrowed down into sex, contraception, and abortion, many Filipinos today are unaware that a fellow Filipino started it all in the international arena.

Rafael M. Salas began a population management program that did not even mention sex, contraception, or abortion, but provided a broad perspective of people and development, and urged countries to adopt a population policy that centers on people and quality of life regardless of faiths and beliefs.

He continuously called for urgent government action among countries. “A population policy is a long-range strategic weapon,” he said in one of his messages in 1980. ”Its effects are felt not immediately but a generation hence. To be effective, it must be launched now.”

Salas headed the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), now known as the UN Population Fund with the same acronym, as its executive director from the time he established the organization in 1969 until his death on March 4, 1987 at age 59, when he was already a UN Undersecretary-General. He was best remembered for his trailblazing work, earning him the title “Mr. Population” from the international community.

Today’s leading experts on population management profess to Salas’ judiciousness, but express sadness over the polarization of the once encompassing program that he created and defined more than 40 years ago.

Cecile Joaquin-Yasay, former executive director of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) who worked with Salas in the UNFPA, said Salas defined the holistic program for the whole world that was accepted in all countries that profess to Christianity and Islam; even the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and “it was never only about family planning, abortion or contraception from the very beginning.”

“It was bigger than that because it encompassed health, gender equity, sexuality, and education -- concepts that are needed by every country in the world,” she said. “He created the program and nobody told him what to do. It was never dictated to him – not even the so-called West or the First World.”

Stirling Scruggs, an American colleague of Salas who served as UNFPA country director in the Philippines and was a Peace Corps volunteer, said “women get pregnant but don’t know how not to.” In his years as a volunteer in Isabela province, one image he could not forget was those of women who came in droves to beg visiting medical workers to have intra-uterine devices inserted into them to prevent more pregnancies.

National Scientist Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, the internationally known Filipino demographer and a noted expert who pioneered research on Philippines and Southeast Asian demography, said that scenes of poverty, lack of options, and misinformation are played over and over as the years passed, but the population program espoused by Rafael Salas was nowhere in sight.

Salas has said that the population question is the mother of all development questions that engage aspects of gender relations, ecological management, demographic patterns, cultural systems, political organization, religious beliefs, and economic performance.

He said, “The question of poverty, its eradication, and the allied questions of development and population are in the end questions of morality. We should not become so closely involved in consideration of the morality of specific means of family planning that we lose sight of the wider issue, which is not less than the physical, mental and moral well-being of two-thirds of mankind. The totality of the relationship between population and development is a concern I believe all Catholics and Christians can share.”

He asked countries to go beyond numbers. “Interest in population is not a concern with the figures on a chart or the curves of a graph alone, however important they may be, but is essentially an involvement with the future of humanity itself.”

Salas developed the UNFPA office in Manhattan, New York, from a small staff of five people and a budget of 2.5 million US dollars into one of the most stable UN agencies and the world’s largest multilateral provider of population assistance, reaching a budget of 142 million US dollars in 1985, long-term commitments of 1.4 billion US dollars, and funding for 4,800 projects in 149 countries and territories.

Born in Bago, Negros Occidental on August 7, 1928, Rafael Montinola Salas graduated with high honors from the University of the Philippines in 1950, completing his B.A. (magna cum laude) and LL.B (cum laude) in 1953. He obtained his Master in Public Administration from Harvard University in 1955. Upon graduation, he returned to UP where he occupied a variety of academic positions until 1966. He was married to Carmelita Rodriguez of Cebu City, who was Philippines Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, with whom he has two sons, Ernest and Raffy.

His exposure to the nuances of Philippines politics started as a youth campaign strategist for former President Ramon Magsaysay. He then went on to serve other Philippines President like Ferdinand Marcos. During his tenure as executive secretary to Marcos, Salas was able to solve the country’s annual rice production problem as action officer of the National Rice Sufficiency Program that in 1968, for the first time in its history, the Philippines had a rice surplus.

Assisting him were talented young people whom he inspired and recruited for public service and in the United Nations. They were known collectively as The Salas Boys: Leo Quisumbing, Jerry Flores, Victor Ramos, Fulgencio Factoran, Bibit Duavit, Horacio Morales, Frankie Llaguno, Ed Soliman, Jun Aguirre, Mat Defensor, Boni Alentajan, Joe Molano, Doming Cepeda, Jimmy Yambao, Hiro Ando, Lino Ilyera, Benjamin de Leon and Violeta Drilon. In the words of former President Fidel V. Ramos, one of the foremost advocate of the RH, population and development, and fellow UP high school classmate, “the Salas Boys were the best and the brightest”.

From 1962 to 1969, Salas was a member of various Philippines delegations to international conferences and the UN General Assembly. He headed the Philippines delegation to and was Vice-President of the International Conference on Human Rights, held in Teheran in April-May 1968 where he said, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."

Salas died on March 4, 1987 in Washington, DC from an apparent heart attack.

In his honor, the UNFPA has established the Rafael M. Salas Memorial Lecture series held annually at the UN Headquarters in New York that provides a forum to discuss population and development. Speakers have included the former World Bank president Robert McNamara; former prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; ecologist-filmaker Jacques Cousteau, and Philippines President Fidel V. Ramos.

The Commission on Population also established the biennial Rafael M. Salas Foundation in 1990, and the Rafael M. Salas Population and Development Award that honors individuals, institutions and local government units for their outstanding contributions to population and development.
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