Last month, the Salvadoran NGO Agape was awarded the Social Entrepreneurship Award 2009 for Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The prize, presented by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, recognizes Agape's contribution to improving the lives of thousands of poor Salvadorans as well as its leadership and innovation in applying a successful business model.
It was a few days before Christmas 1977 and life at the parish of the Holy Trinity in the Western Salvadoran city of Sonsonate was extremely busy. With only two priests to handle the increasing number of baptisms and confessions typical of the Christmas period there was not a moment free to relax. Father Flavian Mucci – one of the two priests – knew that Christmas was also a lonely period for a priest, especially for one whose family is thousands of miles away.
He had received various dinner invitations but did not want to spend Christmas Eve with just one family. He wanted something bigger, with more people. So he went out and invited every homeless person he saw for a Christmas dinner at the parish. He spoke to quite a few of them, but never imagined that almost 300 people would join him the following day.
“That day I learned the true meaning of happiness”, says Father Mucci, an American Franciscan priest who first arrived in El Salvador in 1968. “Not that I was not happy before, but this was a different type of happiness, one more profound and meaningful. It was a happiness based on giving.”
More than thirty years later, what started as a simple dinner has become one of the most prominent and efficient social enterprises in El Salvador. Agape – a Greek word meaning unconditional love – is now present across the country with 47 social, productive, educational and spiritual programmes that benefit over 50,000 people in vulnerable situations.
The programmes include a home for elderly, a university for students from low-income families, a communal restaurant, several clinics, a TV station and a publishing house, among others. One of its most recent initiatives has been a training centre in the eastern city of Usulután where unemployed workers can take a number of courses, from computer training to cooking lessons.
But perhaps what sets Agape apart from other enterprises is the combination of a strong social commitment with sound business practices. “If new tables are needed for the restaurant or the university, they are manufactured at one of our carpentry workshops. If an elderly person falls ill, a doctor from one of the clinics is there to help. All of our projects are interconnected”, says Father Mucci.
Agape’s method of organization has also received praise both inside and outside El Salvador and has been emulated by many organizations aiming to reach its level of success and compromise. “Each programme is run by an expert on his or her field of expertise. They have complete autonomy to take the decisions they see fit. Decentralization and trust are key for us”, says Father Mucci. And he adds: “Every cent that comes in or is spent is accounted for.”
It is no coincidence that Agape has received several ISO 9000 certifications, including one for its administrative management processes. Last month Agape also reached another milestone in its long and impressive history when it was awarded the Social Entrepreneurship Award 2009 for Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
“By combining social commitment with business innovation, a social entrepreneur plays a crucial role in the promotion of decent work and social inclusion – two key goals of the ILO in these critical times the world and the region are facing. This prize recognizes Agape’s contribution to what we believe is the right way forward”, said Virigilio Levaggi, head of the ILO’s Office for Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
“I always repeat the same thing: I’m a priest, not a businessman”, says Father Mucci. “This prize was possible thanks to the support and hard work of the people that constitute Agape. It is their love and commitment that make this project possible, not me.”
The prize – which received more than 30 applications – will allow Father Mucci and his foundation to come in to contact with world’s top social entrepreneurs and take part in next year’s regional meeting of the World Economic Forum in Cartagena, Colombia.
El Salvador has come a long way since the civil war ended in 1992 leaving approximately 75,000 people dead or disappeared. This year’s presidential election marked the first democratic transition in two decades between governments from opposite sides of the political spectrum. El Salvador has also been taking important steps in the consolidation of social rights and social dialogue. One example is the launch of the Movement for the Unity of El Salvador Unions, signed by the country’s main union groups under the technical advice of the ILO. Local unions have also agreed to join the Social and Economic Council recently created by the government which also includes the participation of employer groups and members of the civil society.
But Father Mucci has been in this business long enough to know that even the most beautiful silver lining can be threatened by an ominous cloud. The global economic crisis has hit hard in the region and El Salvador – one of the poorest countries in Latin America – is no exception. “Every day we see people coming in asking for a job. This morning a lawyer with many degrees under his belt was here saying he was willing to do any work. All he asked for was to receive a minimum wage, which is little over 170 US dollars a month”, explains Father Mucci.
To make matters worse, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the region, linked to the proliferation of street gangs or “maras” which dabble in drug trafficking, extortion and guns. According to Father Mucci, this in turn has to do with high poverty levels and the lack of decent jobs and a bright future for the majority of the country’s youth.
“The maras used to concentrate on businesses, bus companies in particular. Now they are extorting anybody and everybody. For many of the gangsters it is the only way they know to make a living. That’s why it is very important to put children through school, to train them and to create the jobs necessary to help them realize they have the right and option of a better future”, says Father Mucci.
He knows there is only so much Agape can do to improve the situation in El Salvador. In a country with over fifty percent of its 7 million inhabitants living under the poverty line, reaching 50,000 people may not sound like much. He could do a lot more if more funds were available. “We have the will, the discipline, the know-how and the people to do it. We know we can do it”, he says. The proof that they can is in that Christmas night more than thirty years ago and in everything they have accomplished ever since with that same passion and spirit.