Sunny Sevilla: Choosing to be a man for others
By Aurea M. Teves
President, Peoples Development Institute
John “Sunny” P. Sevilla joined the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) midway through the Cory Aquino administration, fresh from Cornell University where he earned his bachelor’s degree on government and economics. He was the only foreign-schooled staff of the newly created Support Services Offices (SSO) of the DAR. I often wondered at the time why a young man with his training, a cum laude graduate from one of the top schools in the US, would opt to work in a low-paying government agency whose task was almost Herculean – to end the centuries-old agrarian problem in the country. Many others with a similar background would have immediately gone into the corporate world.
I was struck early on by his commitment and determination to contribute and share the knowledge he had acquired from school to the real-life problems created by the inadequate assistance from the government to landless farmers who have recently become small landowners. Among the SSO’s tasks was to inspect lands awarded to the landless under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). The SSO also identified and developed projects for the beneficiaries of CARP under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.
Sunny was designated as a DAR program officer. One of the most important things that he did as an agrarian reform officer was to stop attempts by some corrupt DAR officials who wanted to implement ghost projects to profit from the misuse of state funds. Sunny always asserted what he believed was right, a character trait he had displayed early on at DAR, which we would see throughout his career in the private sector and when he returned to government service. (We would see his intolerance for corruption many years later when he headed the Bureau of Customs, which is universally acknowledged as one of the most graft-ridden agencies in government.)
He worked at DAR until 1990. He then served as an intern at CARE International in Bangladesh and pursued a master’s degree on public affairs at Princeton University. After finishing his master’s program at Princeton, Sunny worked as Associate Director at Standard & Poor’s Ratings Group in New York, then as Assistant Director at Peregrine Fixed Income Ltd. Hong Kong / Jakarta, after which as Vice President at Salomon Smith Barney Hong Kong Ltd. and finally as Executive Director at Goldman Sachs (Asia) LLC Hong Kong.
Sunny kept in touch with some of the DAR-SSO staff who had since left the government, especially those who had formed the Peoples Development Institute (PDI), a nongovernment organization working for asset reform and rural development. PDI then was involved in the resettlement and rehabilitation of farmers and Aytas in Zambales displaced by the massive eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991.
A believer in education as a great social equalizer, Sunny helped PDI in its scholarship program for the children of families affected by the Pinatubo eruption. Knowing that fewer and fewer Filipino students get the opportunity to obtain higher education because of their families’ economic hardships, he raised funds on his own specifically for PDI’s college scholarship program. At least 20 students – children of farmers, Aytas and Igorots, and later of Tagbanua families in Palawan – benefitted from his personal support. All of them have graduated from college and have become productive citizens. Some serve in various government agencies, others work in private companies and several are NGO workers. His financial contributions not only helped transform the lives of these scholars, but more importantly their families and the communities they now serve.
He returned to government service in 2005, putting into good use his public affairs and financial background, first as a consultant and then as an undersecretary of the Department of Finance under the Arroyo and Aquino administrations. His last government job was as commissioner of the Bureau of Customs, from December 2013 to April 2015. It was at the BOC that Sunny battled corruption almost daily while helping raise government revenues. Then Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said that during Sunny’s brief service as customs chief, collections grew at least 21 percent as the agency took “great strides to thwart graft, technical and outright smuggling.”
After his 10-year stint in government, Sunny immersed himself in the field. He visited various communities in Central Luzon and Palawan, living and working with farmers and indigenous peoples (IPs), studying and looking for ways to support them. He was a gentle, humble, and caring friend and mentor to the poor in the countryside. He helped alleviate the hardships of Igorot farmers who practiced organic farming, including rice production, by providing them a financial grant – a booster shot for their advocacy, which he shared.
Being an expert in finance, Sunny developed a training module for non-accountants and held training sessions for cooperatives and people’s organizations engaged in agriculture, specifically the Tagbanuas of Palawan, the Aytas of Zambales and Bataan, and the Igorots of northern Nueva Ecija. According to the IPs trained by Sunny, his practical approach in teaching helped them for the first time to truly understand simple accounting principles. Understanding and implementing simple accounting help ordinary farmers and IPs watch over their small businesses and improve their entrepreneurial skills. The training on financial reporting is being monitored up to this day by Sunny, who would visit organizations in the rural areas to check on their progress.
Sunny could soon be helping develop a credit program for farmers, indigenous peoples, urban poor, workers, fisherfolks and women.
In an interview when he was still Finance undersecretary, Sunny summed up his decision to serve in government: “I have lived all over the world, but this is the only country I care for.”
In a subsequent interview as he ended his government service ten years later, he said: “Serving the people of this country has been the greatest honor of my life and that’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
There may be others with similar background as Sunny who had served the people in government and in their private capacities over the years. But only a few, like Sunny, have chosen to do so as “a man for others.”