30 July 2006

Bridging the ideal and the real

ON SECOND thought, the question was not unfortunate at all as it brings the OFW issue to the fore: Should not a high level of population growth be desirable since it enables us to have excess labor that will fill the needs of developed economies and in the process sustain the county's growth through their remittances?

Dr. Alejandro Herrin of the UP School of Economics dismissed the idea from a fellow economist, positing it against the question: Should sending OFWs who mostly do menial jobs in the developing world be a proper national goal?

This reminded me of a definition of "human security" advanced by one of the participants in the UP policy dialogue I attended last Tuesday, who said he is a veteran of the First Quarter Storm in the early '70s: It is only attained when the Philippines no longer has to send nurses and caregivers who will wipe the asses of their aging patients in the West.

On the one hand, these points are OK until we come to grips again with the harsh reality in the Philippines today: exporting labor has become a national policy because we cannot give our people enough decent jobs in local shores. And their combined remittances are what actually keeps our economy afloat amidst the massive waves of debt piled up by the succession of regimes starting with Marcos.

But on the other, Dr. Herrin's and the FQS veteran's position represent an ideal that we should not let slip away. The question asked of him implies perpetuating the status quo interminably, which is simply unacceptable. At the very least, we owe it to these OFWs to build a better country, or at least a better city or community, that they will return to when the time comes to go back home.

Our challenge is to become a sort of Will Allen Dromgoole's Bridge Builders in our own little way: able to bridge the ideal and the real in our respective nook and cranny of the Philippines.


Population, development and the conflicted individual

ON THE whole, it was a good idea that I managed to attend, even if partly, yesterday's Bicol Regional Symposium Population and Development at the Arrupe Convention Hall in Ateneo de Naga University in spite of our jarring trip to Manila and back, courtesy of the Camarines Sur section of Quirino (now Rolando Andaya) Highway.

The exchanges in the morning, limited as they were by time constraints, illustrate the conflicts Catholic Filipinos face in regard to family planning.

Anjo Llorin, formerly with Ateneo de Naga and now working with the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, asked if his working with FPOP is a sin, in the context of a provision in the Vatican II document prescribing that sons and daughters of the church may not undertake blameworthy methods of birth control. Bernadette Gumba, chair of the social science department of the Ateneo College of Arts and Sciences, highlighted the gender issue attending the debate, anchored on a woman's choice by virtue of her reproductive rights.

What I found extremely interesting is the fact that progressive elements of the Catholic Church, represented by Fr. John Carroll of the Ateneo de Manila University who was one of the panelists, agree with what experts have been saying: the country's rapid population growth has a negative impact on economic growth, more so among the poor. Dr. Alejandro Herrin of the UP School of Economics essentially said the same thing in his presentation, among other key messages. I also recalled Fr. Carroll went as far as agreeing that sex education should be discussed in schools, but not at the elementary level.

The problems starts with how this is reconciled with Church teachings at the operational level. Although I did not hear Fr. Peter Pojol's piece in the afternoon session, the way he responded to a query from the representative of the Population Commission Regional Office on the concept of informed choice made me very uneasy. Using killing and Internet pornography as analogies ("Do we now teach killing in the classroom?"), which to me did not make practical sense, it was the force of dogma being brought to bear on government efforts to precisely address our rapidly growing population. It is the same narrow perspective that has effectively killed an effort to educate public school students on the perils of increased sexual activity at an early age, which Solita Monsod railed about.

(Which led me to think, and this is not to disrespect Dr. Herrin who I found very authoritative and incisive on the subject, and straightforward too when called for, like the way he handled the unfortunate question on the OFW phenomenon of that Ateneo de Naga economist: Wouldn't Mareng Winnie have lent to a more balanced panel and a more colorful and engaging discussion that would have benefited the audience?)

What I am hopeful about is the presence of more reasoned voices like Fr. Carroll's, which need to reverberate more loudly both within the Church leadership and among its faithful. "Unfortunately, (the) Church has been more active in opposing contraception by political means than in forming consciences of its people or providing them with a choice. As a result, it is experiencing the worst of two worlds: it is blamed for the 'population problem,' and many of its people use methods not approved by it, including abortion."

And he probably is pointing us the way: through an involved Catholic Church focused on the education of couples; the strengthening of natural family planning (NFP, which the church-sanctioned alternative) at all levels; and openness to government assistance.


27 July 2006

Barangay planning, working with the academe: the need for a better way

IN THAT U.P. event the other day, two things struck me because they were were asked and I had to write them down (I usually don't; call it sloth or something, but it's just me:)).

One is the
unique potentials and possibilities that lie in truly and meaningfully integrating barangay development plans as key inputs in the city planning process. I have to admit this is not one of Naga's stronger suits (although barangay planning and budgeting was part and parcel of the GOLD technical assistance in the late '90s), and certainly it is not the exception here among Philippine cities. But then again it is a weakness we need to address.

The common practice of recycling annual barangay investment plans as the convenient substitute to a more forward-looking development plan surfaced in the exchanges. But I think we have to ask ourselves: Why do barangay officials do it? Is it because of the usual for-compliance mentality? Or is it something deeper—maybe a statement against the higher level government's continuing failure to recognize and integrate community priorities in the planning process? Even I missed this critical item in our ongoing process of updating local plans. I must admit this realization bowled me over, and resolved that we need to do something about this huge gap.

The other thing concerns how local authorities can make use of academic institutions in improving its governance processes. This brought to mind two entries on the subject by Dominique Cimafranca of Dumaguete, which can be found here and here.

My comment, reproduced below, essentially sums up what I think local governments need to do.

...On the point raised about the insularism between government and the local schools, there are institutional mechanisms through which this can be overcome. The City Development Council comes to mind, whose membership should at least be 25% NGO, and I'm sure that includes academia. My own personal experience with the City School Board shows it can be an excellent vehicle: we have expanded it to include the high school principals of Ateneo de Naga and University of Nueva Caceres. Their presence have raised the quality of discussion many times over.

Previously, I have had problems as to why Ateneo de Naga (where most of our local elected officials came from) doesn't seem willing to engage the city government. Now, I believe it is incumbent on the city government to take the lead and create opportunities for it to happen, as we are little by little doing. It also helps that a good number of our middle managers teach in these schools on the side. My personal journey will be complete when I become one of these teacher-practitioners...:)
For this reason, we shall be touching base with the Faculty of Architecture of the Camarines Sur Polytechnic College and the University of Nueva Caceres to bring them onboard in the ongoing land use planning process. And this should be the shape of things to come.


26 July 2006

As if the national government does not exist

OF COURSE it does, but the way national politics is being played out in Imperial Manila has made it more of a deadweight. We will be better off, I used to tell myself and some correspondents in Manolo Quezon's widely popular blog, if we assume that this administration that has been the source of our embarassment does not exist.

Yesterday, I said the same thing before an audience who braved the rains and attended the Policy Dialogue on Human Security and Governance at the UP Bahay Kalinaw. It was second in a series being organized by the UP Third World Studies Center, focusing on the topic "Access to Participation of Marginalized Sectors Under the Local Government Code of 1991."

I was there to discuss Naga's efforts to engage its constituents in governance, which is the core concept in the expanded view of human security. But when asked what I thought of President Arroyo's thrust to fasttrack the development of four "super regions" in the country as highlighted in her SONA, I said I am keeping my fingers crossed. While it might be probable that Ms. Arroyo will pull it off in a positive way, it is also highly probable that she will not.

But rather than pin our hopes on these, which may or may not come, Naga will be better off pursuing its own path to development, using its own local resources and IRA entitlements, leveraging its built reputation as an innovator, tapping alternative funding sources here and abroad, and most importantly, optimizing the capabilities of its people. Collectively, these strategies have brought what used to be a faceless, nondescript, landlocked city in South Luzon into what it is today.

And that
, to my mind, is what local autonomy is all about.


22 July 2006

Rebranding education reform: a liveblog

"IS THAT really Mayor Sonny Coscolluela speaking?" Mayor Diding Gamboa of Enrique B. Magalona town in Negros Occidental asked in jest, after hearing the former share his thoughts on the topic of "Branding our education reform—how can we be understood by the public?"

Mayor Sonny, who hails from Murcia town in the same province, is more popularly known among us for his "strong mayor" approach to improving the quality of basic education. But today, it was a "marketing man" Sonny who addressed us in the second and final day of Synergeia's strategic planning session here in Clark Field, Angeles, Pampanga.

And he made very cogent arguments: while our product is good, even exceptional, judging by measurable results made practically across the board, it is not being perceived well. Mayor Jesse Robredo, who spoke yesterday, made the same point: Notwithstanding Synergeia's rapid growth and growing influence as an organization, its member communities remain the exception, rather than the rule.

He ascribes the problem to the use of the phrase "local education reform," which presupposes that somebody—individuals and institutions alike—have committed mistakes in the past. And it is going to be difficult to sell these reforms to the very same entities who are supposed to be directly or indirectly responsible for the mess that the Philippine public school sector is in.

It was really interesting to see two mayors from radically different backgrounds and of contrasting management styles agree on the common need to rebrand what we are doing, and engage DepEd more vigorously and strategically, even to the point of letting it "own" what Synergeia began and built over the last four years. And it is equally exciting to give liveblogging a try, as the picture above shows. (Mayor Sonny is the guy in orange shirt.)

Well, there is always a first time. :)


20 July 2006

A light rail system for Naga?

INSPIRED by the work of Senen Ebio in Makati and Urbano dela Cruz in D.C., I tried my hand using Google Earth to think about one of the key questions asked towards building a livable and sustainable urban community.

How about a light rail transport system in Naga?

Overlaying Naga's urban base map (emailed to me by Bob Ursua as part of data gathering for some related top-secret urban livability project) on Google Earth, I came out with this: a 20-kilometer light rail system that will connect the fringes of CBD1, and link it with CBD2 and the proposed mixed-use property development along Almeda Highway. The loop then cuts through the existing residential areas in Concepcion Grande and Del Rosario; connect them to the new emerging bedroom of the city: Pacol (the fastest growing barangay in terms of population) where both low- and high-end housing projects are rising silently; and then turn back towards the city center alongside the existing Naga-Carolina Road.

Around 20% of the network will make use of existing PNR tracks, helping bring down the cost of civil and track works (assuming of course that the railroad tracks are compatible with light rail requirements). It should also be electricity-powered to ensure environment-friendliness, and protect operating costs from instabilities that will continue to attend petroleum prices.

The question is: Will such a system be economically viable within the next 10 years? A feasibility study will give us a definitive answer. Those who are interested about the kind of costs involved can check this.

A local LRT system can very well be a pipe dream. But then again, why not? :)


18 July 2006

What I would have Secretary Lapus say

YESTERDAY'S editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer refocuses the debate on the public education system as an "enterprise in crisis," resurrected by the recent appointment of Tarlac congressman Jesli Lapus as education secretary.

It pinned some hope on Lapus's avowed objective to generate more funds for the education sector out of the General Appropriations Act, as if more funding is enough to solve its problems. Of course, additional money will help, but it is only half of the solution: the other half lies on how it is actually put to good use.

What actually stands out from Secretary Lapus's three-point agenda is not what he said, but what he did not say. If funding is a problem, it will help if he trains his sight on the Special Education Fund (SEF) of the local government units, which is estimated to amount to more than P14 billion if fully collected, and that was around three years ago. As things stood at the time, only around 54% of the SEF was being collected, but at P7.8 billion, it is already four times bigger than the school building budget of the national government.

I am sure today's SEF is already significantly higher. For one, Naga's School Board budget this year, which started at P28 million in January, is expected to more than double due to rationalization of the city's comprehensive tax code. And whenever a local chief executive declares that the local government unit is strong, mainly because it is awash with cash parked in T-bills, you can be sure unspent SEF forms part of it.

Given this reality, what I would have Education Secretary-designate Jesli Lapus say is this:

"I will work with the financially capable, administratively able and willing city and provincial governments in progressively decentralizing public education to ensure the effective and efficient use of national and local education resources.

"Because at the end of the day, providing accessible quality basic education to all citizens is in the best interest of local communities. And public education is not only the obligation of the national government, but our shared responsibility with the local governments, the local business communities and grassroots-based stakeholders in our public schools."


14 July 2006

A new paradigm in urban planning

IN MY previous post, I pointed to a network of experts that the city can tap as we update our development and land use plans. I failed to mention somebody I consider a mentor in this undertaking: Washington, D.C.-based Filipino urban planning professional Benjie dela Peña, also known as Urbano dela Cruz. His blog can be found here.

His most recent post, which talks about a new paradigm in urban planning with Subic as context, is a must-read for those interested in building a more livable and sustainable Naga. Let me highlight what I believe is the most essential part:

In the new paradigm, it is connectivity by bits, access to the information as well as investments in human capital that is the edge. Creativity trumps low cost labor. Cities are pursuing creative industries—and attracting creative talentas part of the economic strategy. So rather than investing in industrial parks and ports, cities are investing in livable downtowns and arts districts and in broadband and fiber optics. Several cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco) are opening up citywide wifi access. Apart from asking "What will make it easier to do business here?" cities are asking, "How do we get young people to live and work here?" Instead of investing in industrial muscle, cities are looking for enriching intellectual capital.
The point he made is important for three reasons: one, it practically reaffirms the directions the city government has taken by sheer instinct, largely without the benefit of a local development plan that is supposed to provide long-term guidance; two, it outlines an alternative economic strategy that will fit Naga (with its lack of natural endowments) quite well; and three, it underscores what I believe is the essence of urban planning: the focus on people by proactively addressing their needs in an urban setting.

Naga may not have what it takes to be a Philadelphia or a San Francisco, and it does not have to. But it can be just as livable and sustainable in its own right. The key, I think, is for its citizens to come together and answer Benjie's questions for Subic, which can very well be our own:
  • What kind of city are we building?
  • Who will live here? Where will they live?
  • What will they do? Where will they work?
  • How will people travel to get to where they work?
  • Where will people go to buy their daily needs?
  • What kind of place will this be?
  • How do we attract the highly educated, 25-35 year olds (the cadre of the tech industry and breeding ground of entrepreneurs) to live, work and invest in Naga?
  • How do we make this a center of research?
  • How do we make Naga a showcase of sustainable urban development?


12 July 2006

Building strengths, tapping networks

THIS MORNING, I discussed with the Naga CPDO staff an accelerated timeline for the ongoing updating of local development and land use plans. I figure we will be able to save up to two months using this new timetable. Arch. Juan Villegas, Jr., CPDO chief, gave the green light for its implementation.

The revised sked in no way sacrifices quality as it builds on Naga's fundamental strength: its strong participatory tradition. A key strategy we have adopted is to work with existing local councils and special bodies in crafting local plans with a 9-year time horizon that will align with the Millennium Development Goals. Their inputs, as we have seen in two planning sessions held thus far, should improve the quality of our work many times over. The overall approach is described here.

More and more, I am finding out some fuzzy logic underpinning my return to the Naga CPDO. It is a logical extension of the coursework I did in Cambridge. The internal GIS capabilities of the city are being multiplied—boosted by the input of individuals who have a stake in Naga. Also, my recent LSJ 13 stint has linked me to Ford Foundation international fellows who have the expertise on the subject.

One of them is Qiuxia Ye from Danzhou City in China's Hainan Province, who is taking her graduate studies at UP and Dortmund University in Germany. Affectionately known as Susi, she is the third lady from left in our group picture in the previous post. It is, by the way, an offshoot of a joint Sino-Filipino-Tibetan cultural presentation we did, forged 15 minutes before the program began. Filipino sociologist Manny de Guzman (in white barong next to me) called it "a post-modern dragon dance"; it was to me a "police academy" presentation all over again.


09 July 2006

Time zones, jet lag and Emirates

UPDATE: Roger Federer did retain his Wimbledon crown and won his fourth straight, beating Rafael Nadal in a four-setter. And although my heart bleeds for Zinedine Zidane and the French side, Italy's victory via penalty shootout was consoling for one simple reason: I told my LSJ13 friends that whoever wears blue will win the World Cup. And the Azzuris did.:)

AS I WRITE this, I'm back in Naga and nursing through my jet lag. It would only be past 3 pm in the UK, and from the Wimbledon website, it appears Roger Federer is on his way to avenging his French Open defeat in the hands of six-time conqueror Rafael Nadal. My body's timeclock, having already adjusted to the British daylight saving time (which is seven hours early, eight when it is not DST), is keeping me very much awake.

Over breakfast last Tuesday, Rashida, our Indian IFP alumni facilitator, said it usually takes the human body a one-day rest to recover from every hour of time zone difference. Taking a one-week off would be great, I said, but I simply do not have the luxury to do that.

Anyhow, my return trip took a total of 28 hours from the time our Emirates Airbus A330 left Birmingham International Airport to the time our Philippine Airlines Boeing 737 touched down at the Naga Airport in Pili. Taking away a 2.5-hour layover in Dubai and another 9 hours in Manila, it meant spending a total of 16 hours airborne. The delay in Dubai was an ordeal caused mainly by Emirates' rapid expansion
that the current wing-shaped terminal building cannot cope up with, prompting the ongoing construction of a second one. Its network doubles every 4-5 years, putting it in the big leagues, and its profits soaring, seemingly unaffected by woes plaguing Western carriers.

But that ordeal soon faded into memory with the airline's cutting edge entertainment system onboard the Boeing 777 aircraft that features audio and video on demand even for the economy class; we did not have it in our Airbus flight. For most of the 8-hour journey between Dubai and Manila, I watched in succession Shadows in the Sun, Failure to Launch (missed the middle as I dozed off), The Pink Panther, a Juday-Piolo starrer with a truly forgettable title, and the TV sitcom Fraser. The food was equally top-flight though not really exceptional, and the crew pleasant and accommodating.

I am not certain how much of the Dubai state's backing would account for its tremendous performance, but now I know why Boeing and Emirates are dominating the competition: it's all about exceptional customer experience while airborne, which trumps terrible ground experience everytime.

NOTE: Two of the pictures I took during the LSJ Institute, which I will blog about later.


06 July 2006

World Cup '06 and advocacy campaigning

ONE EXHILARATING added treat of the ongoing LSJ Institute here in Birmingham is being caught in the climax of the 2006 World Cup taking place in Germany.

As I write this, Italy and France have advanced to the finals, the last two teams left standing from the original 32-team field. I've seen how both earned their place in the final showdown that takes place on Sunday, which is quite unfortunate as I will have been in Naga by then. But I am going home a newly converted football fan (more popularly known as "soccer" over there, owing to the popularity of American football itself).

Maybe it will, somewhere down the line, become a good subject for an advocacy campaign in the Philippines. Without the requisite height, I simply do not see Filipinos making it big in basketball, a national pastime for at least four decades now. In football, we might have a better chance.

On top of my passion for education governance reforms and Bikol development, promoting football is one area where new skills I learned in managing an advocacy campaign (facilitated by highly competent practising British TV and radio personalities) can be put to good use. And Naga can be a good place to start.:)


05 July 2006

From the center, on the ground

A SHORT 8-minute workshop yesterday captured the whole essence of what we have experienced over the last two days. It came on the heels of community visits to Sandwell, a metropolitan borough of six towns to the east of Birmingham, with a combined population of 300,000. The workshop sought to compare Monday's events in London ("the center") and our interactions with key local institutions in Sandwell ("the ground").

My writing pad contained the following points:

  • From the center: a consolidated perspective, focus on the "big picture," a wholesale approach to problems expressed in cold statistics, vs. narrower focus and retail approach on the ground.
  • The emphasis on working laterally with fellow central governments (obviously for the sake of efficiency) vs. smaller scale action featuring a diversity of local institutions (e.g. local authorities, NGOs, interest groups, professional guilds and individual citizens).
  • Bias towards big buzzwords (like social exclusion, social justice, the Millennium Development Goals) vs. gut issues that assume a human face (instead of the "cold statistic"), which allow ordinary people and communities to relate with them much better.

That exercise allowed me to step back, reflect and appreciate how these two worlds behave and operate. Bridging them, I think, is key to actualizing the governance reforms I envision for the public education sector in the Philippines.

UPDATE: Our "digital exclusion" should ease significantly over the next two days, as the activities lined up will take place here. There are substantially more, and infinitely better, PC units around.


04 July 2006

Sustainable mining?

WE SPENT the whole day yesterday in London, meeting with people who, as a colleague described, are "big guns." Indeed they are: one is a former leader of the Labour party (which has been in power here in the UK for close to a decade now under Tony Blair) during his time; another is a world-class academic who is a trustee of the Ford Foundation, among others; and yet another is a former ambassador and permanent representative of the US to the United Nations.

But the one I found most interesting, at least from where I stand, is a bland corporate guy named John Groom who seemed to be a square peg in a round hole during the panel discussion. Throughout his career, Dr. Groom has been heavily involved with the mining industry through his company as well as their international industry association, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

The sustainable development framework through which ICMM operates calls for a quadrilateral partnership between the mining industry, the government (local, regional and national), civil society (grassroots, local, national and international), and the local communities hosting mining operations. I found this interesting because the framework explicitly recognizes the important role of NGOs like the Ateneo de Naga University-based Institute for Environmental Conservation and Research (INECAR) and its own national and international network in the whole debate regarding the ongoing mining at Rapu-Rapu, Albay.

Now, this will rile the local governments in Albay who instinctively distrust NGOs, but the whole point of civil society participation in this ongoing debate is predicated on the relatively weak position of local communities in the whole power equation. The framework assumes these four groups of stakeholders to be working, engaging and interacting with each other on equal footing, but in reality they do not; most often, local communities are drowned out in the debate and end up holding an empty bag.

In the long run, better governance structures and practices will play a key role in balancing things out, but this will take time. With a national government never more distrusted in our history, and critical decisions being made in the dark corridors of power, a healthy skepticism towards those exercising it, as suggested by one of the panelists, is now critical more than ever.

NOTE: Three days later, there is still only one internet-enabled PC serving the needs of 60-plus IFP fellows. So I had to wake up at 4 am if only to make sure I will get unfettered access without anyone breathing down on my neck. If there is one huge pockmark to an otherwise pleasant experience, this certainly would be it.


02 July 2006

Blogging from Birmingham

OVER the next 7 days, I will try to blog whenever I can from Birmingham, UK where I am attending the 13th edition of the Leadership for Social Justice Institute, together with more than 60 other Ford Foundation international fellows.

Birmingham, according to Wikipedia, "is the largest of England's
core cities, and is generally considered to be the UK's second city. The city's reputation was forged as the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, a fact which led to Birmingham being known as 'the workshop of the world' or the 'city of a thousand trades'."

With only one PC terminal available here (as of the moment), I have to get this post done quick as there are other participants already waiting for their turn.:)