Hot on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha lashed the shores of the Philippines earlier this month, leaving 900 dead and 80,000 homeless. Extreme weather is becoming the norm. The World Bank-commissioned report, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided” found that scientists are unanimously predicting warming of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The social, economic, and environmental consequences will be devastating. Over the past 20 years, over half of South Asians – more than 750 million people – have been affected by natural disasters, with the loss of life estimated at more than 60,000, and damages above $45 billion.
|Photo from Aktionsbündnis gegen Aids through a Creative Commons license|
It was Christmas dinner two years ago, in 2010, among my gay friends. I just came back from an expat assignment in the US, and was greatly enjoying the uniquely Filipino way of celebrating the cheery season. Towards the end of that dinner, one of my close friends came up to me saying he wanted to speak with me in private.
The two of us went outside the restaurant, and in a dark corner of the parking lot he told me he wanted me to be among the first to know. Early that month, he had himself tested for HIV, and found out he was positive. I was so shocked that no words came out of my mouth, I remember just giving him the tightest hug I could, my mind blank, my heart racing, not knowing what to say or do next. He was my first close friend who came out to me as HIV-positive.
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You are walking inside a mall when suddenly you feel the call of nature. What do you do? You desperately look for signs pointing to the nearest toilet. But what if you are not in the mall? What if you are in an unfamiliar place, then what? Worse, what if you are on the road in a remote location?
Fortunately, there’s an app for this kind of emergency. The Imodium Toilet Tracker is a handy thing to have. With just one check on your smart phone, your problem is solved – a toilet is located for you and a crisis is averted. After finding a toilet however, the next thing you would be concerned about is the availability of toilet paper and/or running water.
"After four decades, peace is within reach. Let's grasp it with both hands and never let go," said Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, during the signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on October 15, 2012.
Weeks after that historic event, these words from the Malaysian Prime Minister continue to reverberate in my mind. For I grew up in Mindanao, right at Ground Zero of this decades-old tragic drama that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
I have been guided by a teacher even before I was born. My mother was a teacher.
As always after an intense ‘immersion’ in our programme work, I left the Philippines with my head buzzing. Here are some impressions, memories and ideas that don’t fit into a more structured blogpost:
Migration: One in 9 Filipinos are outside the country, constituting a major export sector (the government deliberately trains more nurses than the country needs, to encourage outmigration). On the way in from Qatar, I sat next to a Filipino gold miner, working for an Australian/Filipino company in Tanzania, 2 months on, 1 month off. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers – this country loves acronyms) even have their own immigration channels at the airport (see pic).
A while back, I wrote about some amazing Oxfam women I met in East Africa. Here’s another, this time from the Philippines.
Lan (real name Lilian, but Filipinos never use real names) is one of those quiet but effective (and very determined, and maybe not so quiet….) women that abound in development work. She was formerly our country director in the Philippines, but has now moved to head up a project on ASEAN (more on that below). She is also yet another Oxfam woman with a remarkable story. In 1988, as a 28 year old Communist Party activist in the Philippines civil war, her own Party denounced and arrested her on trumped-up charges of being involved in an intra-Party assassination. They held her for 6 months in the mountains, blindfolded and handcuffed in a cage. She and the other prisoners were tortured physically, mentally and emotionally. At least she avoided the fate of prisoners in other camps, who were forced to play ‘eeny meeny miny mo’, with the loser taken out, killed, and their blood smeared over the remaining prisoners.
For me, one of the most fruitful aspects of ‘field trips’ such as last week’s visit to see Oxfam’s work in the Philippines is the exchange it sets up in my head between the academic literature and debates I’ve been ploughing through in the UK, and the reality of our work on the ground. A good trip confirms, improves or adds to your thinking, and occasionally shows you that you have got it all wrong. This was particularly true on this occasion as our staff and partners in the Philippines are both real thinkers (one guy passed a long car ride by listening to a lecture on Hegel on his laptop ‘for fun’) and activists (more on that tomorrow). The quality of discussions in a Manila seminar on active citizenship and food justice was truly impressive – nuanced and open minded, with no sign of the dogmatic, fissiparous Left I saw on my last visit in 1998 (when I had to give the same lecture twice because different fractions refused to sit in the same room). First some (relatively minor) new insights from all these interactions:
Last week I visited Oxfam’s Philippines programme. Such trips follow a pretty standard format - our national staff and relevant partners with the moringa farmers whisk me through a series of site visits and conversations with farmers, civil society organizations, local government officials and anyone else who’ll talk to you. For a few days, I’m engrossed, wrestling on multiple levels, first to understand the intricacies of the projects, and then to try and get at the meta-questions: what are the strengths and weaknesses in our work? What could we be doing better? Is there a clear power analysis and theory of change? Discussions continue in vehicles to and from the visits, over dinner and (sometimes) in the bar, as everyone grapples with the incredibly difficult business of ‘doing development’. It’s intense and definitely the best bit of the job.
I went to Mindanao, one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden islands in the Philippines archipelago, and home to 23m of its 94m population. The focus was our livelihoods work (I hate the term, but can’t think of anything better to describe the complex ways poor people find to put food on the family table). Such work forms the backbone of many of Oxfam’s programmes. In Mindanao, we’re working with women farmers to introduce new crops or upgrade existing ones: