Weeks are quickly flowing into months – here’s a long-overdue update of my life and work here in the Philippines
1. Super typhoon Yolanda
Super typhoon Yolanda has, of course, been making headlines all around the world. Thankfully the Bicol region where I work was largely spared the brunt of its force – all we felt were strong wind and rain, and lost power for a day. Other parts of the Philippines were not so lucky.
Like always happens following these events, the heart wrenching stories in the media have been interspersed with criticism about disaster preparedness before the event and the immediate response afterwards.
While I don’t pretend to be across the detail of either the preparations and response, I feel that some of this criticism, especially levelled within a week of the event, is a little unfair considering it was the most powerful storm to ever hit land. A disaster of this scale would confound the best disaster preparedness and response systems – and at this time, criticisms about what “should have happened” aren’t going to get food and water to those in need.
2. Working together to prepare the Executive and Legislative Agenda
Our work in land use and disaster risk reduction planning has been sidelined these past few months as we have focused on the Executive and Legislative Agenda (ELA).
ELA is a short term action plan for the municipality that elected officials were required to prepare following the May elections. As a short term plan, it is more action-oriented than other strategic plans and in an ideal world, would allow long term strategies to merge with the short term election promises.
I was invited to work with the Planning and Development Coordinator, and the local representative of the Department of Interior and Local Government (national government department) to help scope and implement a process to prepare the ELA. This took shape in two full-day workshops with elected officials and department heads, followed by a collaborative effort to actually write the plan.
The later is among my work highlights to date because we were able to involve a group of five (ELA Technical Working Group) in documenting the ELA. Capacity building is a big focus of these volunteer assignments, but day-to-day pressures to get work done, busy staff and other barriers often make capacity development difficult. This means that many volunteers, including myself from time to time, find themselves “doing” more than they would like, and left wondering what will happen once they are removed from the organisation.
Not so this time – following the workshops, I prepared a simple workshop summary, which formed the basis of discussions with the Technical Working Group about the content, as well as structure of the ELA. We then talked about how we would convert the workshop outputs into a plan, and divided different sections between the group. After a week, we reconvened to share our draft outputs, which were then massaged by the Planning and Development Coordinator, and myself, to ensure consistent expression in the final plan.
I found the entire experience enjoyable and rewarding on a number of fronts – firstly, being involved in municipal-wide action planning provided an opportunity to see which aspects of long term plans (such as climate change related actions) are infiltrating to short term action planning; secondly, on a personal level, it provided a great opportunity to facilitate workshops with a large number of participants- something I have assisted in but never done alone; finally and most importantly, we were able to develop a process with multiple people actually writing the plan, which I think resulted in a higher quality output while also developing skills and confidence in plan writing.
3. Budget Blues
This optimism and positivity surrounding the process of developing the ELA has been, however, somewhat dampened by the process surrounding the 2014 budget. The ELA outlined indicative costings of all actions, along with an implementation schedule for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Although this is not the forum to explore these issues in detail, it seems that the 2014 budget will not contain specific “line budgeting” for the various projects and activities and instead contain a lump sum allocations for “Projects, Programs and Activities”. This, in turn, means that it is less likely that all the identified priority projects for 2014 will actually be implemented, because the lump sum can be used to fund just about anything.
4. Getting into the detail of the “Zoning Ordinance”
These past few weeks, my colleagues and I have been getting into the detail of the zoning ordinance. For me, this is among the more interesting aspects of our work here as we reflect on all the technical data, flooding and sea level rise mapping, comments from consultations and think about how we should change the development approval process in response.
We were pleased that six of our elected officials chose to attend a two day training around the preparation of a zoning ordinance, which followed a full day workshop that I ran with all elected officials. A highlight of the training was the exercise dances every morning!!
After the three days, the municipal planner commented that its rare to have such interest and engagement in the detail of a project like this. I couldn’t agree more – generating interest in the detail of zoning/development assessment policy is not an easy task anywhere in the world.
We’re hopeful that this early engagement in the detail of the zoning ordinance – and – of course, the complexity and ‘trade offs’ that are always made when developing hard and fast development approval guidelines – will help the elected officials later in the year when they must digest, consider, modify and (hopefully) approve the updated zoning ordinance.
5. Christmas is coming
Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines – the season officially starts on September 1 – and office decorations went up soon after. The shops are playing carols and everywhere you go there are little stores on the side of the roads selling tacky decorations and lights. Our workplace is considering directing some/most/all of the funds set aside for the Christmas party to the typhoon recovery which seems most appropriate – although I still hope we can find a way to celebrate.
Normally, I’m not into Christmas decorations and all that guff – but being in the Philippines, for some reason, I don’t find it at all offensive and am, in fact, embracing it! Below are a few pictures from our very Christmassy office, and home.
6. Saying goodbye to “Tiyo”
Last week we said goodbye to our co-volunteer David Hatherly who is affectionately known as “Tiyo” (uncle). David started his eight month assignment as the same time as myself and two others, and, with a love of bike riding and working in a nearby municipality, we developed a close friendship.
Highlights of our time together were numerous bike rides exploring this beautiful part of the world (most of the time not knowing where we were), hanging out with his fun loving and karaoke singing work-colleagues, and the odd late night red-wine induced discussions about development in the Philippines, the meaning of life and politics with other Australian volunteers.
We were all sad to see David go – but I guess this is all part of living in another part of world… meeting great people, enjoying some time together, and letting them go.
7. Terrific Tagaytay
Finally, earlier in the month, I enjoyed a few days’ break in Tagaytay, famous for its cool temperatures and spectacular scenery. The main attraction is Lake Taal, where there is a volcano inside a lake, which itself is inside a volcano. The town of tagaytay is set up on the ridge of the bigger volcano. Anyway, I’ll let a few pictures do the talking.