Message at the 2019 Asian Association of Public Administration Annual Conference
Function Area, 2/F, Hotel Benilde Maison De La Salle, Arellano Ave., corner Estrada St., Manila

Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats. Thank you, Dr. Alex [Brillantes], for remembering my late husband. It is actually very timely because in fact, he would have celebrated—he would be celebrating his birthday on Monday. 

So before I proceed, let me first greet the officials who are with us today, of course headed by Dr. Alex Brillantes who is the President of AAPA; Mr. Robin Serrano, Vice President for Advancement, De La Salle-College of St. Benilde; Mr. George Binay, Dean of the School of Diplomacy and Governance; Dr. Gary Dionisio, Chairperson, School of Diplomacy and Governance; Dr. Lizan Perante-Calina, President of the Philippine Society for Public Administration; Dr. Maria Fe Mendoza, Dean of the UP NCPAG; the board members of the AAPA; our guests from the other—from our neighboring countries; members of the academe; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen; magandang umaga sa inyong lahat. 

It is an honor to be with you this morning. So thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on something extremely critical to our survival. The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda is a beautiful battlecry in our world of constant upheavals. It is my prayer that there will be a much stronger appreciation for what it aims to do. 

Our world today faces threats and opportunities on all fronts. So much so that the World Economic Forum opened its 2019 Global Risks Report with the riveting question and I quote: “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” In my opinion, the data that points to this possibility is compelling. In 2018, the world economy continued to slow down and financial markets were very volatile. Geo-political tensions kept on pitting global superpowers against each other. Extreme weather highlighted governments’ failure to create and enforce policies to save people. Then there’s technology, which can be a huge blessing or a tremendous risk.

Progress on at least nine Sustainable Development Goals could be directly affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and millions of Asia’s emergent middle class could slide back into poverty. But there are also massive opportunities posed by this innovation—by the innovations: drones and satellites are already used to deliver health and humanitarian supplies in rural areas. Data analytics are now guiding disaster relief efforts. Algorithms help predict disease outbreaks and help dissipate hate speech. 

All these are great news. How do we then move forward and harness the opportunities brought about by technology and innovation? How do we maximize resources to ensure that the sustainable development goals in the 2030 Agenda will be met? 

Unfortunately, despite mind-boggling advancements in science, technology, and other areas of human knowledge, we still have not solved the Herculean problem of global inequality. In my view, the largest challenge we face today is still the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It is causing massive unrest around the world. Worse, it has become a currency for some to gain power, and ploys used to manipulate the masses are anchored on bringing about widespread confusion on what is right and wrong. What do we do in these turbulent times?

Please allow me to share and mention some of the things that I believe we need to consider moving forward: First, based on our experiences working with the poorest communities on the ground, poverty is not a single phenomenon brought about by loosely connected causes. Rather, it stands at the center of a tight web of interrelated factors. If we are going to address poverty effectively, our approach must be comprehensive, holistic, and long-term. 

This is why since day one, the Office of the Vice President recognizes that the most important fight that requires our utmost commitment is the one that puts poverty front and center of all that we do. So, when I assumed office almost three years ago, my team and I immediately focused all our energies to find solutions to the crippling poverty that we saw in our midst.

Unfortunately, the Vice President’s Constitutionally designated mandate is merely succession. Our office neither has power nor authority to create and implement programs. In fact, we have one of the smallest budgets in the entire bureaucracy. 

We are not and have never been discouraged by this; we have always seen this as a wonderful opportunity. It is a chance for us to reinvent ourselves by contributing to the government’s anti-poverty efforts by ensuring that the reforms we put in place will endure beyond this administration. You see, it is the endurance of reform that I hope to bring to this country, so that the fruits of good governance are never beyond the reach of our people.

Our response to the challenge is an anti-poverty program we call Angat Buhay, which literally means “uplifting lives”. While we do not have funds to accomplish our development agenda, we have the trust of development partners who believe in what we stand for. With their help, we go to the farthest and poorest municipalities in our country, who have progressive, transparent, and accountable local government chief executives. Through much collaboration in the last three years, we have witnessed communities transform into more progressive and empowered ones. 

The perfect example is a place called Agutaya, a small group of island municipalities 375 kilometers south of Manila. Getting there is already a huge challenge. You have to take a 10 to 16-hour boat ride from the nearest jump-off point, which is Coron, one of the larger islands in the province of Palawan. When I first stepped foot in Agutaya in 2016, the locals greeted me with tears. I was told that it was the first time that a national government official was visiting them. There was no electricity, no access to potable water, no hospitals, and many children were stunted. Locals struggled to make both ends meet by harvesting and selling seaweeds. 

Thank you to our Angat Buhay partner, the Metrobank Foundation, we were able to construct water pumps in four public schools. We brought hygiene kits and vitamins for Kindergarten to Grade 3 students. Another partner, St. Theresa’s College Quezon City Alumni Association, gave boats for the fishermen whose own boats were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan years ago. We were able to provide solar panels through the help of other partners and solar kits from Team Energy, allowing more than 400 families to experience having light in their homes for the first time. 

We strove to provide a holistic approach, so our Angat Buhay partner, the Andres Soriano Foundation, provided health caravans and livelihood trainings. They also did water testing, so that a water system could be put up as soon as possible. Our other partner, Canvas PH, also donated books and National Bookstore Foundation provided school kits for our children. We saw with our own eyes that for each family we help, an entire community can break free from poverty.

Second: There is an urgent need to rethink how we govern. We have learned that good governance is meant to give people a life where they are not desperate for jobs, a life where children can eat well before they go to school, and a life where parents no longer have to worry about the future. When we focus on outcomes rather than on activities, we see powerful transformations in the way people live.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals is a brilliant concept, but there are hurdles on the ground that can derail our common aspirations. For instance, achieving a 15-year sustainable development agenda can be challenging in places where political term limits, for example, are only three terms and three years for each term—the way it is in the Philippines. We have to make sure interventions are institutionalized and sustained. That is best done when local leaders are enlightened enough to push projects that focus on the SDGs and when the people themselves have buy-in and ownership of these programs.

Jason Gonzales, the outgoing Mayor of Lambunao, Iloilo had a dream. He wanted to transform his town into a bustling economic center in their province. 

When he saw that the number of farmers in his town continued to decrease, he and his team decided to launch the Champion Farmers Program. Hoping to revive interest in local farming, they combined values formation with sustainable agriculture and reached out to small scale producers.  

Today, Lambunao has transformed itself from being a very poor community to a place where champion farmers’ produce are making their way to large supermarkets. Mayor Jason hopes that one day, Lambunao will become one of the largest vegetable suppliers in his province. 

Indeed, Mayor Jason’s story provides a glimmer of hope during these extraordinary times. When we allow new and young political leaders to challenge old systems and infuse it with their brand of good governance, we become partners for real, heartfelt change. 

You see, politics is never about gaining perks or receiving special treatment. It is about working with those on the ground to find the best solutions. It should empower, rather than foster patronage. It should sow seeds of cooperation, not hatred and division. It is about making the impossible, possible. 

We just concluded the mid-term elections a couple of weeks ago—no, last week. I believe you will all agree with me when I say that the success of any democratic process lies in its credibility. This is why every nation, here in Asia or in other parts of the world, must ensure the integrity of its electoral process. We remain hopeful and vigilant so that future elections will usher in genuine representation for our people. 

Most important of all, this mid-term elections provide an opportunity for us to understand why people vote the way they do and where we are as a nation. If we want to strengthen and defend our institutions, then we must understand the electorate’s dreams and even the nightmares that mar their hopes. When we do this, we ensure that those who have given their time and effort during the recent election season would have not labored in vain. 

In the coming years, we hope that more Filipinos will continue to speak, act, and engage as active citizens, even after elections. During these difficult times, we are called on to set aside political divides and work as one to build a world that is more peaceful, more empowered, and more sustainable. This is the only way towards a more just and sustainable future for all of us. [applause]

We have only 11 more years to achieve all 17 SDGs. There is much to be done. So may we all come back to our own countries, organizations, and advocacies more inspired and more empowered. And may we continue our conversations and collaborations so that we can do more and do things better. Thank you very much for having me and congratulations to the Asian Association of Public Administration for a successful conference!  Mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]