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    The Filipino in the Face of Adversity

    Message at the Rotary Club of Makati Luncheon Meeting

    The Conservatory, The Peninsula Manila Hotel, Makati City

    Thank you! [applause] Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.

    Mr. Junjun Dayrit, our outgoing President; former DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] Undersecretary Tito Panlilio; past Rotary International Director Paeng Hechanova; Mr. Eddie Galvez, Assistant Corporate Secretary; Mr. Louie Aseoche, incoming Director; members of the Rotary Club of Makati and the visiting Rotarians present; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen, magandang tanghali po sa inyong lahat. It is both an honor and a privilege to address you this afternoon. And I may have said this before to some of you, that my late father was a charter member and a past president of the Rotary Club of Naga East. I can still remember how active he was during our growing up years until the year he passed away in 2013. My siblings and I practically grew up with the Rotary. His dedication as a Rotarian was so infectious, that the first thing he did right after I first introduced him to my then future husband, was to recruit him. So I became a Rotary Ann as well.

    Over the years, the Rotary Club has become a seedbed for genuine, servant leaders who grow and empower others. And the spirit of camaraderie, generosity, and fidelity to civic duty that runs deep in the heart of every Rotarian is something that we must all celebrate, especially during these times, when anger, apathy, and divisiveness have taken over our national narrative.

    Nowadays, governments across the globe face much bigger problems amid higher expectations. There is a constant search for more innovative solutions to address complex human issues such as poverty, hunger, racism, and gender inequality. It is a good thing that globalization and technology have blurred borders—making it easier for people to travel, communicate, and exchange ideas. But the recent trend, it appears, is that modern states have given birth to leaders who have turned to strongmen politics and populist rhetoric to maintain support and legitimacy. Experts have pointed out that this is because the large swathe of poor populations across the globe are tired and frustrated with promises of prosperity, which always seem out of reach, even as they see on television and social media how the rich are getting richer—and more powerful.

    When we toppled a dictator in 1986, a sense of hope swept across our nation. We had another opportunity to change our leaders and fix our institutions. But more than thirty years after, we still find ourselves in a quandary. Why does our nation still seem to be broken? Why don’t things seem to work, including airports and traffic and broadband? Our country has become one of the fastest growing economies in the region, but growth still has not reached many parts of the country due to years and years of uneven development and perhaps, neglect. Recently, we have seen how prices have spiked and the peso value has plunged. Some of our businesses may be affected, but look around us. The poor suffer so much more. And some of us see this as a sign that democracy has failed our nation. That is why today’s gathering is very important. We know in our hearts and in our minds that hope is not lost at all. But if we are to create a strong nation, then we must examine the kind of leaders we nurture: from corporate leaders to public servants, from the smallest unit of the government to the highest. All this introspection has to do with the values that we still hold on to. What principles are we willing to fight for? How can the Rotary Club of Makati truly serve as a vehicle for effective nation building, much more than before?

    Your organization is already a prime example of how private individuals can do a lot of good, because of your great sense of civic duty. But how can the Rotary—and other similar organizations out there—help teach our citizens to engage government in a real way, by not choosing to be on the safe side all the time, but truly demanding for accountability and pushing for change? After all, we know that governance is not just about the government alone; it is about how government and its people engage with one another. If the government and its citizenry forever exist in silos, we will keep getting the leaders we deserve.

    Nowadays, much is being said about the massive change our country needs and is still waiting for. Out of desperation, many have clung to self-proclaimed saviors who have promised the swiftest, if not the most brazen, of solutions. We do not look down on that frustration. I, too, believe that those with power and privilege should have done more to improve lives. Like push for more inclusivity, rather than keep wealth in the hands of a few. Like create businesses that empower others to prosper, too. The answer to all our problems lies not in the hands of one person or group. The promise of change is best fulfilled if each and every Filipino does his or her part. Effective leadership is never about one man’s ability to wield power. It is about political will, yes, but never about brute force or aggressive behavior. At its very core, leadership is about sharing that power so that others may also prosper.

    Leadership is about inspiring others to become better citizens. It is about making sure that there are systems in place that will require public officials to be good. It is providing platforms that will allow people to directly engage their government without fear of backlash or retribution, or harassment. There is a failure of leadership when citizens start speaking in hushed whispers out of fear and not out of respect.

    This was something I learned from the kind of leader my late husband, Jesse, was. He institutionalized people’s participation in the decision-making process of Naga City’s local government, made all transactions transparent, and set up mechanisms to make public officials accountable. He walked his talk. He was elected as Mayor for six terms, never succumbing to the temptation of having a family member take his place to perpetuate power. He understood that serving in government is not a means to obtain power for personal gain nor entitlement, but an opportunity to serve especially those who have very little in life.

    Now, more than ever, we need leaders who will inspire others not just to follow, but to lead as well. Leaders who will set aside their personal agenda, and effectively engage and start working with our people. We need to create a community where each one is given the opportunity to lead and grow. Because in the end, the fate of our country lies not in the hands of a strong leader, but in the collective courage and action of our people. But for all these to flourish, we all must create an environment where ordinary Filipinos can speak freely, engage the government without fear, and expect results from such engagement. This is not the government’s job alone; the responsibility lies in all of us.

    At that time that Jesse was Mayor of Naga, I was just quietly supporting him on the side, keeping house and fulfilling my duties as a mother, while at the same time involved in an NGO called SALIGAN—SALIGAN is short for Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal, ang haba, ano—where I was a human rights lawyer defending the marginalized and disenfranchised. For days and weeks, we would travel to remote communities in the Bicol region and sit down with various sectors: farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, rural women, and children. We would listen to their stories and discover how some of our laws have become instruments of injustice. We would give them paralegal trainings and translate laws into the local language with the belief that with this knowledge, they will be in a better position to fight for their rights. Work was tough. It tested our values and principles. It challenged our resolve. But that was where I found myself. I realized that it was not enough that I knew the law. I learned how to listen with empathy, believe in the people’s abilities, and allow them to stand on their own two feet. Real empowerment happens when those we help are able to help themselves and empower others as well. This is the driving philosophy behind the work that we do at the Office of the Vice President. Perhaps not many, or many of you know this, but our office has one of the smallest budgets in the bureaucracy and by law, we have a very limited mandate. This is why previous occupants of this office used the resources from their Cabinet posts to effect change where they can. So, when we assumed office almost two years ago, I told my staff that we cannot stand idle for the rest of our term just doing ceremonial functions. We needed to find innovative ways of doing more with what little resources we have.

    This is why, in October of 2016, we launched an anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay – where we positioned ourselves as a bridge between communities needing help and organizations wanting to help. Through collaboration and partnerships, we responded to the most urgent of needs of the pamilya na nasa laylayan ng lipunan, in ways that can be sustainable and scalable, rather than cosmetic one-time, big-time assistance. Hoping to address the largely untapped wellspring of Filipino skill and talent, we also launched Angat Kabuhayan the following year. We worked towards revitalizing the jobs sector by creating more livelihood opportunities for the poor. Since we launched Angat Buhay, we have already mobilized more than 214 million pesos worth of programs, partnered with more than 250 organizations – reaching out to a total of 132,018 families across the country. We have also partnered with – sabi ni Eddie [Galvez] kanina 50, pero we started with 50 – now we are in 176 local government units across the country, and every week, we set aside two to three days to visit them. On Thursday and on Friday, I will be going to Zamboanga and Basilan.

    In fact, just last Friday, ito lang pong nakaraang Biyernes, we were back in Agutaya in Northern Palawan. Agutaya is one of the poorest towns in the province of Palawan and since November of 2016, our office has been helping them out through our Angat Buhay program.

    Going there can be quite a challenge. To reach its shores, you can take an eight-hour boat ride from Coron going to Cuyo first. If you’re familiar with Amanpulo, Amanpulo is in Cuyo, so the boat rides from Coron is to Cuyo, and it takes eight hours by boat. Take another five-hour boat ride from Cuyo to Barangay Algeciras, where we went last Friday.

    Other available options are to take an Air Juan flight from Puerto Princesa to Cuyo – bago ito, dati wala—which is not available everyday; I think it’s three times a week—then another five-hour boat to Algeciras, or take a 12- to 16-hour boat ride from Iloilo to Cuyo. Ang tanong ko nga doon, bakit 12 to 16 hours? Sabi ng mga residents: “Depende po size ng barko, saka sa size ng alon.” So ganoon po siya kalayo.

    Through the generosity of our partner, Metrobank Foundation, we turned over last Friday a donation of 495,000 pesos which will be used to construct water pumps in four public schools and buy hygiene kits and vitamins for Kindergarten to Grade 3 pupils to prevent further stunting. Halos lahat po ng bata doon stunted. We have already an existing feeding program but this is in addition to that. Just last Sunday—nauna na akong umalis but my staff, my team was still there—we have also turned over motorized boats from the St. Theresa’s College Alumni Association—this is the second set already. Hindi ko po alam kung may galing St. Theresa’s dito. Solar kits to electrify 165 households in Barangay Algeciras are also expected to arrive today. Hindi ko na hinintay kasi pupunta ako sa inyo.

    I can still remember the first time I set foot in Agutaya in 2016. Ito po singit lang: when we arrived, the Mayor, the Barangay Captain, and almost all the people were crying—and we didn’t understand why. Later on, we found out that those were tears of joy. Because apparently, they are not visited often and they said they were just so happy that they have not yet been forgotten by government. While walking around, we were told that there was no electricity on the island and residents did not have access to potable water. They had to buy from neighboring islands. There were no hospitals in the entire town, and the only elementary school in Barangay Diit where we went, which was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda, was still in a state of disrepair. Again, many children were stunted, and most of the locals struggled to make both ends meet.

    Our team has returned to Agutaya many times already since then. During succeeding visits, we were accompanied by representatives from our partners, like ASA Philippines—alam yata ito ni Eddie, ASA Philippines, sila Dodo—ASA Philippines who installed 120 solar panels in Barangay Diit, and Team Energy who installed 149 solar panels in Barangay Maracañao and Barangay Matarawis, lighting up around 400 households in the area.

    Another Angat Buhay partner, the Andres Soriano Foundation, who was with us from the very first visit, had health caravans, livelihood trainings, and water testing so that a Water System Level II could be put up as soon as possible. Our partners Children’s Hour and Canvass PH also donated books and school kits for the children.

    In this age of Facebook, artificial intelligence, and cyber connectivity—the story of Agutaya is a painful reminder of how many Filipinos have been left behind in our quest for progress. But it is also a beautiful reminder, that we can accomplish so much more if we put our hearts and our hands together. The same is true when it comes to our office’s engagements in Marawi, since our visit there in March of 2017. When we met with a group of women weavers who made landap – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Marawi landap; it’s a little different from the other textiles of the Muslim Mindanao. Iyong sa Marawi, mas colorful siya, mas silky. It’s a traditional textile known for its vibrant and colorful designs. Our partners promised to help them sustain their enterprise by linking them to bigger markets.

    But a little more than two months after our visit—no, it should be less than two months after our visit—the Marawi siege took place. As barks of bullets rent the air, our women weavers escaped the city and evacuated to nearby towns. Like many residents of Marawi, they were able to bring only their clothes, leaving everything behind – including their source of livelihood.

    Rose Acampong—may picture ba si Rose, ayan si Rose—a single mother and dressmaker from Marawi was out for a quick trip to the market when ISIS-inspired militants attacked her hometown. In the blink of an eye, her whole life changed. She and her four children walked frantically and aimlessly for hours amid the fighting, until finally finding refuge in nearby Saguiaran—Saguiaran is the next town to Marawi. Until now, Rose and the other women weavers of Marawi that our office constantly consults with, they still tremble uncontrollably when they remember the horrors of the siege. But Rose looks up sometimes from her tears and told my staff recently, and I quote: “Ngayon, kahit papaano, unti-unti na kaming bumabangon.” Pero until now, they’re still in a covered court in Saguiaran. Wala pa po silang lilipatan.

    Rebuilding Marawi will take many years and the combined efforts of both the government and the private sector. The city has been physically decimated by guns and mortars, but more so by the trauma that wars bring.

    Thankfully, even war could not shatter the Filipino spirit, more so our sense of bayanihan. Time and again, we have seen how the darkest of times have brought out the best in our people.

    Through the generosity of our partners, we are building 60 of the 100 transitory housing units committed in Barangay Sagongsongan in Marawi.

    Kukuwentuhan ko lang kayo ng kaunti where the fund for this came from. I don’t know if you have heard of the Piso Para Kay Leni campaign. I needed to deposit 7.5 million pesos with the Supreme Court and we could not come up with the amount. A group of women, siguro ang iba nandito, started raising funds to help me out. And they were able to raise more than P7.5 million. But we could not accept it because as Vice President, I am prohibited from accepting personal donations. So this group of women, the Piso Para Kay Leni group, made a motion for intervention in our case before the Supreme Court, asking the Supreme Court if they will be allowed to receive the P7.5 million which was intended to help me out, but the motion was denied.

    And you know, the stories of these women were really very beautiful and sometimes, heartbreaking. Marami raw iyong mga nag-contribute ng mga 50 pesos and 100 pesos lang, mga drivers na naghuhulog ever week. So, we did not want to discourage these people from helping out, we suggested to the Piso Para Kay Leni group if we could convert that fund into an Angat Buhay village in Marawi instead. We committed 100 houses by July of this year pero dahil sa panahon, 60 pa lang iyong matatapos. But we will be turning over 60 houses already and hopefully, before the end of the year makumpleto na iyong 100 houses.

    The one-hectare Angat Buhay village will be the transitory home of affected families as they wait for their permanent houses, which were heavily damaged during the siege, to be rebuilt. Aside from roofs over their heads, basic utilities, livelihood opportunities, good access roads and vegetable gardens for food security are also provided to give the beneficiaries a semblance of normalcy after staying for so long in evacuation centers. We were supposed to turn it over June 12 but there is no electricity yet, so we postponed it for July 17. So hopefully in July 17, water and electricity will already be available for all of the residents and we would be able to formally turn it over to the first 60 beneficiaries already. As I’ve said, we are hoping to turn over the housing units to the beneficiaries next month.

    Through the generosity of Metrobank Foundation, the Ateneo de Manila University, and our other Angat Buhay partners, our Marawi women weavers also received sewing materials, brand new machines, and seed money to start rebuilding their lives. Rose is now the nominated head of internally displaced women dressmakers and has high hopes of selling good-quality clothing to nearby communities. Through a partnership with another Angat Buhay partner, Akaba – a social enterprise that designs and sells bags made out of local textiles – we provided Rose and other women like her, not just sewing machines and clothing materials used for making mokna—I don’t know if you’re familiar with mokna but these are the dresses being used for prayer especially during Ramadan. If she does well during trainings that Akaba will also provide, Rose and the other women may permanently supply Akaba with the fruits of her labors, giving her family a constant stream of income.

    In Piagapo, also in Lanao del Sur a few kilometers away from Marawi, we gave livelihood subsidies for abaca fiber processing to abaca farmers, including Gigi Mamad. Nandiyan ba si Gigi? Gigi siya pero lalaki.

    Gigi is the youngest abaca farmer of the cooperative. Gigi is an out-of-school youth who dropped out of college after he got married. He supports his small family through various types of farming, but has found abaca farming to be the most profitable out of all crops. Being the breadwinner of the family, he said having their own stripping machine will help him earn more to support his child. More and more farmers, especially young people like him, are going back to farming, healing the land of Marawi with this age-old enterprise.

    Ang sabi niya po, and I quote: “Ngayon, may pag-asa na kaming iangat iyong kabuhayan namin dito.” Dati po kasi, before we gave them their own abaca stripping machines, they had to travel to another town—a few kilometers away—to have their stripping done and pipila sila so maraming nasasayang na oras. We are also very grateful that we have partner organizations that are helping us push for sustainable livelihood and jobs in the provinces.

    For instance, through Angat Kabuhayan, we are mapping out existing market opportunities for our farmers in Camarines Sur. We are closely working with the Metro Naga Development Council, the Metro Naga Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Agrarian Reform to provide our farmers with training and link them to a steady access to bigger markets. To capacitate them, we have partnered with local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, hospitals that have agreed to source their ingredients and supplies from our local producers. Because when we did a needs assessment, not one of the bigger restaurants and hotels and hospitals in Naga bought their food locally. Lahat Baguio, Manila—lahat, sa labas.

    And I am very pleased to say that things have already begun rolling. Last April, the small farmer producers from the municipalities of Tigaon, San Fernando, Pili, Pamplona, Minalabac, Milaor, Bula, and Ocampo—these are neighboring poorer towns outside of Naga—already started supplying various produce to well-known establishments in Naga City. For example, they are now providing vegetables to Avenue Plaza Hotel, kung nakapunta na kayo doon, and calamansi and rice to Bigg’s Diner and Pilgrims Hotel.

    All these efforts will be more sustainable when local government leaders are supportive and have the skills to sustain the pace of change in society. So, we are running a Bridging Leadership Program to the local government officials of all our adopted communities, in partnership with Seaoil Foundation, to empower local leaders with a safe space to learn greater skills in both leadership and governance. We understand that we are not going to be here for a long time. So, we want to capacitate our community leaders and ensure that these projects will be sustained long after our terms of office. We believe that this can greatly help our friends in Marawi also, as we help rebuild and rehabilitate their beautiful city. Aside from the farthest of communities, we have also turned our attention to urban communities in Metro Manila through our Metro Laylayan program. Since we launched in June of 2017, my team and I have visited a total of nine communities in places like Malabon, Navotas, Parañaque—to name a few—including a far-flung community in Tanay, Rizal. I think we were just there two weeks ago and we had to trek many kilometers of muddy trails. Sabi ko, “May ganito pa pala sa Tanay.” Through the kindness of our partners, we have provided access to jobs and skills, free entrepreneurship and financial literacy trainings; medical services; legal aid; and starting capital for families to set up their small business.

    These are just some of the things we are doing on the ground. We would like to invite you—kaya ko siya in-enumerate—I would like to invite you to be our partner in creating more positive change in our country.

    When I attended my daughter Aika’s graduation last month, their Dean, Dr. Doug Elmendorf, called upon the Kennedy School graduates to practice courageous, creative, and active leadership and he said, I quote: “If we keep following the same paths we have always followed, we will not make the progress in the world that we need to make. Public problems rarely solve themselves; instead, they are solved by active leadership.” This, I believe, is also true in the work that we all do. Whether it be through Angat Buhay, taking part in our disaster relief and rehabilitation efforts, engaging the youth in nation-building, or assisting urban poor communities through our Metro Laylayan program, our promise is this: the help we provide transcends political color, economic borders, gender, and other sources of division in our country. We are called on to meet these challenges head on, and to bridge our divides. It goes beyond cosmetic, one-time, assistance. It is done with consultation with the beneficiaries themselves, based on needs assessments and really deep study, ensuring that the people themselves will be transformed as the assistance is provided. In fact, we will be holding a consortium of microfinance institutions to equip our nanays and other Angat Buhay beneficiaries with proper technical skills, good networks, and sufficient capital—I think it’s happening on July 3. It is our hope that through these efforts, we are able to provide more responsive and sustainable livelihood opportunities to our fellow countrymen.

    It is time to heal the hate and apathy around us today, by tearing down divisions and unifying this country. As your duly elected Vice President, I am here to lead the fight against poverty. But, I cannot do it alone. I certainly need a lot of your help, so that we can illuminate every corner of this country with courage, resilience and generosity. So let us work together and make the impossible, possible. Let us prove that we can be more than our differences. That we are not solely defined by our politics and personal preferences. That, as one people, we can turn our dreams for our country into tangible reality.

    So once again, thank you very much again for having me. Magandang hapon po, at mabuhay kayong lahat! [applause]

    Posted in Speeches on Jun 26, 2018