Documentary: Years of Living Dangerously


In the aftermath of Haima/Lawin

I haven’t been posting lately because of an insane work schedule but I’m taking a few hours off to write something on issues I feel strongly about:

Primary hazard. In the case of the Philippines, natural hazards eg. typhoons are just secondary causes of disasters. The primary cause is continued inaction of local governments (barangays up to the provincial levels) to finance or allocate significant funds in order for local disaster risk reduction strategies, programs, and projects to be implemented. Typhoons such as Lawin/Haima only serve to expose these gaps in local governance.

Compliance to and monitoring for quality standards, for instance. Road cuts in the highways of the Cordillera Region have been due in large part to substandard engineering practices. I’m not an engineer but looking at the image of the Tinoc-Kiangan road cut below, common sense tells you that the way this particular structure is engineered (eg. thickness, no reinforcement, no mitigation structure to counter soil quality, etc.) as exposed by Lawin/Haima will not stand up long to the “wolf’s huff and puff” as it did eventually.

Tinoc-Kiangan Road
Road cut Tinoc-Kiangan Road

Devastation in housing has been due mostly to negligence in monitoring for compliance to zoning and building standards; and, lack of access to low cost housing and subsidies to low income families eg. tenant and small landholder farmers and fisherfolks in order for them to build safe houses because of course nipa huts and houses of light materials will not stand up long to a 300 kph typhoon.

damaged houses in the aftermath of Haima/Lawin
via rappler

Damage to power lines can be mitigated or minimized by financing underground installation of such which given this country’s exposure to natural hazards by way of it’s geographical location should have been started yesterday. But it had not as we continue to build as if blind to our geographical realities.

Damaged power lines along the Maharlika Highway leading to Tuguegarao City
Damaged power lines along the Maharlika Highway leading to Tuguegarao City via philstar

Devastation to agriculture as a result of typhoons especially among agricultural households shouldn’t be as financially devastating to these families when universal access to insurance (crops, livestock, fisheries) or subsidies to such are ensured. There is the Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation but only a small percentage of farmers and fisher households are covered.

Poverty reduction is also a disaster risk reduction strategy. But the poor in this country have not been pulled out of their poverty at the rate that we said poverty reduction should happen. Those who need social protection the most ie. the poor continue to be left behind in social security and health insurance coverage, among others. Jobs in localities are not created and growing at the rate that is more or less equal to the rate that schools produce graduates. Nor is labor in localities protected from exploitation eg. employers who pay below minimum such that families of workers are unable to eat three meals a day. Investments in localities are not as high as those in already overcrowded cities eg. Metro Manila in order to incentivize graduates or those looking for jobs to stay rather than migrate. Lands are not redistributed as provided in law. Etcetera. And it is the children who suffer the most from continued neglect of their local governments to finance and implement local poverty reduction.

'Lawin' leaves P5B agri damage in Cagayan
via abscbn

Like Tacloban City with Yolanda/Haiyan, cities such as Ilagan in Isabela and Tuguegarao in Cagayan as well as urbanizing municipal towns as those in the Cordillera are being developed as if their legislative and planning councils have not heard about the environmental impact assessment or the national urban development law/agenda, among other urban development and planning policies and strategies. As if local governments have no land use plans or zoning laws. Real estate development continue to be allowed in floodplains without mandating for mitigation measures.

So it’s not the typhoon (or earthquake, etc.) but it’s the lack of disaster risk reduction measures. Preparedness is merely about, well, preparation just before the onslaught of a hazard, but again in order for preparedness to be effective the assumption is that risk reduction measures have been put in place long beforehand. This country’s law (RA 10121) specifically calls for disaster risk reduction and management, not just preparedness. But what we’ve been doing so far is just preparedness. Also, look, one of the reasons for the DRRM Law is to provide local governments the independence and flexibility to allocate funding for risk reduction and preparedness even without declaring calamity. But what are we again seeing? So no, it’s not typhoons that citizens ought to pray deliverance for but against the harmful mentality and stubbornness of local governments.

Bayanihan. This old Filipino practice among families within neighborhoods is voluntary ie. it arises from goodwill among people who know or have good relations with each other. It should not be spoken about (especially by broadcast media) as an act that another is entitled to or that Filipinos are obliged to do. Bayanihan is not an obligation. If there is any obligation that stands in the aftermath of disasters it is government’s obligations toward it’s citizens ie. to protect and uphold rights standards even during emergencies (local governments therefore should know by heart the Sphere Handbook). It is the obligation of government to bring out the necessary resources that have been paid for by taxpayers eg. equipments, manpower, money to clear roads, clean schools, drain floodplains, trim trees, etcetera. At once. Immediately. Local governments should feel ashamed if they have to wait for private agencies and I/NGOs from miles away to be the ones to respond and make physical assessments of the areas. Government, supported by taxes and other resources, should feel ashamed if it relies on bayanihan to bring back order.

Reporting by broadcast media. “Christmas came early for the students of Casili Elementary School in Rizal.” Reading this news report further you’d see that it refers to a bridge built with funding from the Foundation of Outstanding Mapuans Incorporated, which school children in said school can now use. What’s wrong with the words utilized in this news? It puts forth the message that bridges are Christmas or Santa’s gifts instead of as a right and duty (ie. linked to children’s right to education as well as a duty of government to protect and address the right of citizens to basic infrastructures). A lot of disinformation and mis-messaging hence ignorance are perpetuated by mainstream media, sadly and unfortunately for the Filipino masses. Similarly, whenever I see recipients of aid being made to profusely thank donors or the government on TV when the aid is merely basic satisfaction of their rights (eg. school supplies relative to right to education, food packs relative to right to survival) I get in a rage. The aid recipients are made to be like rape victims who are abused again and again while everybody’s watching and cheering but because they don’t have any other option they do what is asked of them. Dignity during disasters is what duty bearers need to protect more than their policy for visibility, always.

Warming oceans, more frequent and intense typhoons

Thanks to technology and invention (such as my adorable 20000mAh powerbank that can recharge gadgets and laptops 5x before discharging, meaning local governments have no reason to go incommunado especially during emergencies), many are able to stay connected despite black outs. Like for this storm, Haima/Lawin. I’m up monitoring the situation with former colleagues in Isabela and Tuguegarao where Lawin made landfall (one network said Penablanca in Tuguegarao, another said Gamu in Isabela so which?).  Real time alerts and news on broadcast and social media report just a third of actual on-site happenings. So it’s good to have personal and professional networks across locations besides.

Also I spied the new moon late last week. It has been my observation through time that while typhoons are intensified when there’s a new moon it also reins back that intensity when these reach land. It’s why I’m doubtful that Haima/Lawin will be another Yolanda/Haiyan. But of course the observed phenomenon needs further study.

Disasters and humanitarian programs are my subject of evaluation since 2010. In Isabela, I had the opportunity to do an evaluation of an INGO’s response program in the aftermath of Megi. Then, the greatest loss to locals had been in agriculture, the region being the country’s largest rice producer. Next was housing as many houses including schools sustained damages or were totally destroyed. Roofs blown away and mature trees uprooted indicated the sheer strength of the typhoon.

Many locals still held traditional views of typhoons and disasters. That it was Nature or God teaching people to stop doing bad things. Well, in a way it was. As has been the message since the 1992 conference on sustainable development, people and nations need to rethink their climate changing activities. The ocean which plays a critical role in climate stability is directly susceptible to human induced activities. In turn island nations such as the Philippines are the most affected by the change.

A recent article in The New Yorker reiterates the irreversible effect of a warming planet on glaciers and the effect of this on oceans. So yes we may pray but still the answer ie. deliverance from disasters is actually well within our power.

Greenland is melting
Ímage source: The New Yorker

The ice sheet is a holdover from the last ice age, when mile-high glaciers extended not just across Greenland but over vast stretches of the Northern Hemisphere. In most places—Canada, New England, the upper Midwest, Scandinavia—the ice melted away about ten thousand years ago. In Greenland it has—so far, at least—persisted. At the top of the sheet there’s airy snow, known as firn, that fell last year and the year before and the year before that. Buried beneath is snow that fell when Washington crossed the Delaware and, beneath that, snow from when Hannibal crossed the Alps. The deepest layers, which were laid down long before recorded history, are under enormous pressure, and the firn is compressed into ice. At the very bottom there’s snow that fell before the beginning of the last ice age, a hundred and fifteen thousand years ago.

The ice sheet is so big—at its center, it’s two miles high—that it creates its own weather. Its mass is so great that it deforms the earth, pushing the bedrock several thousand feet into the mantle. Its gravitational tug affects the distribution of the oceans.

In recent years, as global temperatures have risen, the ice sheet has awoken from its postglacial slumber. Melt streams like the Rio Behar have always formed on the ice; they now appear at higher and higher elevations, earlier and earlier in the spring. This year’s melt season began so freakishly early, in April, that when the data started to come in, many scientists couldn’t believe it. “I had to go check my instruments,” one told me. In 2012, melt was recorded at the very top of the ice sheet. The pace of change has surprised even the modellers. Just in the past four years, more than a trillion tons of ice have been lost. This is four hundred million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water, or enough to fill a single pool the size of New York State to a depth of twenty-three feet.

– Greenland is melting, The New Yorker

Paradox in Philippine rural communities

Coastal village, Sorsogon, Bicol
Two worlds co-exist in Philippine rural communities: beautiful and rich in human and natural assets; yet very uncompetitive hence continue to be poor. Fisher folks in a recent interview told me they’re seen as occupying the lowest in both social and income class hierarchies. This paradox follows migrants (the unskilled and low skilled) from these areas when they relocate in cities and urban areas.

To be or not to be…immoral

These protestations over EJKs (extrajudicial killings) in connection to government’s anti drug war confounds me. Not that I am for mass killings. But, let us rewind the clock to pre-elections time.

We heard the platforms of each presidential candidate then. What was it for President Dudicate crime such as drugs in three to six months. They said it not just once but repeatedly.

He won the Presidency.

So I’m confounded. What do we suppose one man would do to eradicate crime in that timeframe? Surely we are not so naive or gullible as to fail to imagine at least that such is possible only if one dares to tread the road less travelled. How exactly? We had an inkling- the President’s reputation as city mayor precedes him.

We can guess why the people backed him anyway. They’re fatigued with the lack of decisive, timely, and effective action on matters that continue to weigh heavily on their communities. Crime. Corruption. Poverty. They’ve been wanting a man of action, a straight talker, fearless and feared, and with that relatable brand of humor. Patay kung patay. An resurrected FPJ. When he did come along, majority of the people vouched for him. So unless this same collective had changed it’s mind, he still has the backing of the people.

The spotlight on EJKs reveals the bigger reality of the nation which is that for the longest time we’ve been living in a dark place. We don’t know that we are because we’re continously bombarded with and distracted by the trappings of the good life- malls, resorts, technology, food, fashion, movies, etc. If and when we do focus on something our natural gravitation is toward the good things- the latest gadget we are salivating to buy than on the fact that crime is now a regular visitor on our streets. We look at crime as happening to others until it happens close to home. But how much of our children’s freedom has it already stolen? We’ve been desensitized by daily news of deaths; before we’ve understood it’s implications another report comes along.

The fact remains regardless. Crime is crime. Like a cancer cell, it embeds itself into ready environments where it propagates soon after like wildfire. By then half the body’s eaten up. This half eaten body is what this generation has inherited. Crime in our time has reached the level beyond easy comprehension and solutions. There’s no middle ground to it. A tough stance has to be taken. Lessons from anti drug campaigns abroad point to that. And nobody envies the guy whose responsibility it is to sign off on that stance.

On the other hand, as well, I’m not for public shaming of women, their womanhood and love lives used against them. We all know how it is with love. Men and women will go through fire because of love. Sane people go crazy in love. The loving heart simply cannot be taught otherwise. It just is. In this sense, to the extent that one is biased toward one’s object or subject of love, it could be said that everyone who loves is immoral.

The Filipino people loves the President. He loves them back which I surmise fuels his campaigns. The Filipino people loves the Senator. She loves them back which I surmise fuels her crusade. They check and balance out one another. A good thing really in a democracy.

The real issue then is whether or not in a time of emergency (i.e. pernicious crime and drugs), the solution arrived at goes through the normal process of approval. Or, should we just let the Executive do whatever’s best trusting that he has our backs covered in this? These are the real moral issues democratic governments face as they tackle real-world problems.

The difficult questions in the global war against terrorism easily comes to mind. To invade a sovereign government or not. To bomb a foreign land or not. To hunt a terrorist leader or not. Sometimes the only rational answer available to wicked problems is, just do it whatever ‘it’ is.

On democratization of relations in the context of Philippine agriculture: the case of Negros

The Negros Island Region (NIR) has among the highest incidence of poverty in the country. Negros Oriental has the higher rate at 50.1% of it’s population. How is this?

Negros Island Region

Majority of the population rely on agricultural activities. Sugarcane, particularly. And therein lies the contrariness: while NIR is among the top exporters of sugarcane in South East Asia, the US market at the top of the demand list, the laborers in the plantations are among the worst paid, and as a result with less than decent lives.

What’s happening in the plantations is that: Through a system known locally as ‘pakyawan‘ (rough translation: contractualization), tenant-laborers agree to their landlord’s offer to, say, weed a given hectare for, say, a total of PHP1,500.00 a day. In turn, these laborers call on their neighbors who are also piece-meal workers to join them. With so many more persons working the field, the task is completed in a day. The landlord gives then PHP1,500.00 as agreed. This amount is distributed among, say, a total of 70 laborers. Each receives more or less PHP20.00 for the work.

Another: Tenants cannot use any part of the land e.g. to put up vegetable gardens on which they could grow food for their families without the consent of their landlords. This also applies to sanitation facilities such as toilets.

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), has awarded lands, ranging from 2 to 5 hectares, to families. Hooray, right? But, no. The first thing the families did with the properties dumped onto their hands was to pawn them. It’s common sense, really. How would families who have been living on PHP20.00/day make profitable use of 2 to 5 hectares of land? Without financial capital, ownership of land becomes an encumbrance.

The Reds i.e. New People’s Army (NPA) have significant presence in the region because of the situation. But, scaring people off has not also made significant change to the landscape. In fact, it has added to the stresses of living in that region. Locals may appear accepting and nonchalant about it but such is more a manifestation of helplessness, anger, and frustration imploding inside them which over time impacts on their psyches.

Depressing, not because of the poverty per se but rather (1) landlords (hacienderos since the Spanish time and newer owners, the corporations) have not progressed in the way they manage labor and capital, (2) other stakeholders e.g. civil society, the private sector, the Church especially the Catholic Church also appear to be accepting of the situation like it’s normal, and (3) macro and micro socioeconomic policies have not made significant dents in pulling peasant families out of poverty.

On (1), how do ISO-compliant corporations or a haciendero with an MBA from a prestigious university abroad manage labor like theyr’re dealing with a colony of rats? How do you reconcile this inconsistency?

On (2), the Catholic Church dedicated 2015 as the Year of the Poor. But, and I wonder, to what extent have prayers brought the poor out of poverty? I don’t pray for the poor i.e. kneeling in church asking God to have mercy on the poor. To ask God to have mercy on the poor is to be redundant. God has always been merciful especially to the poor. To ask that heaven does something for the poor is again tempting God to turn stone into bread. I don’t dare ask God ‘why’ there’s massive and continuing poverty. It leads to finger-pointing which leads to discouragement and then hatred which is where I don’t want to go. I’m not also sure of the reasoning behind dedicating the poor to God. This is like making fun of God. Every one is dedicated to God to begin with. Besides the answer is already a given.

We are the answer. What we need to do is do. Do the right thing. Do things right. Go the extra mile. Integrate the poor in our plans. Especially for the Church administrators, to be on fire for the poor. This is the effective prayer for the poor.

As to civil society, the challenge is similar. Organizations i.e. I/NGOs avoid rocking the boat (well, sometimes this is the best) because such will pose a bad image on their donors. Hence in the end organized civil society is not actually accountable to third world beneficiaries and their issues but rather to first world donors and their demands. Just recently, with a couple of colleagues we asked ourselves whether or not what we each personally give up and gain  individually are worth it- acquiring semi-permanent sunburn going around godforsaken places, getting more ill as a result of trying to make both worlds meet i.e. policies and processes of the organization vis-a-vis politics and needs in the communities, developing anxiety over personal security (e.g. a colleague told me about his staff being traumatized after he was literally caught in the crossfire between MNLF and the army and needed to be pulled out of the field for some time. To ease the tension surrounding the situation, the other staff humored him that he wouldn’t have died because he’s masamang damo (a badass)), etcetera.

Are development workers also making a dent somehow? This class of workers are among the most frustrated but are also the most adaptable and optimistic. There are more times when nothing turns out to expectation because many times communities act out of self interest (another lesson learned) which disrupts the collective or communal spirit of programs. We talked about self interest and one shared that this happens even between married couples who’ve professed eternal love and who are not poor. True. Poverty is just among the many struggles of humanity.

Still with civil society, local volunteerism is not that developed, both with the demand and supply side. In NIR, there are I/NGO programs to expand families’ incomes via livelihoods, savings programs, and of course basic education. CSR trend of late has been tree planting – those Instagrammable smiles after planting a seedling – but perhaps corporations could do more than that. The I/NGOs need all the hands they can get to keep programs going: teachers, trainers, animators, etc. Like with travel, a few days living and relating with their kababayan in “another world” will do Filipinos so much good. I/NGOs in turn need to step up their standards and policies in volunteer management.

Finally, on (3), the micro and macro socioeconomic policies. Among the 8-point economic agenda of President Duterte’s administration,

Provide support services to small farmers to increase productivity and improve market access. Provide irrigation and better support services to farmers. Promote tourism in the rural areas.

Accelerate spending on infrastructure by addressing major bottlenecks, and maintain the target of setting aside 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to infrastructure spending.

For so long, poverty reduction strategies have been targeting the poor directly e.g. skill training after skill training (soap making, candle making, jewelry making, sari-sari (neighborhood) store management, etcetera) in the belief that everyone who’s trained will make it. The lesson is, for significant change to happen rules need to be put in place to support capacity building. It is good that in the current national agenda, this is articulated: support to creation of/investors in new markets, integration of the poor into value chains which should include, among others, access of financial capital especially by the entrepreneurial poor, young and old alike, and infrastructure development.

Equally critical is the reform of policies in land and labor management especially that which impact on peasant farmers. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has plans to review and address unfair contractualization practices of corporations. This needs to include the agricultural sector which has long utilized the scheme. The younger hacienderos with MBAs abroad should introduce and employ management styles and practices worthy of their degrees.

Others: reforms to introduce competition in monopolistic markets; protection of local agriculture from corporations and the impact of international trade; regional investments in innovation, creativity and technology; adult education that deliver learning starting at where they are (versus taking them out of their farms into classrooms and there spew theories and such at them).

The goal is to re-configure relations within Philippine agriculture into a more democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive relationship between employer and worker, producer and consumer, donor and recipient, farmer and capitalist. Impossible one might argue. Therein lies the answer too. Poverty won’t go away as long as we continue to refuse a more democratic, equal, and inclusive relationship with the poor.

It’s not just about reducing carbon footprint: On the changing temperature in Baguio City Part 2

In Part 1, I mentioned of the imperative to modernize agriculture in the country.  One investment that Local Government Units should make is in the use of Geographical Information System (GIS) as a tool to analyze patterns and trends on the land.

A research I was in for a national agency a few years back was impeded by the lack of up-to-date land use and land cover data. For instance, the lack of ready shape files and updated maps in agriculture. Thankfully, another agency has produced a more recent (2010) land cover map. But I wondered, if national agencies did not have the right data and information readily, what do you then call the policies they’ve made, the reports? Although, for the country, the lack of land use policies as well as climate change adaptation measures especially at the local level is more the case.

The land use change that has happened along Mountain Trail/Halsema Highway which is mentioned in Part 1 is classified either as parcelization or fragmentation of forest land*.

The featured video differentiates one from the other as well as implications of each on land management.  It also shows the utilization of GIS in resource planning and management.

Local Government Unit officials, as urban managers, need information in order to effectively and efficiently manage the City’s growth and development and ultimately facilitate quality of life for it’s citizens.  Land use data is key to the analysis of the urbanization processes and problems.  These days, it is impossible to produce such data without the aid of modern tools i.e. GIS and remote sensing technologies.  The City needs leaders and managers who see the need to make these a priority investment and integrate their use in city planning and management.

At the regional level i.e. LGUs in the Cordillera Administrative Region it is imperative that land use plans integrate local climate change mitigation measures such as reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide mentioned in Part 1).  Targets to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate should not remain at the global and national levels but rather should be operationalized in localities.  Climate change mitigation and adaptation should not and must not be just all words and rah-rahs.  Cities and municipalities should explicitly include in their land use and development plans GHG emission targets (hence corresponding financing requirements to achieve these).


*latest forestry statistics (2003) for the country shows only 24% (or, 7.2M ha.) of total land area is forested compared to 70% (or, 21M ha.) in 1900.  I don’t even want to go into the state of the remaining “forest” in Baguio City today.  Even I, a non-forester, can tell that the trees (along Loakan Road) are dying a torturously slow death.  As repeatedly mentioned in this blog, it’s not that we have an inordinate love affair with trees; rather, preservation of the City’s trees and foliage translates into our own preservation as well as that of our children and many others after us.

It’s not just about reducing carbon footprint: On the changing temperature in Baguio City

I haven’t since 2002 gone back on the Mountain Trail or have ever ventured beyond Mankayan in Benguet Province until November last year. When I did, up to Bontoc in Mountain Province I had an insight into the concern for Baguio City’s rising temperature.

The decreasing number of pines is oft-cited by regular tourists as well as locals as the culprit in the City’s changing temperature hence the annual planting of trees as a standard CSR practice.  The role of trees or foliage in climate and temperature regulation cannot be discounted, of course, but from what I’ve seen along the Mountain Trail a significant portion of the problem is likely caused by nitrous oxide emissions.

Almost entire mountain sides on the Mountain Trail starting in La Trinidad and it’s urban farms up toward Bauko (see map) have been carved out and converted into terraces of vegetables grown for the commercial market.  (This brings me to another issue:  whose property are those mountain ranges? Don’t fucking tell it’s ancestral!)

Nitrous oxide (N20) is a greenhouse gas.  It is emitted through the soil from the use of synthetic fertilizers (other sources include transportation and industry (fossil fuel combustion)).

Consider this:  According to US EPA, nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years before being removed by a sink or destroyed through chemical reactions. Translation:  The atmospheric and climatic effects of fertilizers that were used 100 years ago are still being felt by today’s generation!  Further, the impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.

How many kilograms of fertilizers and pesticides are poured into those mountains of farms, every day, 365 days in a year?  As a result, how many pounds of N20 are emitted into the air, every day, 365 days a year?  Total number of years the gas stays up and eats into the atmosphere?  Moreover, effects of indiscriminate fertilizer use on the atmosphere is distributed regionally and globally through the biogeochemical cycles. Mountain cities are especially vulnerable because of their location .

What can be done to mitigate the effects?  At this stage of our civilization, total eradication of fertilizer use is impossible if not detrimental.  What’s needed is a continuing study of doable and effective alternatives in order to achieve good balance between food security and sustainable growth and development. This implies investment in and institutionalization of capacity development, R&D, M&E, and communications systems for agriculture specific to the province and region. In other words, modernization of local agricultural systems. Ultimately, information and support need to reach farmers and landowners who are the final decision-makers.

Challenges faced by grassroots organizations

I understand LGUs when they say managing their localities is a huge balancing act.  Grassroots or community driven development is the same.  You deal with diversity – donor/s, the government, partner agencies, local groups and organizations, individual members of communities – with differing and conflicting needs, wants, and goals set in a constantly changing social, economic, and political environment and the challenge is to get everyone to common ground even while, if you’re an organization, you’re thinking of ways to survive, adapt or innovate, and grow.

I’ve managed to land in this work this year.  A former colleague laughed when I told him this because when I was still with the HQ of an INGO, I was the loudest advocate of community participation and HQ staff i.e. senior advisers becoming more visible in the field in the name of grassroots development.

How are you feeling, he joked.  Don’t ask, I said.

Still, we rise to the occasion and do what must be done.  Besides, when I see the children and young people the organization has put to school and developed in various ways and who we now tap as peer educators, I’m renewed.

I’ve made initial observations and have put together this list of elements (you may want to check back now and then as it’s a growing list) that grassroots organizations must attend to in order to develop, survive, and grow:

  1. Ownership as in ownership of the organization, it’s vision, mission, goal, strategies.

To demonstrate:  A critical submission to our Donor is due this week and according to the staff in charge completion at the field was not even half done. Based on feedback by field staff, the delay is traced to community volunteers i.e. parents of sponsored children refusing to deliver any further because they heard that there were no funds allocated for the task. My heart sank on hearing this, because (1) the task is not new. They’ve been doing it every year since 20+ years ago.  These folks (who are provided financial incentives) citing money as a hindrance (when it’s actually not) toward the closure of their organization have just shown what really mattered to them; (2) our field staff, essentially area managers, had not proactively addressed the issue and have actually waited to inform me at the last minute; (3) where were the BOT (they come from and reside in the covered municipalities and majority of them are also volunteers in the task)?  I immediately made a round via telecon of the BOT members in the areas and reminded them that funds for the task is not an issue – we will seek a solution and consider that done – and to immediately mobilize back the parents / volunteers to complete the task because in the final analysis everything that we’re doing in the organization is toward their children’s and communities’ development. I wanted to add, please don’t wait for me to tell you to go out and show leadership. But I didn’t (because of the huge balancing act).

The above is a classic case for the min-max principle in which folks gravitate toward projects or tasks that deliver maximum results for minimum effort.  They’ve been provided free lunches for too long that the instance they see nothing set on the table they go blame or worse attack the host or cook.  Free lunches over a long period of time kills initiative.  Folks are kept from taking responsibility of their situation.  Free lunches also distort perspective.  Individuals fail to develop among themselves collective concern for the group i.e. the ability to foresee the impact of their actions on the organization.  Each is only concerned in the rumblings of his or her own stomach.

For organization staff as well, we could get used to being told and controlled by our bosses into the direction they say is the best path that when left on our own out there we feel helpless even in the face of challenges that are otherwise within our responsibility to resolve.  We’ve stopped owning our thoughts and actions.

What to do? Ownership should’ve been instilled 20 years ago and sustained throughout. I thought it rather too late now to march out there in the field and make a case for ownership.  Nonetheless, the organization’s leaders and managers – BOT, staff – play a critical role in this.  For starters, the BOT ought to feel more responsible for organizational direction and to be more strategic and forward looking in their thinking.  But what to do when the BOT is not your typical corporate BOD but rather farmers who were high school drop outs now in their 50s and 60s?  This brings me to the second element.

2.  Governance.  The specific governance concern I’d like to focus on is, why is Board ineffectiveness a recurring problem despite training?

For grassroots organizations with BOTs comprised of what we call as “the masses” i.e. farmers with at most a high school education, the problem may be more of governance model than of Board performance.  In other words, the traditional approach of organizational governance i.e. corporate BOD model may not be the appropriate model for non-profit/civil society/grassroots organizations.

Grassroots organizations are founded, and thrive, on the values of democratic governance, community participation and empowerment, as well as feedback and learning which clash with the top-down and command and control dynamic of the traditional or corporate governance model.  The nature of the organization alone i.e. non-profit lends an organizational ethic or culture different from an organization which is put up primarily to make profit.  Furthermore, the BOTs are elected by the grassroots i.e. people in the communities thus where their power to represent is derived.  Such power is profoundly different (and perhaps greater) than that which is held by corporate BODs.

In any case, what this implies is that the organizational governance model needs to be meaningful and consistent with the organization’s vision, mission, values and strategies as well as the organization’s membership or constituency.  Dissonance in these leads to confusion in purpose, roles, etc. among the BOT, management and staff, even members in the communities.

Thus, BOT trainings that were provided to bridge capacity gaps in organizational governance following the traditional or corporate model have not been the appropriate training support.  In the meantime, capacity needs of the BOT in fulfilling it’s role under the community driven governance model remains un-addressed.

The metaphor for this situation is, hammering in a square peg into a round hole.  One can smoothen the peg’s edges and force it in but there are consequences to face.

3.  Risk Oversight and Management.  (more of this soon)