My Experience in the Philippines: A Unity of Opposites

by: Juanita Esguerra Rezk

If you asked me to summarize my experience of living and working in the Philippines in one sentence, I would say, “In the past month I have experienced both extreme feelings of familiarity and strangeness.” Beyond the contradictions, this combination has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on myself and my future professional life.

Getting out of my comfort zone

For my Master of Global Affairs i-Lab project, I am working in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) at Habitat for Humanity to improve how market analyses are conducted by international aid organizations within the shelter sector. Specifically, we are testing the market analyses process in one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Despite my prior experience with humanitarian assistance, diving deeply into the shelter sector has certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Shelter
Mapping the construction materials most widely used in northern Cebu.

You are probably inquiring why would a market analysis be relevant at all? I will try to answer briefly: When a crisis occurs (after an earthquake, a typhoon or a massive displacement), local market actors are often the principal means by which people obtain essential items they need to recover and adapt. In the past, this was largely ignored by international aid organizations, who often imported and distributed goods and provided services directly to those affected. These actions bypass and hinder the resources and capacities of local communities. For this reason, in recent years, humanitarian organizations have started to support and use local market supply chains in their aid response.

Advocates for this type of market intervention argue that it supports livelihood opportunities, improves economic rehabilitation and helps international organizations adapt better to the local context. This all sounds great, right? However, to support such interventions, organizations need to understand the local markets, and when it comes specifically to the shelter and housing sector, aid organizations are still struggling to do so. That is where our partnership with TCIS comes in.

The experience of a Colombian in the Philippines: The familiar within the unfamiliar

Shelter
One of the masons we interviewed is showing us the tools he uses to ensure the quality of his work. The device he is holding is a plumb bob (called “tun tun” in Cebuano), which is used to make sure columns are straight.

During our time here, we have been conducting interviews with families, masons, carpenters, local hardware stores and wholesalers to map the capacity of the local market systems to meet the housing demands of low-income households (including land tenure, financing, access to materials and labor). I am marveled by how willing people have been to share their knowledge, thoughts and experiences with us.

Every time we conduct interviews with households, families usually offer us a snack. This gesture has immediately transported me back to my days of fieldwork in Colombia, where I was always offered a cup of coffee and some bread or cookies when I visited someone’s home. More generally, Filipino architecture, cuisine and religious traditions— strongly influenced by Spanish colonization— together with the warmth of the people and their commitment to build a more peaceful and inclusive society amid challenging conditions of inequality and violence, have made me feel at home.

Shelter
A photo of our team with the first family we interviewed.

Despite these similarities, and the fact that most first and last names in the Philippines are in Spanish, I have not encountered a single person who speaks the Spanish language. Getting by in the cities has been surprisingly easy for our team, as almost everyone we interact with speaks English. Yet, in rural areas the use of English decreases significantly. Because of this, we are conducting our interviews in Cebuano, the language most widely spoken in Cebu province. To make this possible, we have a Cebuano on our team, who has not only acted as a translator, but has also helped us navigate our daily life here and helped us establish contact with different stakeholders.

Although it has been great working with him, it has also been frustrating not being able to participate in these interviews because it limits our capacity to build relationships and to analyze the situation from first- hand information. This is a completely new experience for me, and it has really made me reflect on the importance of relationships, cultural sensitivity and language training in development work.

Shelter
Our new team member Leonell, conducting an interview with a family about their experience in rebuilding their house after Typhoon Yolanda.

Reflections from a safe exposure

Although there is no doubt that international agencies supporting local economies is a step forward in the process of localizing development, I cannot help but wonder if these solutions are still rooted within the systems and power relations that intrinsically constitute an obstacle for the development of these communities. Does the analytical assessment of local markets by outside organizations inherit certain biases? One of the biggest challenges we face is to resist being absorbed by a technocratic mindset that ignores other aspects of social dynamics. Focusing solely on technical issues becomes a barrier for change because it eclipses the human components and does not contest the unequal power relations that hinder structural transformations.

Strangely, one of the things that I have found most enriching about this experience is the feeling of discomfort. This project has forced me to venture into a new region, a new culture and a new sector. Being here on our own, but having the support of the Keough School and our advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, has been a safe exposure and in my case, a chance to experiment with a completely different professional career path. Every day I ask myself how I would feel if this were my long-term job and what would be different if that were the case. I am sure these reflections will continue to grow as I continue my experience here and will certainly be useful as I start to think about what I want to do after I graduate.

 

First Days in the Philippines

 

by: Steven Wagner

Steven Wagner is working with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International. Steven and his teammates, Jenna and Juanita, will conduct pre-crisis market analyses for commodities and services in the housing sector, with the ultimate goal of drafting a toolkit for guiding humanitarian actors in replicating this analysis. The team is conducting fieldwork in the Philippines, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate disasters.

If you are reading this blog entry hoping to learn about my first impressions of an exotic locale, or a description of the quaint local market that I walk through each morning, or my difficulties in acclimating to a foreign language and cuisine, then you are probably going to be disappointed.

Habitat for Humanity
Jenna using any surface available to take notes.

I have only been in the Philippines for a few days as of writing this entry. To be more specific I have been staying in Makati City, the country’s financial hub located within the greater Metro Manila region. To be even more specific I have been living in a skyscraper, surrounded by more skyscrapers. Across the street from my hotel tower is an enormous complex of about nine different interconnected malls, likely occupying a few square kilometers of real estate.

MAKATAI CITY, THE FINANCIAL HUB

Habitat for Humanity
Team Habitat creates a new i-Lab in Makati

I wish I could share something that surprised me or that I found new and exciting about Makati, but to be completely honest, it’s quite similar to most financial centers around the world, what with its plethora of designer brands, wide variety of international cuisines, and looming office buildings. While the 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity might feel unbearable, I have only had to bear it for a few minutes at a time, transitioning from the air-conditioned hotel to the air-conditioned office, both kept at a refreshing 20 degrees Celsius. In the “market” that I walk through each morning, I pass by Rolex on one side and Calvin Klein on the other. I can’t say I have been struggling without knowing the local language, because everyone I have interacted with so far speaks English. And I don’t even have to worry about getting accustomed to the local food; yesterday the Habitat staff took us out for Italian!

All in all, I feel like I’m living in luxury here, with similar access to what I could have in, say, Manhattan (though maybe the Italian food isn’t as great).

JUXTAPOSITION BEYOND MAKATAI

But while I relax in my air-conditioned skyscraper, about 350 miles away in Tacloban, Filipinos are still living without adequate housing after super-typhoon Haiyan destroyed their homes nearly five years ago.

And only about 20 miles from Makati, there are Filipinos living in abject poverty, residing in houses that would not withstand a major disaster.

Witnessing this disparity is flooring. Today, our Keough School advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa (we were blessed to have her join us in the field for a few days) drove us out to Bulacan, a barangay (village) on the outskirts of Metro Manila, to study housing typologies typically built by and for people in the income level Habitat is targeting for its programs. We saw many examples of people clearly attempting to build structurally sound homes, but lacking the money, skills, or quality of materials to complete a shelter resilient to the types of disasters the country experiences regularly. In some cases we could actually see at what point the builder either ran out of money or simply stopped caring about structural durability: leftover and broken cinderblocks to fill gaps at the top of an otherwise well-laid wall, a high quality iron roof clumsily attached to the structure below.

When the funding runs out, builders have no choice but to take shortcuts. Unfortunately, the homeowners will pay dearly for those shortcuts, as these are the exact places where the structure will fail if a typhoon or earthquake strikes. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; a house is no different.

The disparity really shouldn’t shock me—back home in the states one similarly would not even have to leave Manhattan to find a sizeable population of (note: greatly stigmatized) people lacking adequate shelter—but it remains jarring nonetheless. I accept that no individual effort on my part can possibly narrow this enormous gap in the Philippines. But if Habitat’s work can improve access to safe and affordable housing, addressing people’s most basic needs? Well, that would be a good place to start.