Reflections on a field excursion to Bantayan Island in the Philippines

by: Jenna Ahn

Master of Global Affairs student Jenna Ahn is working with teammates Steven and Juanita, in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International, on a project to design and test a pre-crisis market analysis toolkit for the shelter sector. A better baseline understanding of local markets can guide both pre-crisis programming to build resilience and post-crisis interventions for shelter in sustainable and scalable ways. The team spent two months in Cebu Province in the Philippines conducting interviews and gathering data.


“Hello mamser!” We turned around to see who was calling us with what came to be my favorite gender neutral and delightfully formal Filipino greeting.

It was the woman we interviewed earlier that day. She was grinning and waving at us.

“Hello, Ma’am!” We called back.

As we continued on the dirt road, we encountered other familiar faces from our previous interviews: a husband and wife at dinner who greeted us, counter managers at neighboring hardware stores, and a few friendly nods in the street. We were a motley crew—four Filipinos, two Americans, and a Colombian—and I assumed news of our arrival had spread through the small neighboring barangays of Santa Fe and Pooc. In just five days conducting over 70 interviews, we were still very much foreigners, but I couldn’t help feeling that in our five days in Bantayan Island we had glimpsed a tiny part of the integrated ecosystem of the shelter market.

We had planned to track the supply chain backwards: from households accessing the local market to reconstruct their homes to the hardware stores, construction laborers, and NGOs who aided them in the process. While a relatively linear strategy, our interviews elicited a much more complex reality of relationships, motivations, and obstacles that left us with more questions than answers. What follows is a brief snapshot of just a few of the people we met along the way. *

Habitat for Humanity TCIS Philippines
One of our translators, Miguel, leading a household interview in Cebuano using questions programmed in a data collection app
Household

Despite the blaring speakers next door playing “Despacito” on loop, Ma’am Castillo was calm and thorough as she told us her house was the only one in the neighborhood that had survived Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It wasn’t because her house was particularly durable, she admitted— her house was a mixture of recycled plywood, woven bamboo, and corrugated iron—but because her family had been the only to remain in her neighborhood despite the evacuation warning so God had protected her. She had tried to make some improvements to the house, but her limited budget and compounding loans made things difficult, especially when the price of materials and construction workers skyrocketed after the disaster. How was she supposed to hire a skilled mason if NGOs were willing to pay their masons 150% of the pre-typhoon daily rate?

Construction Laborer

Around the corner at a construction site, we met with Cuya Jason as he took a short break from laying concrete blocks. A hardworking mason and father of four children, Cuya explained that he had learned his trade by shadowing his father as a helper, and eventually took on the title of mason himself. After Typhoon Yolanda decimated many of the homes in his community, Cuya helped to rebuild using the same construction techniques used before the typhoon. He hadn’t changed his building strategies, but why would he? He did what all the other masons did, and ultimately they were all limited by budgets. If anything, Cuya had to explain to households that forgoing reinforcing steel bars altogether would be unethical. When asked if he would be interested in training workshops to improve his trade, Cuya smiled—perhaps assuming I was searching for a “yes”—and shook his head. Maybe, but he didn’t have time and couldn’t lose out on his daily wage. After all, he needed to get food on the table.

Hardware Store

I stood at the counter of RJ’s Hardware and I could tell Até Maria was still convinced that we might sell her business secrets to the other stores in town, but she spoke to us anyway. Like any good business manager, Até closely observed changes in customer behavior and demand when ordering stock. It’s not that she wanted to sell substandard materials, she said matter-of-factly, but it’s what the people could afford. It’s what they wanted. She hoped another typhoon wouldn’t hit the community, but we both knew that it would significantly benefit her business.

An inside view of a local hardware store in Bantayan displaying its stock

We interviewed many others along the way—some with similar stories and still others with different experiences. Ultimately, we found that 60% of households we spoke with did not believe their house would withstand the next climate disaster. And though we must acknowledge there are no easy solutions to the fragile and interconnected relationships within the shelter market in places like Bantayan Island, I do know that the need to act now to benefit people like Ma’am Castillo, Cuya Jason, and Até Maria is central to a commitment to human dignity.

In the end, a home is not simply four walls and a roof where families are forced to live in fear of devastation. Lives are not worth saving only after inevitable climate disasters strike. If we take seriously the Keough School’s mission towards integral human development and protecting the inherent dignity of all persons (especially vulnerable persons), we must work before the next disaster to increase access to dignified housing.

Habitat for Humanity Philippines
Team photo after our presentation in the Habitat for Humanity International office in Manila

*all names have been changed for confidentiality

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.