Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From vulnerability to empowerment

BEING A storyteller myself, I read with interest the stories told by individuals who were witnesses to and participants in the transformation of communities. Ten little stories, but each of them spoke of hope despite seeming hopelessness, of how people could exceed the limits and go beyond limitations because they believed in themselves and their dreams.
Clueless, frustrated or despondent local government officials could take a cue or two from these community experiences. But I am getting ahead of the story.
A few days ago the World Bank (WB) Group in the Philippines held a Forum on Community-Driven Development where it announced the approval of $59.1 million additional financing for community-driven development projects in the Philippines. This amount will expand the Kapit-bisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-Cidss) projects. Kalahi-Cidss empowers local communities in targeted poor areas to achieve improved access to basic public services and to participate in more inclusive local planning and budgeting.

Kalahi-Cidss has been implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) since 2002 and, according to a WB report, has benefited 1.1 million households in 4,229 barangays in the country’s poorest provinces. Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman who spoke at the forum had only good words for Kalahi-Cidss which she had been involved in even during her previous incarnation as secretary, that is, in a past administration.

Said Soliman: “When local residents come together to discuss their own problems and find solutions to these common challenges, programs and projects are sustained and implemented effectively and in the most transparent manner.” Note the word transparent.

I have been to several Kalahi-Cidss projects in the National Capital Region and Samar and I have seen for myself how even just a few kilometers of road to connect a village to the market could transform a remote community and individual families.

“Empowering the Poor: The Kalahi-Cidss Community-Driven Development Project” is a handsome square booklet of 10 stories (two pages for a project story) and also a “toolkit of concepts and cases.” The against-all-odds stories (based on Dennis Arroyo’s field interviews) are indeed inspiring.

And because I judge a book also by its cover, design and lay-out, I must congratulate the WB team that produced the booklet. I felt good seeing the simple stories of poor and almost forgotten but determined people made to come to life on good-quality paper with elegant design (by B+C Design). (I have a fetish for beautiful books.)

Each project story in the booklet has an accompanying side bar which gives the location, the problem, the project, the cost and the grant from Kalahi and the local counterpart in percentages. The local counterpart is a challenge in itself and it taps into the people’s latent talent and generosity.

One story is told by a pastor who works in a remote community where mountain roads used to be so narrow people had to walk on them sideways lest they fall, and one at a time.

“That all changed when we built our Kalahi road,” the pastor narrates. “It opened vast opportunities for our tribe, the B’laan, long isolated in the mountains of Saranggani Province… Our farming incomes weren’t much, most of us earned less than P1,000 a month.

“At the start we were intimidated by the 16-step process—so many assemblies. To attend them, men would start hiking from their homes at 3 a.m. to reach the village hall at 8 a.m. Then later we realized that the road was not a government project. It was our project. And the real project was not the road but our empowerment.”

His postscript: “Old habits die hard. Even though the new road is six meters wide, some people still walk on it single-file out of sheer habit.”

And there is a story, told by a community volunteer in Davao del Norte, about the community’s 20-year-old dream of having a corn mill of their own. “Once our village was chosen to go ahead with the corn mill … there was so much to learn about proposing projects and keeping accounts. I had only gone up to third grade… But I did all right.

“The mill has been running for about 10 months now, and we can already see a big difference in our lives. We now have corn bran from the mill that we can feed to our animals. They are now fatter and healthier, so we get better prices for them.

“The mill itself is running well. It started out charging cheaper than in town, but eventually we decided to raise the price so that the extra money
could be used to buy a sheller and drier … and make more and higher quality corn meal. Even if we didn’t know much about managing a project before, we were forced to learn.”

A housewife from Dolores, Quezon, speaks about how her once-vulnerable village was spared from the recent devastating floods: “In my corner of Quezon, our flood control dam held up against the rush of water. We had built a truly solid wall, thanks to the Kalahi. We chose the wall because … our village is right at the foot of Mount Banahaw, and water would roar down the slopes during storms and flood our area.

“We installed pipes and used a barrier mix of boulders, stones and cement… I’m proud to say that labor was 100 percent free. The work was monetized, but the amount was used to buy food for the villagers while they worked. Everyone helped, including the children who collected stones.

“The project changed me as well. I thought I was a housewife who did not have much to offer. But with Kalahi, I got into the action.”

Empowering, indeed.