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Win-win situation

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I HAD just attended the launch of my office under a new name: Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance  (A month earlier, there was a launch to showcase the knowledge products our partners had produced, and the key speaker was no less than Sec Jesse himself. The mood was particularly energized, compared to the disbelief and gloom that followed the news of his untimely death last August.) The day after the office launch I flew to Switzerland to attend a course on disaster risk reduction.

I had received a grant from the Swiss Institute of Technology in Lausanne to participate in the 6-month course. Two weeks were to be spent in the university town of Lausanne. It was my first solo trip abroad, and I was eager to learn what I could apply at home. I am an environmental planner and a researcher by profession, and this opportunity was in line with my career goals.

The participants represented the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe and America. We were 30 in all, from Niger, Peru, Argentina, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Japan, Romania, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Pakistan, Mauritius and the Philippines. I was the only one from our country, and the youngest at that.

I wish I can say that the experience was pleasant all throughout, that day in and day out, all we had to do was listen passively. It wasn’t anything like that; it was hard work. Every day, we had group works that tested everyone’s patience. The tasks were challenging, but manageable. The hardest part was communicating and navigating through the political dynamics of the group. On top of this, I had to erase the “little girl” stereotype. Of course, there were those more knowledgeable, more seasoned in ground work, and, shall I say, more combative. For the group works, we had to simulate disaster scenarios, analyze case studies, and come up with comprehensive and sectoral strategic plans. We received comments and criticism from the lecturers, as well as the other participants. In the end, I learned how to share my approach to the problem at hand; it was usually after the fire had died down or after everyone had voiced their suggestions. And it worked!

Our trip to Geneva was the most dynamic and interesting of all the activities. In my mind, Geneva was the bastion of snooty international organizations. Getting a chance to meet representatives helped dispel this notion, and understand where a group is coming from. We listened to a debate organized by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), in which its representatives, as well as those of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), UN Environment Programme, and UN Development Programme, took part. The representatives defended how their respective groups handled and prioritized disaster-related issues. I found out with amusement that UN organizations were actually in competition.

We were then shuttled to IFRC headquarters. I found it very interesting that the IFRC has a research arm that studies nations’ policies related to disaster relief and prevention. This research arm also offers its services for the crafting of more rigorous and comprehensive laws on disasters. The details of our visit were then synthesized, and the organizer mentioned steps forward. I told the group that I am grateful for the thought that knowledge platforms had been set up by the UNISDR, IFRC and the like, where one can contribute case studies and best practices, and share these with others who may choose to apply these in their own contexts.

We also visited the canton of Valais, home to the Swiss Alps, to see how Switzerland deals with disasters. I realized that developing countries still have a long way to go before we can, to a certain extent, control disasters. Swiss engineers would blast areas that were unstable and make predictions for avalanches. These ensure the protection of their multimillion-dollar tourism sector. They also have complex early-warning systems to alert businesses, valley folk, and trekkers to landslides and debris flows.

The Philippines is most popular for two things in the field of disaster: the Mount Pinatubo eruptions, which significantly contributed to the earth’s change in temperature, and that we are among the few nations with a comprehensive disaster law. At one point in the course, we were made to analyze a case study on the make-believe state of Balippines. The text mentioned Republic Act 10121, and all the socioeconomic characteristics of the country were similar. I whispered to my seat mate, This is actually my country! In fact, it was mentioned that the Philippines’ disaster law is featured in case studies in literature published by international organizations.

Several themes indicated how the Philippines is both ripe and raw for disaster preparedness and mitigation. The speakers dwelled on how nations were increasingly becoming more complex, and how urbanization and dense populations were exposing more and more people to disasters. They suggested low-regret options, which could greatly contribute to a country’s disaster prevention and mitigation. On top of the list was nurturing enabled environments, or addressing governance and policy-related issues that will allow disaster risk reduction to become a national priority. They also spoke a lot about sustainable land management, land use planning, zoning, and ecosystems management.

I thought about how enabled our political and administrative environment really is. Local governments can approach disasters, thanks to our devolved system of government. Thanks to the Local Government Code, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, and several national and subnational mainstreaming projects, we are headed to a good start. But there is more work to be done, more cross-cutting issues to pursue. Offhand, there are three issues that need to be further pushed: laws on reproductive health and on national land use, and more stringent approaches to natural resources.

I came home with fun memories and meaningful lessons in intercultural skills.

The Philippines has had losses and gains in the past decade. We lost one of the best civil servants by the name of Jesse Robredo. This loss gave us inspiration to continue his advocacy. In a sense, he set the tone for local governance and civil service. A humble man planted seeds for development gains and brought about an enabled environment to pursue other development issues such as disaster risk reduction.

At the course in Switzerland, a lot was said about how positive development helps communities become more resilient. I think there is equal wisdom in the other message: Disasters destroy development gains. (Talk about alliteration!) Pushing forward certain development agenda wearing these glasses may decrease the politically infused criticism for policies that can otherwise help protect a growing nation. We have come so far, and we need to protect our gains. If disasters do not happen, and the nation is investing in land use planning, sustainable land management, and improving governance, then points for development. If disasters occur, then all of us are more prepared. Win-win.

Monica Edralin, 26, graduated this year from De La Salle University with an MA in urban and regional planning. She is to leave for Bangladesh for the next phase of the disaster risk reduction course.

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