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‘We Share, We Debate, We Solve, We Meet’

BRUSSELS—“Tour and Taxis” struck me as a rather funny name for a conference center—until I googled the name and found that it was more than a transportation hub.

Well, the compound once housed a train station and factories and customs houses, but its place in history is secure as the locale of the first international postal service, serving the Spanish royal house and the Low Countries for two centuries before it was transferred to Frankfurt in 1704.

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The compound owes its name to the Thurn und Taxis, a German noble family whose ancestor Frans von Tassis was promoted to postmaster by Philip the Fair of Burgundy. In the 19th century, the former swampy lands were filled up and buildings of brick, glass and wrought iron were constructed on the site. It served as a center of transportation, including rails and shipping. But with the fading of the center’s importance as a shipping and customs hub, the structures lay abandoned and disused. In recent years, however, the area has undergone some rehabilitation, and the former train station now houses a complex of shops, restaurants and offices. Nearby, a huge commercial and housing development is undergoing construction, while the old customs building is now used for conferences.

And that is how I found myself trudging through the grounds of this gated compound, as Tours and Taxis is the site of this year’s edition of the EDD, or European Development Days. Launched in 2006 (this year’s gathering marks its 10th anniversary), the EDD was conceived by the Council of the European Union to foster “knowledge sharing, creative thinking and real innovation by facilitating meetings, networking and brainstorming for key players in development.”

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The EDD gathers government representatives mingling with representatives of international development agencies, civil society and communities for two days of discussions, workshops and cultural performances. As the EDD slogan states: “We Share, We Debate, We Solve, We Meet.”

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AT the opening ceremonies, I was quite impressed by the lineup of speakers. They were headed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon (to illustrate the EDD’s importance, I have just come from two other international conferences where Ban either sent a representative or addressed the conferees via a video message), World Bank president Jin Yong Kim, four presidents and three prime ministers of African and Pacific countries, and heads of international financing institutions.

Federica Mogherini, vice president of the European Commission, emphasized the commonality of issues faced by countries in a world beset by climate change, terrorism, violence, warfare and poverty. “My neighbor’s prosperity is my prosperity, my neighbor’s stability is my stability. We are one. And if one falls back, we all fall back.”

Ban Ki-moon likewise took up the theme of shared challenges and promise, noting that “national borders do not defend against climate change, diseases and global shocks.” With the UN’s 2030 Agenda, as defined by the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN secretary general said the world is now given the chance to “rethink development.” He added: “We need holistic and long-term views and processes, [and] development cooperation is essential,” noting that “we need to move from managing crises to preventing them.”

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I AM here in the EDD16 wearing another hat of mine, as a member of the board of Likhaan, an NGO that promotes women’s health in poor communities and engages in high-profile advocacy on health issues, particularly reproductive health.

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Recently, Likhaan took part in a multicountry study of “religious fundamentalisms,” seeking to understand the roots of conservative and restrictive religious attitudes that impact on women’s access to health services. Expectedly, the Philippine study focused on the opposition mounted by the Catholic Church against the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, a campaign it ultimately lost in 2012 when the measure was signed into law.

And yet, years after the law was passed, implementation remains problematic, in part because it had to overcome legal challenges mounted by the same groups that opposed its passage. Although declared “not unconstitutional,” the full implementation of the RH Law is these days hampered by a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court stopping the Department of Health from offering contraceptive implants and issuing, through the Bureau of Food and Drugs, permits for the distribution of all other forms of contraception.

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THE regional study was commissioned by the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (or Arrow) based in Kuala Lumpur. It covers countries in South and Southeast Asia and even Morocco. At the EDD16, speakers at the panel are from Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, aside from the Philippines.

In discussions with the other panel members, I was struck by the similarity of the challenges our countries face, even if we’re talking about the struggle for women’s reproductive health and rights in relation with different faiths and traditions.

In many cases, the conservative backlash is a relatively recent phenomenon, and we tried to explain it by harking to the nostalgia for “things as they were” in the face of growing secularization; skepticism about many of the more conservative interpretations, rules and mores across cultures; and the spread of fundamentalism through the use of foreign funding and training.

Fundamentalism, even one man’s warped understanding or adoption of it, is not a benign force. Just ask the families and survivors of Omar Mateen’s 49 victims at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the worst mass shooting in US history.

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TAGS: EDD, European Development Days, opinion
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