From The Hague to Manila: How change begins
I sat on the train from The Hague to Amsterdam Airport. I told myself, “This will be a long flight.”
After 9 months of studying in The Hague, I will be having a 20-day break from studying and will reconnect with family and friends in Manila, returning to the things I find comfort in – the familiar and the place I call home.
Nine months have passed since moving to the International City of Peace and Justice – home to some of the UN organizations, international non-government organizations, academic institutions, development practitioners. It's regarded as a bastion of peace, human rights, and progressive thinking.
In September last year, I left a country that was about to have elections – one touted to be the most contentious the country has ever had.
President-elect Rodrigo Duterte who ran on a platform of change resonated more than the messages of change which Grace Poe, Jejomar Binay, or even Miriam Defensor-Santiago offered. Clearly, people chose change over continuity, with Daang Matuwid’s Mar Roxas garnering only 9 million votes compared to Duterte’s 16 million votes.
In a campaign period where the narrative of change dominated over the messages of continuity and stability, I got myself into thinking, how does change really happen?
As a development worker studying in a foreign country, figuring out how to do and effect change and progress, I can’t help but think about this question. Also, what does change really mean?
The Netherlands: political will and astuteness
I left Amsterdam looking to find the answer to this nagging question. Travelling for the past 9 months to different places in Europe, going back and forth to The Hague has provided me a more nuanced view of development and change.
In The Hague, I’ve met scholars, scholar-activists and development practitioners who offer various perspectives on what progress and change really mean, and how these things can be achieved.
Settling in The Hague as a foreign student from the Global South seemed to be not an easy task at the beginning.
Back in my home country, I was used to inefficiencies of public service delivery, MRT train malfunctions, politicians hogging the limelight with their faces, and names emblazoned on public infrastructure. I've become all too familiar with reform laws like the Sin Tax Bill, RH law, or the two-decade National Land Use Bill failing to be passed into law, or passing through the hole of a needle before these policy measures are signed.
In The Netherlands, biking is the main mode of transportation. People walk along the streets, confident they will not be robbed. Prostitution is legalized with a law safeguarding the rights of sex workers.
Marijuana is legal as long as “coffee shops” obey regulations. Living for 9 months in Amsterdam made me wonder how the Dutch could make these things possible. Is it political will? Is this the absence of too much meddling of the oligarchy and the Church in policy making?
France: inspiring leadership and consensus-building
After almost 30 minutes of delay, our plane landed at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. It was my first time to land in one of the world’s busiest airports, for whenever I go to Paris I usually go by bus – cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
My first time in Paris was during the terror attacks last November. It was my first time to travel alone outside Europe. I suddenly remembered the day when family and friends from the Philippines and my classmates in The Hague were all calling me, hoping that I was safe from the simultaneous bombings which happened in the tourist sites on the night of November 13. A few days after, I was able to roam around the City of Lights again amid the tight security in tourist sites.
If there is one thing that was evident during the fateful night of November 13, it was the way how the French government led by President Francois Hollande handled the crisis. He addressed the country and assured the people that everything was under control. I personally witnessed effective security measures in crowded areas in the city. Three days after the bombings, tourist sites were already opened although partially.
The month after, I returned to Paris for the historic UNFCCC climate negotiations which saw 198 countries forge a global climate deal after 20 years. You have to give it to the Conference of the Parties (COP) 21 president and France’s foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius who oversaw the event, ensured that a historic climate agreement would be forged, and avoided a repeat of the failed Copenhagen climate talks in 2009.
Philippines: between continuity and change
After an 11-hour flight from Paris, I arrived in Guangzhou, southern part of China. It was my first time in Guangzhou but I had lived for 5 months in Shanghai in 2010 for a fellowship in Chinese Language and Culture. A few hours in the Guangzhou Airport transported me to my life 6 years ago.
Around this time in 2010, I, together with 36 young Filipino professionals, also boarded a plane from Shanghai to Manila after 5 months of studying Mandarin and attending some sessions on how China achieved economic growth.
Six years have passed and even though critics have reserved the lowest expectations for the then “student council” government of President Benigno Aquino III, we have made great strides in our economic performance. The Sin Tax Law and the Reproductive Health Law have been passed even if it meant the Aquino administration colliding directly with liquor companies owned by big business groups, and the relationship with the Church turning sour.
Fiscal measures like bottom-up budgeting and performance-based budgeting were introduced. However for every policy passed and credit upgrades earned from key credit-rating agencies, we had the debilitating Luneta hostage crisis, failed Mamasapano mission which led to the Bangsamoro Basic Law’s failure to become law, the MRT woes, and the seemingly burgeoning gap of inequality between social classes.
Going back to my initial question, how does change really happen?
Maybe it takes leaders who have political will like what the Dutch government has mastered in pushing for laws that seemed to be unpopular at first. Or maybe it takes inspiring and decisive leadership like what French President Francois Hollande had provided in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
It's also good to be a realist so that when faced with deadlocks, you're able to balance various interests such as what was shown by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in orchestrating the Paris climate deal.
I think change also happens when an informed, empowered and active citizenry are willing to do their share in nation-building. Clearly, we cannot rely on one man or woman alone. This was shown when the Dutch people won a landmark case last year after the Dutch court ordered the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020.
This was shown in EDSA 1 and 2. Volunteers also fueled the campaigns of then Senator Noynoy Aquino III in 2010 and Vice President-elect Leni Robredo in this year’s elections.
Lastly, I think that maybe change can also happen when development workers like us are self-aware and are open to self-criticism, learning from lessons of the Philippine Left. Thus, we must constantly reflect on our position vis-à-vis the people whom we are providing interventions with.
It is important that we are always conscious of our own position versus power structures or institutions we are working with and for. In our development projects, were we able to let the voices of the poor and the marginalized, those who are at the bottom and at the fringes, be heard?
As our plane landed in Manila, I realized that I might not have been able to fully find the answers to my questions. But I am now confident about facing uncertainties much like the Philippines right now which is transitioning to a new regime. There is much hope and confidence. – Rappler.com
Jed Alegado is a graduate student of Development Studies in the International Institue of Social Studies-Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague, Netherlands. A former community coordinator of Rappler's Agos-powered by eBayanihan, he also holds a master's degree in Public Management from the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG).