- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
Believe it or not, we are going into our seventh week here. Frank has been more assiduous about counting the weeks than I. When he reminds me where the count stands, I reflexively subtract that number from thirty-nine to determine the weeks remaining. Not that I am desperate to get the hell out of here, not at all. It is just my nature to gauge the distance to the horizon.
Anyway, there is a fifty-fifty chance that we will move the horizon by extending our assignments. Nine months isn’t enough time to accomplish much, especially if one spends much of it learning the language. But that is not a decision for today.
Two officials from the volunteer agency recently visited us at work to see how we were settling in. After some formalities, one took Frank and I aside for a private conversation, while our boss Ernie went off with the other. I mentioned to our new found confidant “We originally wanted twelve month assignments anyway, and Ernie seems in favour of that — so in six months we may be applying for an extension.” She seemed pleased by that.
Later I mentioned this to Ernie. He revealed that in his conversation it came up that our assignments could be extended up to eighteen months. “One step at a time!” I complained, raising my hand like a traffic cop’s stop signal. “Let’s see if we are still speaking to each other in six months!” We all laughed. Funny — but not funny.
It has been a busy time, although not without tedium. Initially we hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were supposed to do. That was unavoidable to a degree. The information exchanged had been sanitised to the level of innocuousness demanded by the intermediaries paying for it. Our co-workers knew little of us, and we knew little of them, really.
Even so, from my perspective, there were no big surprises — except perhaps that there were no big surprises. This was what I had signed up for, near as I could tell. From Ernie’s perspective, who knows? I often seem to surprise people, if only by stating the obvious. That seems to be holding true, which is no surprise.
In theory, Frank was supposed to pick up a project where a previous volunteer had left it a few months earlier. Some aspects of the project had moved forward, others had not, and still others seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
I was supposed to be supporting a new job-creation initiative. On full realisation they had a CPA on their hands, though, my efforts have been somewhat re-directed. Temporarily at least, I am to help put out some financial fires burning warmly in the books of some organisations we support.
Our big picture goal is “capacity building” amongst the Informal Settler Families (ISF) that live in dangerous areas, most commonly next to rivers that flood regularly. Some of these settlers have organised to take advantage of a government program which gives them a say about the place and design of their resettlement, and provides a path toward owning a home. If it works, this “People’s Plan” approach promises to be a significant improvement.
A former approach — supposedly a thing of the past, but we will see — was to evict ISF from their ramshackle homes, sometimes forcibly. The informal settlements were then razed to the ground, and the families settled in huge estates, often distant from the source of their meagre livelihood. Facing deprivation and perhaps starvation, some would return to where they could make a living, re-establishing the dangerous informal settlement. In such cases all that was accomplished was to make the poor even poorer.
Now a few years into the “People’s Plan” approach, the first project is approaching completion and occupancy. Other projects are well along in construction, and several more aren’t far away from commencement. The sense is “if it works” isn’t good enough. We goddam well need to make it work.
There were lots of documents to read. Well, flip through. Well, fall asleep at. The documents about policy, governance, contracts and finances were mostly in English. They were unhelpful and misleading, as you’d expect. The more practical documents, such as procedures, minutes, narratives and status reports tended to be in Tagalog. So, too, were all the external meetings.
We started sitting through day-long board meetings and workshops, sometimes one after another. The attendees were mostly women, directors of boards representing the urban poor, and folks like us with non-governmental organisations, supporting their efforts.
With only six hours “survival” language training in orientation, I could derive only the roughest idea what was going on in these meetings. Others would try to help by whispering in my ear translated hints as to the proceedings, but mostly I extracted what I could from body language. These folks, many of them quite poor, were leaders. They presented themselves well and confidently, and were highly articulate. At least they seemed articulate. They certainly talked like they were articulate. All day, in fact.
It became clear that understanding Tagalog would be the single most significant factor in our ability to make a real contribution. By way of example, one staffer described how a previous volunteer managed to uncover some financial shenanigans only by understanding what the perpetrators were saying to each other, unaware that the volunteer understood. I grimaced at this story. I had not come to the Philippines to play “Bad Cop”. Or “Good Cop”, for that matter.
Nevertheless, we have been pursuing Tagalog vigorously. Our language teacher, Emma, comes to our apartment twice a week for two-hour lessons. She is “old school”, and indeed is an old school teacher. “All Filipino teachers are disciplinarians.” she warned us menacingly. Neither of us has been whacked over the knuckles with a ruler — yet — although I think I came close yesterday when I interjected “shit” into a sentence.
The structure, pronunciation and vocabulary of Tagalog is relatively straight-forward. Of course, when it comes to complex structure, pronunciation and vocabulary, nothing beats English — although the Germans deserve honourable mention. Historically, Tagalog borrows heavily from Spanish and English. It isn’t difficult to figure what’s going on when the sentence contains the words “independent contractor”, “minimum wage”, and “avoid benefits”. Increasingly, Tagalog includes the buzzwords and business babble that leaves one pining for menacing school teachers wielding rulers. Any Filipino who dwells on “integrity” or uses the words “authentic management” is every bit as likely to be full of crap as anybody else in the world.
Many Filipinos understand English reasonably well. Even they are understandably reticent to speak English to native speakers, embarrassed they might slaughter it. I can relate! One woman begged off after speaking to me for a few minutes, complaining of a nosebleed. She didn’t leave, and her nose wasn’t bleeding. She then explained that when they find themselves speaking English more than they want to, the Tagalog idiom is that it causes them to “bleed from the nose — or eyes, or ears — well anywhere…” This Trump-like reference struck me as an idiom likely to have disturbing origins.
Business is conducted in relaxed fashion, sometimes maddeningly so. A board meeting takes all day because an eight o’clock meeting doesn’t start until ten, the agenda is free-form, and significant time is spent eating (not that I am complaining about that last part).
These are a people entirely comfortable with waiting an hour or more for a meeting to start. During a meeting, pregnant, silent pauses can last ten minutes. I find myself in grave fear that they are waiting for me to speak, so ask somebody sitting nearby “What is going on?” Then, that person asks the group. Sometimes, nobody knows. They are fine with that. After four o’clock in the afternoon it is better to ask “Are we done?”, because more often than not, we are— it just hasn’t been acknowledged yet.
It hasn’t been all board meetings, though. We’ve done a couple sight visits and attended a ground breaking ceremony, too. This tends to be rather muddy work. At such events Frank and I are granted celebrity status. We are introduced to uproarious applause, asked to say a few words. For such occasions I translated “Thank you — but I have not done anything yet”, a phrase that may serve me well for some time to come. If there is food, and there always is, we get served first and well. Soon comes a procession of women — it is just the women, usually in pairs or trios — asking each of us to pose with them in a “selfie”. They half-jokingly cite the need for “photo documentation”, another way of saying “something to put on our Facebook page”. One director explained our presence with “They sent young men last time — they must have figured out we are old women, so they sent the old men.” Smile! Click!
Few of these meetings occur anywhere near our office. They take good care of us with transport to and from. It usually means sitting in traffic for an hour or two each way, rolling around seatbelt-less on the rear bench of an SUV as it lurches from lane to lane and over speed bumps. I really shouldn’t complain. It is air conditioned, cushy, and those who smoke open their windows when they do so. The process does require me to relinquish control to an unnerving degree. I am never comfortable in a strange place if I can’t locate myself on a map. GPS helps where there is coverage. But deep in the narrow streets of an impoverished village, captive in an endless board meeting, it isn’t like I feel free to leave.
In my years as an Australian public servant I would often say “Government will spend two million dollars to prevent the possibility that somebody might steal two hundred dollars.” That might be an exaggeration, but in essence it is true. Corruption in government is seen as such a debilitating embarrassment that officials are happy to spend your money to make it look like they tried to prevent it. The media plays along with this idiocy, eager to make hay out of any “fat cat bureaucrat” who uses a government credit card to buy a $200 bottle of scotch, forcing a two million dollar investigation into why government hadn’t spent two hundred million dollars preventing it. As they pass our money to each other, they shout in unison “It’s a betrayal of the public trust!” They got THAT right.
Those days are behind me. Or so I thought.
In the Philippines there is a high level of concern, one might call it an obsession, with corruption. The daily papers are littered with stories about corruption, the plots of Filipino movies often hinge on it, political discourse is dominated by rhetoric about it, and every commercial transaction is scrutinised in quadruplet.
Purchasing anything over fifty bucks, it is common for the customer to be asked — required, really — to sign a register, complete with contact details, presumably so the boss can check that the sale was legit. Most credit card charges require the purchaser to sign twice— no PIN codes here. The process then involves two clerks: one sales, one cashier. Each receipt is initialed and ink-stamped, run through the cash register, impressed with the corporate seal, rolled into a tube fastened with a ribbon, then attached to the leg of a raven, one dispatched for King’s Landing, the other to Winterfell. Somebody here has lost their grip on reality.
Or, perhaps not. The volunteers’ creed is “First seek to understand.” I do not, as yet. I have to assume there is some basis for the prevalence of over-the-top internal controls. Perhaps the low pay that encourage theft also provides the cheap labor that makes redundant systems economically rational. Maybe the longstanding, deeply ingrained history of misuse and abuse of power has left Filipinos overtly and overly wary of getting burned. Most commonly, over-cooked procedures are the result of simmering neglect from inattentive chefs. But there’s more than one way to burn dinner.
My work will require I come to grips with this cultural phenomenon. Already I see that advice and training regarding internal controls may be a big part of what I do here. That’s fitting for a guy who once ran a company named “Checks & Balances”. It does not require I pinpoint the differences between corruption and incompetence, negligence and ignorance, theft and mismanagement. I ain’t here to impart justice, much less save souls. As long as the mess I leave is a bit more sustainable than the mess I found, I’ll consider it a job well done.