Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

In the classroom, we have relentlessly discussed the disparities between the developed and developing countries. We recognize differences in the way governments may perceive their roles, the way finances and revenues are handled, and civil society’s disposition to various circumstances. In my research, I have found this to be true in a very surprising way. In almost every instance I have presented my project proposal to “Westerners” I have received a tremendous amount of support–both tangibly and ideologically. People seem to not only believe that the project is innovative, but that that it is also possible and could hold great value in improving disaster management in the Philippines. As my time in the Philippines continues, I find myself faced with much more speculation. There are two types of doubts: doubt of it’s value and doubt of it’s possibility.

In my research and interviews, I have found that there are certain components of my system that already exist to a different degree, function, or extent as what I intend. This is not new news to me, for I was very aware that my project is not trying to reinvent or reform the processes and systems that are already in place, but rather cater to the lapses and disconnects in the status quo.  I am aware that warning SMS messages do exist under certain conditions, that victim information is collected by various systems and organizations, that the roads are monitored by the MMDA, and that donors themselves keep track of where they are sending their goods. However, I stubbornly believe that these components do not provide the same value alone, as they would if we were to integrate them and purposefully use them towards disaster management. These components by nature can and should complement each other, however, they are not being used in conjunction. SMS warning messages are simply an opt-in function that has yet to receive the level of publicity and funding to guarantee that populations in dire poverty or  in the most remote areas are able to avail of the  service. While victims have already been using SMS messages to report emergencies, they have been sending them to various TV networks because there is no single uniformed body or system to collect the information. Furthermore, most of the time this data is simply collected in a text or spreadsheet format. Unlike maps, this does provide for better visual and geographic search and rescue coordination among various organizations, communities, and responders. The MMDA twitter account already reports which roads are blocked and bridges damaged, however, it is impossible to expect responders, relief organizations, and ordinary people to sift thru hundreds of twitter posts to find whether or not the road was and is still down. A map would allow for the visual representation of this information. While relief organizations and certain government bodies monitor donor goods, there is still no platform for a feedback mechanism between the two stakeholders to share information on what is most needed where and whether there are lapses that can be adhered to.

Yes, these components exist, but as my research has continued to show me, the value of these components are nothing compared to its value if they are used in conjunction. The value of an integrative system exists in its ability to foster information exchange between the necessary parties, but also more importantly, to be recognized as such. What I have learned is that while these components exist, many people–especially the masses–are not aware of their existence, much less their value. In my time at the World Bank, I was made starkly aware that the information is only valuable if presented to the people in a manner that is relevant and empowering to them. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo if there is still much room for improvement. I had seen the power of these tools in the Haiti and other nations, and I knew that the Philippines could benefit as well. However, I was worried I was becoming too idealistic and blinded by my own preconceptions. I did not want to become one of those people who were so assured of their own capacity and knowledge that they refused to take into account what other people were telling them.

About three weeks ago, I received the call of a life time. After much persistent nagging, I had finally gotten a meeting with Manny Pangilinan — one of the most respected and influential business leaders in the Philippines. Mr. Pangilinan has a resume that could make even Donald Trump feel inadequate. He is either founder, chairman, or president of the following: the sole electricity provider in the country, two out of the three telecommunication companies in the Philippines, a mining company, multiple television networks, etc. Aside from his multiple businesses, he is also the founder of the Philippine Disaster Relief Foundation, which just supported my firm belief that this someone I needed to talk to.

As I sat in the hotel library, I was in completely shock of the tremendous opportunity before me. Here I was, 20 years old sitting across from one of the most successful and influential men in the country. I presented him and his colleague with my project concept and began explaining further the intricacies of its competencies. After I finished, he asked me a series of intuitive yet challenging questions. Thankfully, I was able to respond to most of them and took into account his other thoughts regarding my overall project. He also expressed that he would be willing to disperse the SMS messages over his telecom networks as well as publicize the project on his television and radio networks if it did in fact come to fruition. At the end of our meeting, his colleague mentioned how impressed he was but I was nervous to hear about what Mr. Pangilinan thought given the multitude of questions and comments he had. He looked me straight in the eye and giving me a new surge of hope in my own notions said “You are very idealistic Ms. Austria…the country needs more people like you. Do not give up”