My homecoming with Peace Corps Response Philippines

John Pabustan Peace Corps Response Philippines
By John Pabustan
April 20, 2016

The number 8 has been long considered a lucky number by the Chinese and other Asian cultures. As I end my year-long assignment with Peace Corps Response in the Philippines in Region 8, I cannot help but think how lucky I am to have lived and served in these parts of the country. 

I am very thankful that Peace Corps Response and the Millennium Challenge Account Philippines opened this opportunity that allowed the people of the provinces of Samar and Leyte to touch my heart and for me to be of service to the people of Region 8. 

This service with Peace Corps Response is not my first. I was a Health Extension Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria from 1991 to 1994. I am a Filipino-American who has been living and working stateside for over 30 years; the last 15 years of which were spent as a contracts program manager at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Since the advent of the strongest typhoon on record, 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, I’ve been looking for a chance to go back to the Philippines and do work that can assist the people of the Yolanda-affected areas. This opportunity came while I was completing a six-month fellowship in Mindanao when I saw an announcement for a Peace Corps Response listing for a monitoring and evaluation program officer assignment with the Millennium Challenge Account Philippines to assist in the evaluation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)-funded, community-driven development projects.

Typhoon Nona assessment
Typhoon Nona assessment

The assignment deployed me to the Eastern Visayas islands while being affiliated with the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s (DSWD) Kalahi CIDSS (KC) program. KC is a community-driven infrastructure development program made possible by different international grants and loans, one of which is a $430 million grant from the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation.  The Philippines allocated $132 million for KC for five years. KC trains community-based volunteers to work with the local government and they, along with the residents of the barangay (village), decide on what projects are needed in their community and a process of prioritization to apply and secure the grants is headed by the community volunteers. This project is unique because the grant is given directly to the volunteers and not the local government units. In essence, the decision-making process is given to the residents who are trained to write grant proposals, manage the project implementation, conduct procurement activities and hold an open bidding process, monitor and supervise project progression and operate and maintain the project after its completion.

The labor is also recruited from the community, and the workers are trained to do construction like building schools and day care centers, health care centers, schools, roads, bridges, sea walls, drainage canals and even new home construction. The KC objectives aim to reduce poverty, improve governance and increase transparency of government, and empower the individuals and communities through the new skills, knowledge and experience provided by the projects.

My task was to assist the regional monitoring and evaluation team conduct qualitative assessments of the projects through focus group discussions and key informant interviews, and troubleshoot for faster resolution of their programmatic issues.

Over the course of one year, I got to travel in the region and was able to successfully visit 15 municipalities and 170 barangays, see more than 200 projects in various stages of completion and hear from over 1,0000 residents of the barangays. I saw the most beautiful beaches, and mountain range communities and the diverse topographies of the area. Getting to these communities can be as easy as pulling up to it on the side of the road or as challenging as a 20-minute boat ride plus walking three and a half hours, traversing very muddy paths, climbing six hills and crossing three streams, just to get to a very remote community.

In the process, I saw the difficult situations faced by these poor communities struggling to live day to day, facing the threat of typhoons and landslides, the lack of roads and bridges to bring their farm products to market, the need for income-generating activities for livelihood, their need for health care and the overall lack of infrastructure that many Americans take for granted. I met the friendliest, most generous NS hospitable people, undaunted by their daily living conditions and resilient to the challenges that Mother Nature throws at them.

They are also very appreciative of the projects that MCC and KC brought their way. Some did not have electricity, others did not have access to potable drinking water and some didn’t have either. Children are known to walk for up to a couple of hours just to get to school, especially since most local elementary schools only go to fourth grade.  The KC project was able to allow the residents of the barangay to build new school buildings, install solar-powered streetlights and lights in the island communities, build gravity-fed water storage tanks and communal faucets, build sea walls to stem the strong tides brought by the annual onslaught of typhoons and build drainage canals that prevents the flooding in their communities every time it rains. These volunteers are often unsung heroes of their communities as they cope to manage the demands of being unpaid workers required to attend trainings and meetings and manage the progression of the projects. Many are women, as they are the ones that have free time to perform the demands of being a KC volunteer. Their motivation is clearly the satisfaction of being able to provide their service to their communities and the opportunity to learn new skills and put them to use.  Some are able to parlay their experiences in their lives, empowered to pursue further education, take vocational courses to find employment or start a business, and even successfully pursue local elected positions.

Focus group discussion
Focus group discussion

One highlight of this experience happened when I was asked by the DSWD Region 8 director to provide assistance to a damage and needs assessment activity in the aftermath of a Category 4 storm, Super Typhoon Nona, that hit the Northern Samar municipalities on December 14, 2015. It damaged more than 279,000 homes and killed 48 people in the Philippines.  It was an opportunity to go with the DSWD staff to assess the extent of the damage in the region and to see how the residents are coping and recovering from the ravages of Nona. This task also allowed me to both report to MCAP on the conditions of the MCC KC projects to see how they held up and assist Peace Corps in the assessment of the condition of the recovery activities to help the agency get a better picture of the area since it affected PCVs in the area. My team spent three days visiting the five most affected municipalities of the province where conditions were familiar to my team from the Super Typhoon Yolanda experience.

The landscape was peppered with downed power lines, blown off roofs and toppled homes, felled trees and generally a scene that emulated a bomb blast. We saw families that took shelter in school buildings and day care centers built by KC, as the quality of the materials and the design of the buildings proved to withstand the sustained winds of 230 kilometers per hour (143 miles per hour). Our team observed that people truly learned from previous calamities; they quickly evacuated to safer buildings and higher ground at a moment’s notice. The NGOs, the government and DSWD are also quick to respond with emergency food and water, as well as tarpaulins to help create temporary patches for the damaged roofs.

We also realized the vulnerabilities of island villages as we tried to cross the waters to do assessments and bring some relief assistance, but the tides were too strong and assistance of any kind had to wait for the swells to calm down. Through it all, the people took it in stride, as some made do with felled banana and coconut trees to substitute for their food and drinking water as they waited for help to arrive. It truly showed how strong and resilient the residents are as these calamities become more regular occurrences.

As I wind down for the final days of my Peace Corps Response Philippines service, I can’t help but reflect on the totality of the experience and the opportunities it presented to me. I am thankful for the journey and the people I met along the way, like my other like-minded PCR colleagues, the Peace Corps staff, MCAP, my counterparts and the staff of DSWD and especially the people of Region 8. Like the KC volunteers of the barangays, I totally relate to the satisfaction of a job well done and also feel very fortunate to have the chance to serve these communities by sharing my abilities. The commitment it takes to volunteer is fraught with challenges but the outcome is always a net gain professionally and personally as it enhanced my own knowledge and skills in working for sustainable development and broadened my understanding of the living conditions of Filipinos in remote areas of the Philippines, the country where I was born.

John Pabustan