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Laguna, Laguna

The things that get your attention here run the gamut, from the obvious issues facing most developing world countries:  urbanization and traffic, poverty, and the challenges of government to provide basic services – to more cultural things, like which western brands seem to have found a foot hold here, such as Kenny Rogers and RC Cola.  For me, one of the striking elements is just how young the population is, as it is all over the region.   More on that in a bit.

The last day and a half have been spent outside of Metro Manila.  It is a very different perspective.  Life here almost seems to revolve around the road -  homes and businesses come right up to its edge, and when it isn’t serving as its primary purpose, it is almost the community front yard.  Drive through towns and you will find places where people have erected their own road blocks and traffic control devices, to force life, and you to slow down.    One other thing, unlike many places in America, economic life in provincial Philippines remains functional – even if most of the economic activity is derived from people selling services and things to each other.  Like so much of the developing world, entrepreneurship is survival. 

When I was here four years ago, we got out of Metro Manila for a day, but that experience was in a government-issued bus, escorted through traffic by local police.  This time, it was in the backseat of a Toyota Four Runner, with no one to help us get through the mass of trucks, cars, jeepneys, “tricycles” (moped with a side car), actual bikes, and people walking.  It is slow going.  One day, we drove the distance of roughly 40 miles to visit with the provincial Governor of Quezon, and the trip took two hours each way.  All told on Tuesday, we spent 8 hours in the car, covering a distance that in Florida would probably take no more than 3 hours.

Over the last few days, we had a chance to meet some interesting people, including Quezon Governor David Suarez, who was kind enough to invite us into his home.  Despite having a geographically massive constituency (12-hour drive north to south), Governor Suarez is doing some innovating things, particularly with health care, on a total provincial budget of just 40 million US a year.  But the highlight of the last few days, as it is on all these trips, is the chance to meet with young leaders.

Four years, one of the more memorable moments was visiting the Governor of Laguna Province, a fellow named ER Ejercito, who is one of the Philippines’ more productive actors, playing the role of the bad guy in more movies than I could name, who has since been removed from office for breaking campaign finane law.  He was one of the more colorful characters I’ve ever met.  He wanted to turn his province into a tourist destination and made a series of advertisements to the catchy jingle “Laguna, Laguna, Laguna #1.” 

Despite the jingle, it wasn’t a place I ever thought I would come back to.  I mostly remember it for the crazy four-hour meeting with Governor ER, and for the meal that I suspect put me on my back for 24 hours on the last trip.  But nonetheless, here I was Monday evening, in a cramped room, with little to no air circulation, with about 50 youth leaders. 

Little background on Philippines political structure:  Within cities, communities are broken up into neighborhoods, known as Barangays.  These Barangays have their own elected officials, something akin to ward leadership in some urban communities, to oversee the basic functions of the neighborhood.  Within the Barangay is a second elected set of elected officials, the Sangguniang Kabataan (or SK for short).  The SK’s are officials under the age of 30, elected by people also under 30, who are given 10% of the neighborhood’s budget to address youth specific needs, like recreational needs, and often even more basic concerns.     This whole thing is a massive enterprise.  Within the town I was in, San Pablo – roughly the size of Tallahassee, there are 80 Barangays, and equal number of SKs.

For me, I never cease to be amazed by the drive of young leaders in the developing world.  Often times, they are organizing for change with virtually no resources, and many times, with an oppressive, or at least dismissing government who sees them as just being in the way.    The SKs are no different.  Many question their role, but what I found was a roomful of engaged and curious young leaders, very aware of the challenges they face, but nonetheless committed to using their new found public platform to lead. 

The challenges facing them are enormous.  Corruption and patronage remains a massive problem, and often higher offices are simply swapped between members of the same family.  The infrastructure woes stifle productivity.  There are kids who can’t go to school because they don’t have shoes, and when they can get to school, often must drop out early to work.  Informal settlements tend to trap poverty in its place.  But these kids seemed up to the challenge, and in it, possibly some interesting ideas for ways to engage more young people in policy making in the USA.

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