Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Philippines (Part 1)

I was only back in Sydney a week and I was packing my bags again. It’s to my immense good fortune that my role within Opportunity is one of the few that takes me out to the field, where I talk to our partner CEOs and staff, discuss our policies and even meet clients on occasion.

In the busiest moments… I have to confess I do forget how fortune I am. That week in Sydney was one of those moments.

But as exhausted as you do get, sleeping fitfully on flights, waking at 5am in hotel rooms, I think these times are cherished after the event. I’m already smiling thinking about the trip to the Philippines. This is the first of a couple of updates explaining why:

The Friendliest People

I never feel confident enough to make conclusions about a country after visiting as a tourist. It doesn’t stop me making some assertions – as I did about every country I visited on the Big Trip – but they are always qualified observations. There’s something about the tourist experience – visiting tourist sites, flitting from place to place, filling the voyeuristic, detached role of the tourist – that puts a barrier between you, and truly knowing a country. And by knowing a country I mean knowing its people, knowing how the society ‘works’, how people treat each other, and how they treat outsiders. That’s why my visits to India with work have been such a privilege, and so much more rewarding than my first trip, as a tourist.

So I was delighted to be able to experience the Philippines for the first time with some purpose other than enjoying the beach, the shopping and restaurant food (not that there’s anything wrong with those things, which I did plenty of when the work was over!). My main purpose in the Philippines was to make a presentation on Social Performance Management to some of the 600 attendees at the APPEND Microfinance Summer Camp 2009. Append is an organisation representing 12 MFIs that serve over a million clients in the Philippines. The summer camp was a chance for the Filipino MFIs and their staff to reflect on the past year at a 3-day retreat on the southern island of Mindanao.

The retreat was a revelation for me. Our Filipino partners are hard-working and have a level of dedication to poverty relief that you will not see in many other countries with a history of microfinance. But the summer camp is as much a celebration of the unity and shared mission of the staff as it is about any technical aspect of microfinance. There was much singing, dancing and ceremony. Religion is a very important part of life in the Philippines and people are clearly very much in touch with the role of religion in their work. Karaoke was well featured in the evenings too, and though I would have given it a go, I was a little relieved when I was passed over in the karaoke event in favour of my colleague Mark (our program manager for the Philippines) who was pulled up on stage for a couple of 80s classics from Fame.

In fact the atmosphere seemed odd and a little unnerving at first. It took me a while to realise that the reason the atmosphere seemed odd to me was because people were so relaxed at the event. The Filipinos are truly a people that are laid-back in social situations. They are the most social people I

have ever met. No wonder one-sixth of the world’s text messages are typed and sent in the Philippines!

The second day saw me presenting to a break-out group of about 100-150 people. This seemed to go fairly well. I’m not sure my accent was the simplest to understand, though peoples grasp of English in the Philippines is excellent. I started the presentation by speaking a little Spanish, which was met with much appreciation (though actually I found out that the Filipino language Tagalog is only very loosely related to Spanish) despite my limited vocabulary! Anyway, I got through the presentation fairly well I think, and the conference was a great opportunity to make contacts with key people in each of our partners.

And then on the third day we went white-water rafting. As well as being a good laugh, this was my first chance to see some of the natural beauty of the Philippines that the guidebooks will gushingly tell you is under-sold and much ignored.

Why under-sold and ignored? Well, the Philippines has a strange demographic – it’s a place that’s hard to get your head around – an incredible 4,000 inhabited islands sitting lying shards of broken crockery in the South China Sea, connected by a hundred ferry routes, and more recently by almost as many domestic flightpaths.

Mindanao itself has much about it that is strange, and no doubt wonderful too, but sadly the ongoing terrorist activity on the island has gobbled up all the international attention. I’ve been to a lot of places that have been affected by terrorism now – Sri Lanka, Bali, Nepal - places where terrorism has become part of the definition of the place (as opposed to India for example, where mercifully, attacks on Delhi and Mumbai continue to be just a tiny part of the Indian story) and I’ve learned that the most respectful thing you can do is to appreciate that, for local people, this is often a part of their experience that they do not want to dwell on, or discuss with outsiders.

In Cagayan de Oro, a town in the north of Mindanao where we had the conference, I found people to be unfailingly welcoming, friendly and always looking to do something for you, not through any feeling of obligation (that I could discern) but through that joy in being sociable that I’ve mentioned already, and through a respect for other people.

So that was the working part of the trip. I hope I’m privileged enough to return to return to visit our Filipino partners in the field. I can’t wait to see how they work with clients – I’m sure it will be a really enlightening experience.

Next update will feature encounters with typhoons, scuba diving, boxing matches and an imprompto meeting with a taxi driver who has just started protestant Quakerism in the Philippines. Stay tuned.

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