Manila – a mega challenge for SWITCH?

Posted on December 17, 2010

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By Roel Landingin/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Zaragoza, Spain. 17 Dec 2010 — Stakeholders. Engagement. Demonstration. I’ve never heard the three words mentioned so often as in the past four days in Zaragoza in Spain. They sounded the same as in Manila in the Philippines where I come from but the meanings are quite different.

Back home, when stakeholders engage with one other, it’s often in a court of law where one group, say a community association, tries to stop a government agency or a water utility from pushing through with fare hike or a new dam project. Demonstration? For us, that often means a street protest against an unpopular government action.

Learning about other meanings of those words is one of the benefits of attending the conference on sustainable water management in cities in the historic city of Zaragoza.

As a journalist, I often write about conflicts, usually between the authorities and people affected by government decisions and actions. The last story I wrote on water policy was how a government water agency was trying to rush a deal to award a $1 billion contract to build a water dam to a private company amid conditions marked by lack of competition and transparency.

In the course of the conference, I began to wonder if new forms of multi-stakeholder engagements, particularly learning alliances for strategic planning, could perhaps help promote more authentic public participation in the search for solutions to Metropolitan Manila’s long-term water supply and wastewater problems.

About 97 per cent of the capital region’s water supply comes from just one source that is also used for irrigation and power generation. While the need for new sources of water supply is widely recognized, there is no consensus on the best and most cost-effective way to do this. Less than a tenth of Metro Manila is sewered, and most of the wastewater just flows with no or minimal treatment into streams and rivers that eventually finds their way into the large bodies of water near Manila.

Talking to two university professors from Brazil who attended the conference, I learned that it’s possible to get various stakeholders who find themselves on opposing sides of a short-term problem or policy question to work together on long-term or strategic issues. I know a little about strategic planning from business school and often write stories about company strategies.  But this is the first time for me to hear that strategic planning can be used as a tool to promote multi-stakeholder cooperation and public participation.

It sounds very interesting. The expectation is that broad agreement on the long-term vision and plan will help reduce future conflicts among various stakeholders either because they have learned to work together or they have outlined solutions to future problems that are often the trigger for conflicts.

Perhaps SWITCH should consider sending a learning alliance coordinator to Manila to work with any of the country’s fine universities to see if the idea could work in the Philippines.

The country suffers from the rather unfortunate reputation of having millions of well-educated and earnest people who could not seem to work together for the country’s steady progress. More than a tenth of the country’s 90 million people have left the country to seek greener pastures abroad.  If the going gets tough for the SWITCH coordinator, there are hundreds of lovely beaches around to help re-energize the body and spirit.

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