Sunday, 25 October 2009

Philippines diary: Pearl of the Orient

Marge, me and Gina with the UNICEF Facebook page
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
I arrived in Manila on Sunday afternoon, seven hours and 15°C out of synch with the local time and climate following an overnight flight from London. I’m here to help UNICEF Philippines develop their website, expand their presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter and create new web content by visiting and reporting on UNICEF projects throughout the country.

That was the plan at least. Three weeks before I was due to leave, Typhoon Ketsana (known locally as Tropical Storm Ondoy) slammed into Manila, one of the most densely populated urban centres in the world, deluging it with 18 inches of rain in 12 hours and flooding 80 per cent of the city. Over 600 people were killed and nearly 400,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centres. In total, over 6 million people were affected by the typhoon and subsequent flooding.

I really had no idea what to expect when arriving here. My plane flew in over waterlogged fields near the coast but Manila itself seemed clear. There was no sign of people wading waist deep through the streets that had become rivers like I’d seen on the news. However, Manila straddles a narrow strip of land between the coast and a large inland lake and I later discovered that poorer areas of the city, on the lake side, are still underwater. Without proper drainage or sanitation in these areas, the risks have now changed from drowning to disease, including outbreaks of cholera.

I’ll be seeing these areas soon but my first week was largely office-based. I’ve been working with Marge (Media and External Communications) and Gina (Online Fundraising) to start making improvements to the website. We’ve set up a YouTube channel to provide our own video for the site and a local web address,, which has gone down well. Marge and Gina have brought me up to speed on RedDot, UNICEF International’s content management system.

Thinking outside the box

Young people work on their presentation for the KNN workshop
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown

I’ve also made a start on generating content. I’ve filmed and edited a short video about what UNICEF Philippines does and why it needs donations from the public. I’ve also visited a youth media project at Kabataan News Network (KNN), an organisation funded by UNICEF, which will be the subject of my first feature.

Kabataan means ‘youth’ in Tagalog, the main local language of the Philippines. KNN trains young people to produce news reports using video, radio, print and photography. The focus is on communicating children’s rights and this week’s workshop was aimed at producing pieces for the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which takes place on 20 November this year.

I was really impressed by what they’d done. One group had produced a stop-motion animation, illustrating the issue of children caught in conflict, using little more than a stills camera, some clay and a few toy soldiers. Another group made a beautifully shot video about the right to an education. In their film, a street child draws a school on a flattened cardboard box. She then assembles the box and crawls into it, followed by her friends. It’s really effective and the team have got a great performance from their young star.

I was asked to introduce myself and give the young people feedback on their presentations. Afterwards, I interviewed Ros, the project coordinator, and Guillermo, one of the young people in the video group.

I asked Ros about KNN’s objectives for the CRC anniversary. “We wanted to focus not just on what children’s rights are but on their impact, on what has happened to the Philippines since it signed the Convention” she explained. “Most of the young people on this project are 20 or younger. They were born around the same time as the CRC. A lot of good things have happened in that time but there are still a lot of things that we can improve. So we wanted to ask their help, to determine what more can be done.”

Guillermo, 21, has dreamed of being a reporter since he was a child, so the project was a great opportunity for him. “We were given the topic of the right to an education,” he said. “While thinking about the story, we had the idea of a child that wants to go to school but doesn’t have the resources. When I was a kid, I liked to play with a box and imagine things with it. And the video shows that when one child has created a school with the box, other kids would like to go there too.”

“Here in the Philippines, even though there are lots of students starting school, few of them finish high school,” he continues. “In our video, we show that for every 100 children who start grade one, only 30 will finish. So even though we know that every child has the right to go to school, not all of them are getting the chance to finish.”

Manila, city of contrasts

Makati skyline at sunset. There is a small slum just around the corner
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Aside from work, I’ve had a bit of time to explore Manila. It’s a city of contrasts, most notably between the rich and poor. Makati, the business district, is full of high rise offices, shopping malls and luxury apartment blocks. It comes alive at night, when the call centres open. Workers throng the streets, food is sold on every corner and brightly decorated ‘jeepneys’ speed up and down the streets, picking people up and dropping them off apparently at random.

However, there’s also extreme poverty here. Even in Makati, I spotted a small slum squeezed between an office block and a water channel, with ramshackle buildings made of corrugated iron. Outside, children played in the street and an old man sold pots and pans. In total, a third of the population of Manila lives in informal settlements like these.

Filipinos are really friendly people. I’ve had no shortage of advice for activities and excursions, and have been introduced to several local dishes, including adobo (chicken and rice wrapped in banana leaf) and pancit (Filipino-style noodles). Some of it is a bit heavy for Western tastes, but this weekend I discovered bangus (barbequed milk fish stuffed with tomato and onion) at a food market, which was delicious. I should also mention that Filipinos have voracious appetites and eat five means a day. Technically, two of these are ‘snacks’, but they can be just as hearty as a main meal.

Marge and I share an interest in music and she’s lent me a small stack of Filipino music CDs, including some great funk and soul artists, like ‘Sinosikat’ and ‘Mike’s Apartment’. Perhaps foolishly, I’ve agreed to do a sponsored 10K run for UNICEF Philippines with Gina and Love. I ran 10K for UNICEF in London in May this year with no problems, but I started training this weekend and realised that running in a humid, 30 degree heat is an altogether different exercise. What have I let myself in for?

Next week is already looking busy. I’ll be up at 5:30 tomorrow morning to visit the last school in Manila to reopen after the floods. I’ll also be seeing a street children project and might be doing a story following the journey of a UNICEF van collecting milk donations from breastfeeding women for young children in the evacuation centres.

All in all, it’s great to be here in the Philippines, seeing what UNICEF does on the ground in a developing country. Having worked on the UK fundraising effort for the floods, it’ll be great to close the circle and report on how that money’s being spent.

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