Suitcase stories (2)

(Concluded from Monday)

In Biao, Sultan Kudarat, a primary school is helped run by a parent-teacher organization that is in turn aided by a tribal council. The project took three months to implement there. The community agreed to contribute five pesos a day, per household, for the solar lights because they were spending so much more on kerosene anyway.

The measure was a success and soon, the community had some additional income. There was high efficiency in collection. Alas, the collector encountered some personal emergency and dipped his hands into the money.

The community set in motion a mechanism to get the money back from the collector, consistent with their culture, that enabled the people to trust the system again.

In a high school in Antipolo, Rizal, the teachers and parent-teacher officers could not seem to commit to undertaking the maintenance of the solar suitcases. They were also rotating functions and had other more pressing responsibilities.

The children, however, recognized their great need for light. As a result, the student council of the school, called the Supreme Student Government, took it upon itself to take care of the suitcase.

“We are still seeing how the youth can take on this challenge. It’s an implementation issue,” according to Stiftung Solarenergie (Solar Energy Foundation) executive director Bambi Reyes.

Other end of the spectrum

Donors range from the corporate to the individual. Some of them indicate that they want to focus on a particular region or even a community. Some entrust the choosing to Solarenergie.

One such donor is Les, born and raised in the United States by Filipino parents who had migrated to the US before he was born.

“This is my way of connecting to my roots,” he said.

According to Les, he has tried sharing with other projects for several causes in the Philippines but he was not able to see whether his help made any difference at all. “Here, the impact is immediate.” During his prior visits to the Philippines, Les­—friend and roommate of Solarenergie chairman Jim Ayala when they were studying in the US—would join the installation teams that went to the communities.

He was then able to physically see the difference that his donated suitcases made on the communities that received them.

Other international donors gain cultural understanding of the Philippines. They learn, for instance, that just as not all places in the Philippines are populous or prosperous, not all of them are lit.

“There’s still energy poverty in the Philippines,” according to Ayala. Unless this is addressed, we cannot say that there is real equality and development so long as many places remain in the dark.

Lessons learned

In the years that Solarenergie has been seeking to light up schools and clinics in remote places in the country, Ayala and Reyes have learned a few lessons which they hope would help them do their jobs better in the future.

They learned, for instance, that civil society organizations play a crucial role in their operations. Solarenergie has a lean office and they cannot do all the validation, training and capacity building by themselves. CSOs, for their part, have extensive knowledge of the actual situations of the communities and the people in them.

Thrust should be in training partners because in the end, this is about enabling and empowering people to take care of themselves in the long term. Repairs? Troubleshooting? It’s best they know how to deal with these on their own.

Another learning that Ayala and Reyes mentioned is to never assume that you know what people need, better than they know it themselves.

Even when you think you have the perfect solution, in the end, you are still an outsider. “These people, they know their community, they know what would work, they know what the potential problems would be.”

It is easy to imagine how the project can prevent someone from taking for granted the benefits of electricity. “Development is difficult without electricity,” Ayala says. “In the islands we’ve gone to, those which have never known electricity, it is like how it was 50 years ago.”

Despite one’s good intentions, one also needs to be focused and strategic. “We want to help, so we have to figure out the best way to help. We can’t be too scattered,” Ayala, perhaps applying his executive expertise, says.

He ends with citing the invaluable role of community-based civil society organizations. “They have been very helpful to us. They know the people, and they are in the best position to help shape their mindsets.”

In the end, it’s not just about giving light. It’s about changing how people see help. “We don’t just get things for free, much less feel entitled to them. We have to do our share.”


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