(This is the edited transcript of the Question and Answer session between Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo (LGR) and BusinessWorld Editor-in-Chief Roby A. Alampay (RAA) during BusinessWorld’s Economic Forum held on July 12 at Shangri-La at The Fort, Taguig City)

RAA: In your experience, what is still missing in terms of getting people excited and then just getting people to identify for themselves what project might fulfill a social need and could also be commercially viable?

LGR: I think two things are missing. One of that is people are not really given enough voice in the planning process. Most of the programs are just given to them. With the very best of intentions of course. The donors and the sponsors would think these will fulfill the greatest need of the people. But from experience it would be better to give them a seat at the table from the planning process, not later in the day because if they are allowed to air their voices and allow to plan with the sponsors, the projects become very, very successful and one of these is the problem with housing. When my husband was still Secretary of DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government) they conceptualized a program called “People’s Plan” — where people themselves plan everything, where they will relocate, talk with landowners, do everything by themselves, and just make them feel that government is there whatever their plans are. These were the most successful relocations.

RAA: What are your plans to hold one of these consultations that brings everybody to the same table. What are your immediate plans and what ideas might our audience get?

LGR: We have identified five core programs already: hunger and food security, education, world development, empowerment, universal health care. This was conceptualized with a thought that I won’t be given any Cabinet post. So we started to hit the ground running already right after, even before my inauguration on June 30. What we’re doing now is, you know the only power that the Vice-President has or the only role that the Vice-President is given under the Constitution is just to be there just in case something happens to the Presidency (sic). We have studied what the previous administrations did, at least the Office of the Vice-President did, and most of the things that they did were more ceremonial and political. There wasn’t much space for us to do advocacy work. So when we started analyzing the budget, when we started analyzing what’s there for us there wasn’t enough elbow room for us to do policy and advocacy work and we wanted to change it. We started asking DBM (Department of Budget and Management) to allow us to give more space for advocacy work and that’s what were doing now. The reason why we transferred office was we wanted to save on money. And right now we would be saving at least P200,000 a month. That will give us more space to do what we want to do. But since we don’t have any mandate to execute programs, what we intend to be doing is to act as a convenor of sorts. There’s so many groups out there doing advocacy work, so many private civil society groups, NGOs (nongovernment organizations) doing corporate social responsibility (CSR)-related work but there’s no umbrella program for all of them to be doing this. So what we’re doing now is we’re holding a lot of advocacy meetings, getting all these groups together. We’re doing now is sort of an environmental scanning who, which groups are doing advocacy work for hunger and food security, we lump them in one group. We will provide a forum for all these groups to talk together and discuss what could I do, what could the other groups do and be a conduit for all of these.

RAA: One urban development expert, Mr. Benjamin dela Peña, wrote that housing should be addressed not as a noun rather as a verb. He was saying that ownership is good but we should throw into the mix affordable housing, affordable by rent, and so as being done in Germany and a lot of First-World countries where ownership is not necessarily high. Does this resonate with you and might this open up some ideas where other models for housing might be participated in by the private sector?

LGR: I was appointed Friday [July 8]. I was in Lanao when the President called me up. When I reached Manila I had to summon some of the officials of HUDCC (Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council) to give me a briefing already and I was quite surprised by the numbers given to me. I mentioned in my speech that there’s a 1.4-million backlog of houses. But they were saying that’s not the real number. It might balloon to 5.5 million if we will be able to have an honest-to-goodness inventory of all who do not have decent houses. But you know the bulk of that problem is in Metro Manila. And in Metro Manila there are not so many lands left anymore for these houses. So we’re looking at the model demonstrated by Singapore and Hong Kong to be able to combat this problem meaning set our sights on medium- to high-rise housing projects instead of vertical housing. There has to be an amendment to many policies that are there already. HUDCC is not exactly a Department of Housing, it’s just a coordinating council of six other key shelter agencies so strictly speaking it doesn’t have much power. And all the key shelter agencies are working on their own. We have a lot of cleaning up and straightening out of policies so that we will become more effective. But the main thrust really is to do away with the backlog at least in the next six years. We hope to be able to do that. I would like to think that this administration is fully supportive of that. The past administration has done a lot already but because of the backlogs that are there, we really have to work, to bend over and work backwards so as to erase everything.

Erika Fortuno-Mioten, an editorial assistant of BusinessWorld’s Special Features section, transcribed this interview.

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