A development path, paved by young leaders

When you think of the Philippines’ workforce and human resources potential, the first thing that may come to mind is the country’s reputation for sending its workers abroad. Overseas Filipino workers are often seen as modern-day heroes in the Philippines. They are revered for making huge sacrifices to support their families. They are credited for helping to power the Philippine economy. They are the country’s ambassadors.

But as we recognize the contributions of OFWs, let’s not ignore the many dedicated professionals who stay home. For a moment, let’s shift the debate away from that toxic and debilitating phrase “brain drain” and our attention to the young talent residing and working right here in the country I call home.

There’s a lot of encouraging development news coming out of the Philippines these days. Improved public financial management and overall better governance is building a solid foundation on which the country can progress. Perhaps more importantly, recent reforms are inspiring a brand of public confidence – in government institutions, in national leadership, in a competitive future – that the Philippines has never quite known.

This public confidence has many positive offshoots, but none more potent than the empowerment of a young generation of leaders that are dedicated to the Philippines’ sustainable development and inclusive growth. These young leaders are among us – working in Metro Manila and surrounding regions, driving change at various development organizations and within the Philippine government, building active civil society organizations and innovative social enterprises, leading local governments and important programs in education, health, microfinance, agriculture, climate change and infrastructure.

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many of them as Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in Manila, a global program which celebrates 40 development leaders under the age of 40 in cities around the world. Passionate, committed and focused, these honorees form a diverse and vibrant Philippine development community that rivals those of other aid hubs, including Washington and London, where Devex has already honored 40 Under 40 Leaders in International Development.

Ask any global development practitioner these days and they will stress the importance of young local leadership and talent in the markets which they work. That’s because traditional international development models are transforming. In the past, foreign aid donors would plan and contract most major development projects from their capital cities back home, be they Brussels, Canberra or Tokyo. The selected implementers, usually from the donor country, would then get on a plane bound for the recipient country and work there for a specified amount of time until the project was completed.

Today, however, these same donors are moving away from that model to one where projects are designed, planned and implemented by local government, local partners and local professionals.

The key for any developing country is to prove that it has the necessary local capacity, government and otherwise, to absorb and manage these funds. Over time, the emerging economies that do will outpace those that don’t. The Philippines is in a strong position.

The burgeoning relationship between the Philippine government and the world’s most prominent international donors speaks volumes about how the country is ushering in this era of country-led development. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp., an agency created under the principle that developing countries should chart the course of their own development, is doing its part to boost local capacity by channeling the vast majority of its $434 million aid package through local groups. For example, in close partnership with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, the MCC-supported KALAHI-CIDSS program empowers local government units and communities to create, implement and manage their own development projects.

Similarly, the World Bank, Australian Agency for International Development and Asian Development Bank continue to back the country’s flagship social protection program, which is administered by DSWD and local government units. The initiative, which provides cash incentives to poor families to keep their children in school and in good health, aims to reach 4.3 million households by 2016.

If you need more proof that donors are bolstering their direct engagement with the Philippines, the Obama administration has named the Philippines as one of four participating countries in its Partnership for Growth initiative. PFG aims to mobilize resources and expertise from both the U.S. and Philippine governments to jointly address constraints to broad-based economic growth. The U.S. government doesn’t make these decisions lightly.

Big international donors will continue to play an important role in the country’s development, but so will smaller, more dynamic organizations managed by young thinkers and leaders. Not known to many, the Philippines is establishing a global reputation for its social entrepreneurs and enterprises which bring a business approach to solving humanitarian and development challenges. Able to attract donor investment from a variety of public and private sources, these organizations are fostering a new era of healthy competition and innovation in development. Check out IdeaSpace, JeepNeed, Rags2Riches and MicroVentures: These are not your grandmother’s development organizations.

Corporations are also now at the table, bringing with them new ideas, new funding sources and new questions about the most effective way to alleviate poverty and stimulate development. Recently, the Philippine Business for Social Progress, a membership organization that rallies the business sector to participate in national development, convened its 200-plus corporate members to discuss strategies for inclusive business – a pioneering concept still in its early stages that requires companies to go beyond corporate social responsibility and integrate the poorest of the poor in their value chain. Major Philippine and foreign companies get it and are engaged. Young professionals within their ranks are leading the charge.

The Philippines still faces enormous development challenges and much of the burden will fall on the young development leaders of today and tomorrow.

There was a time not too long ago when my Manila-based colleagues and friends appeared indifferent to development work and public service, believing that the system was too broken to make an impact. That sentiment is vanishing. If you doubt it, meet the Manila 40 Under 40.

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About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.