Using architecture for development in the Philippines

    The pursuit of sustainable and inclusive development across the globe is increasingly feeling the pinch of Western governments and aid agencies tightening their belts and cutting foreign aid.

    Development efforts are thus shifting from traditional donors to non-traditional ones, including the private sector and philanthropists that are filling the void. The trend is already getting prominence in Asia-Pacific, where a renowned architect from the Philippines is using his craft to contribute not only to his country’s development goals but also to the world’s.

    “Development is not worthy of a name unless it’s spread evenly like butter on bread,” Felino Palafox, Jr., founder of Palafox Associates, told Devex. “Philanthropy is loving one’s neighbor, helping the poorest of the poor and being one community.”

    The rise of non-traditional and emerging donors signifies a new chapter in global development and aid, as noted in a recent report by the Asian Development Bank which calls to make humanitarian work more inclusive not only in its goals but also in the process of achieving them.

    63-year-old Palafox and included in the Forbes’s 2013 list of top philanthropists in Asia-Pacific, started helping communities both in his native Philippines and abroad through pro bono architectural designs and plans for housing and infrastructure targeting slum dwellers and victims of natural disasters. He believes philanthropy can fast-track the achievement of development goals, with architecture providing an essential “design” in the process.

    Providing opportunities

    Metro Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and according to the 2007 U.N. report on world urbanization, over 11 million of the city’s inhabitants are considered informal settlers or slum dwellers.

    This is one of the reasons why Palafox grew closer to philanthropic work, and another is the irony of the country’s societal situation. He said there is something wrong in a society when cemeteries are grander than people’s dwellings.

    “When we go to the cemetery in November, we see grand tombs and mausoleums but in the perimeter, you have shanties,” explained the architect. “I told myself, we plan, we design monuments for the dead but we cannot provide decent housing for the living.”

    Some of his projects include a 12-hectare complex with a church and school inside Manila’s largest dump site, infrastructure design for the indigenous people in northern Luzon and pro bono designs for local development foundations like Gawad Kalinga. Palafox also donated 100 percent of his firm’s professional fees from the rehabilitation of the city’s old estuaries.

    The last two projects are considered environmental activities, providing livelihood and opportunities for informal settlers while providing them a healthy and sustainable environment to live in. This is part of his advocacy to convince the government to focus on adaptation and urban renewal for the informal settlers rather than relocation, since it uproots these poor people from their community and livelihood.

    Focus on strength

    Despite the nobility of philanthropic work, Palafox however admitted that there remain challenges not only for people like him but also for the entire Philippine society and the rest of the global community.

    The challenges go both ways: societal and individual. The Philippines and any other poor country will never develop fully unless corruption is completely eliminated in the country’s socio-economic system, he noted.

    “We are a broken-hearted society because of corruption. We should expose and fight corruption because the biggest sufferers of corruption are the poorest of the poor,” Palafox said.

    The other challenge is individual acceptance of development initiatives and innovations. Development programs will only be effective if the recipients are willing to accept these projects. Palafox emphasized that “behavioral changes are hard to change but [they are] necessary.”

    These challenges, he noted, can be addressed through philanthropy and development work. He cited the vibrancy of the country’s civil society as one of the biggest manifestations of development coordination to fill in the gap and lapses of the government — playing on the variety of people’s expertise and stepping up when needed.

    “Play on your strength. I used architecture and urban planning [for development], that’s my core strength,” he said. “My advice to people thinking of doing philanthropic work is to continue being of service to others … There is a spiritual and psychological satisfaction from doing it.”

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    About the author

    • Lean Alfred Santos

      Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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