Leni Robredo went live on Facebook last Oct. 29 to thank all the volunteers who quickly came to the aid of the families whose lives were harshly buffeted by Severe Tropical Storm “Paeng” (international name: “Nalgae”), and to appeal for more help.
Speaking from Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts in the United States where she is one of its five Hauser Leaders for the fall 2022 semester, Robredo said in Filipino: “Our volunteers put their lives at risk just to be able to help others, and for this we are very grateful. Our prayer is for you to be safe always.”
She was addressing the driving force behind Angat Buhay, the flagship project that was launched in 2016 by her then Office of the Vice President (OVP) to fight poverty and respond to the needs of the remotest and most impoverished communities. At the end of her term as vice president last June, it evolved into a nongovernment organization that continues to extend assistance to Filipinos nationwide.
“The help that we are providing is not about politics. It does not involve any color, and everyone is welcome to volunteer,” Robredo added—an important statement that underscored the inclusive nature of the NGO that, as in its early form, taps public and private groups and individuals in its mission.
Highs and lows
Angat Buhay, with Robredo as chair and Raffy Magno as executive director handling its overall operations, is based on Cordillera Street in Santa Mesa Heights, Quezon City.
CoverStory posed the question to Magno, who also headed the project under the OVP during Robredo’s term: Is Angat Buhay’s status as an NGO better than when it was under the government?
“I wouldn’t say that the other iteration is better because I think they’re both okay…. they both have highs and lows,” he said.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference: “Angat Buhay as a government program was good because it was funded by the government. So we had a sustainable stream of funding for our projects and it was easier for us to implement projects because we could allocate funds for them. Compare that [to the present]—Angat Buhay is an NGO; we have to look for funds,” he said.
Magno cited the hostile atmosphere during the previous administration, “when Angat Buhay was still under the government [and] the attacks against Ma’am Leni were really very bad.” He said “it was really scary because of the very vindictive environment that made our other partners scared in a way to help us.”
“Until now, these attacks affect our partnership with other private organizations,” said Magno. But “since we are now an NGO,” he said, relations had become “more friendly, and at the same time we are also open, [that] we’re not a competitor of government agencies because our goal, really, is to fill the gaps where needed in our society.”
Angat Buhay aims to involve Filipinos who are ready to serve and make a difference. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that when it was launched as an NGO last July 1, one of the four pillars that it introduced was community engagement and empowerment, which highlights the importance of mobilizing its volunteer pool. (The other three pillars are health, education, and disaster relief and rehabilitation.)
Magno said that after the May elections, the “Pink Movement” that rallied behind Robredo’s run for the presidency became stronger. “We want to capitalize on that energy coming from ordinary Filipinos who want to help and are ready to help in solving the many problems of our country,” he said.
To encourage Filipinos to take active part in what’s happening, Angat Buhay in August named its volunteer arm “Angat Bayanihan.” It is being used as a volunteer engagement platform and will be formalized in 2023.
“In different parts of the Philippines, there were many political and volunteer organizations that transformed into their own civil societies or NGOs, and we want to build on that network,” Magno said. “So in every program that we implement now as an NGO, there’s always a volunteer component.”
He recalled that when Angat Buhay was a government program under the OVP, “we were able to implement it on our own because we had the human and other resources that were needed.” Now, as an NGO, it has to “collaborate with stakeholders—and that’s how we want to be known, our way of being unique in the whole NGO circle and network in the Philippines,” he said.
While Angat Buhay understands that various volunteer groups have been inspired by Robredo’s vision for the country and indicate the NGO’s name to represent their respective province or barangay—for example, “Angat Buhay Barangay B”—in pursuing their endeavors, it urges them to use a different name.
According to Magno, the reason is to encourage these volunteer groups to own their organization, to take ownership of the process that they went through, and to implement their own projects without being told what to do by the NGO that serves as their inspiration.
Angat Buhay wants to cultivate active citizenship and people’s participation and to embrace the process of empowerment, Magno said. The first step is for every group to embrace their identity, he said.
Projects and programs
In Angat Buhay’s six years of serving Filipinos, it has come up with, among many others, the Bayanihan e-Consulta which aims to make teleconsultation accessible to ordinary Filipinos. Dormitories are also being built, funded by the Rotary Club and LBC Hari ng Padala Foundation.
There’s also its convergence program called “Angat Bukas: Lusog, Galing, Sigla,” which identifies municipalities with high malnutrition incidence and helps children in areas requiring an intensive nutrition program.
Angat Bukas—through the help of the Philippine Business for Social Progress, Philippine Business for Education, Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation and other organizations—involves many aspects, such as education, livelihood and mental health, to ensure that children and their families will be able to sustain their needs even after the program ends. It is being conducted in Iloilo, Negros Occidental, and Northern and Eastern Samar, and is targeted to be launched in other provinces in 2023.
Angat Buhay has also partnered with the University of the Philippines’ College of Education to launch literacy hubs nationwide with a goal of making sure that after a six-month program, the children involved are able to read.
As chair of Angat Buhay, Robredo “handles all our programming…. making sure that programs are implemented without any hitch,” Magno said, explaining that in NGOs, programming “involves the process of designing programs—for example, for education and health.”
“Ma’am Leni is also involved in monitoring and is hands-on even with administration work. She holds office here [on Cordillera Street] and reports for work even if she doesn’t receive any salary…. She is the real volunteer here and remains active in sustaining the organization even if she doesn’t receive compensation,” said Magno.
And even when in Harvard Kennedy School, where she is among high-profile leaders invited to advise students and lead certain academic events, Robredo takes part in Angat Buhay’s day-to-day operations. “We communicate every day,” Magno said. “I am very touched because Ma’am Leni’s being hands-on proves that our NGO is important to her. That she’s not just the NGO’s chair but is also focused on the needs of the Filipino people.”
Magno recalled that when a strong earthquake struck Abra last Oct. 25, Robredo was one of the first to remind the NGO’s staff to check with their network and volunteers in the province. He said Robredo was very particular when it came to Angat Buhay’s sense of urgency in finding out the condition of the people struck by disaster and how it can immediately send help. (In Magno’s Oct. 29 Facebook post, he mentioned that Robredo was part of the team monitoring the mobilization of Angat Buhay volunteers to provide relief and assistance to families devastated by Paeng.)
“When we were still with the OVP, even if we were undermanned and had meager funding, we made sure that we responded to the needs of the Filipino people right away. Because that’s how we make people feel that they are seen and heard, and that their struggles are also important to us,” he said.
Even with Robredo’s proven dedication in helping people despite now being a private citizen, her critics and an apparent troll army are relentless in trying to discredit her and in spreading disinformation. They even look for her, and not public officials, when disasters occur.
To this, Magno remarked that Angat Buhay’s No. 1 problem was disinformation. He said it appeared that Angat Buhay and Robredo “are being used to cover up the inefficiencies and shortcomings of some officials in government, and that’s a sad state.”
“It’s as if there’s no accountability,” he said. “It’s as if the goal is to really discredit the organization and Ma’am Leni so people and private organizations won’t support us, so we won’t be able to properly operate as an NGO.”
After all, he said, their operations depended on their donors and volunteers; if the discrediting of their NGO continued, the number of donors and volunteers would eventually decrease.
For every disaster Angat Buhay has a point person, and because it has a lot of volunteers, mobilization is easy, Magno said. This was one of the topics that Angat Buhay discussed with Social Welfare Secretary Erwin Tulfo, he said, adding that the NGO’s quick presence in disaster-stricken areas was due to its many volunteers, and not, as its critics claim, due to any wish to compete.
“Wherever we are, and let’s say there’s a typhoon and we have volunteers in the area, whether we like it or not, these people will help,” Magno said. “We also told Secretary Tulfo that sometimes people living in hard-to-reach areas don’t get to receive any help, and so we inform the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) about these areas.”
And yes, the DSWD and Angat Buhay do communicate. “During Typhoon ‘Karding’ (international name “Noru”) we informed the office of Secretary Tulfo that we will be heading to a certain area hit by the typhoon,” Magno said. “We are serious when we say that we are not competing with government agencies. No. 1, we simply cannot compete with government resources and we don’t have billions of pesos.”
Angat Buhay continues to face challenges like funding woes, disinformation—and even being Red-tagged three days after its launch as an NGO. But its resolve to help Filipinos in need appears to be unflagging, with volunteers who make things better and who are true champions of unity serving as its biggest, most potent supporters.