UN relief chief leaving with mango table, lessons on strength
MANILA, Philippines—When United Nations resident humanitarian coordinator Luiza Carvalho starts her new job in Panama next week, she will be sitting behind a one-of-a-kind desk—a huge table made out of the trunk of a mango tree that she purchased on the spot on a trip to Tagaytay City.
“Can you believe it? A very, very big mango tree was made into a table, and I’m taking it with me. It’s a dining table, but I’m going to transform it into my office desk. Because it’s
going to be mine. I’m not going to share it,” said Carvalho, smiling widely and gesturing as if to smooth out the absent desk.
“I spotted it and it was full of dust. But when they dusted it off, the wood was yellowish and quite thick,” Carvalho said.
Already packed and freighted for the 30-hour trip to Latin America, the mango table from the Philippines is where Carvalho will be writing her reports, making important calls, hatching ideas and making decisions as the new regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at UN Women.
“It’s very inspiring because the wood is very beautiful, and the design as well,” Carvalho said in an interview.
Strength and resilience
She will also take with her the much-admired Filipino strength and resilience, the same qualities she hopes to live up to, having received the Order of Lakandula (Political and Civic Merit) with the rank of Grand Officer, one of the country’s highest honors, from President Aquino on Oct. 27, during her farewell call in Malacañang.
The recognition, named after the 16th-century Datu Lakandula, is given to citizens and foreigners who emulate the ruler of Tondo’s “dedication to the responsibilities of leadership, prudence, fortitude, courage and resolve in the service of one’s people.”
The UN official was cited for her “significant contribution in further strengthening the Philippine-United Nations relations and for her outstanding and dedicated service in the field of humanitarian work, peace and development, and empowerment of women, among others.”
“Spiritually, I will take the strength of the honor that I got, the whole history of Lakandula. I hope I can take the strength of the country, the resilience, the posture with me,” she said.
Hard to say goodbye
Carvalho and her husband, Jose Renato, will be leaving Manila on Nov. 13, two years and one month after taking on the post of the UN’s chief humanitarian official in the Philippines.
She said it would be hard to say goodbye to a country she has come to consider her second home and to a people who have embraced her like family.
“I will be very, very homesick about the Philippines,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment, seemingly already remembering the time she spent in the country.
Though nothing could have prepared Carvalho for her hectic assignment here, the Brazilian-born Carvalho was happy to be appointed to a post in the Philippines, having closely followed the Philippines’ transition from dictatorship to democracy through the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.
PH a reference model
At the time, Brazil was also at its own historical turning point, with a 21-year military regime coming to an end in 1985. The country passed a new Constitution in October 1988, restoring civilian government and basic civil liberties just a year after the Philippines did.
“We were very much linked to the Philippines because we went through the process of ending the dictatorship and going back to democratic life at almost the same time. So we were looking at the Philippines as a model, because it happened here in 1986, ours in 1988,” said the 58-year-old Carvalho who even then was already set on going into development work.
“It was a peaceful revolution, so we were following [the developments here] … The Philippines always played for us quite a reference model in terms of how you managed your transition to democratic life. It was very important for Brazil,” she said.
Upon landing in Manila on Sept. 24, 2012, Carvalho was immediately struck by the feeling of home.
There was the familiar Latin-like warmth of the Filipinos, for one, and the traditions left here by more than three centuries of Spanish rule.
“Because of the traditions, the very strong links with Latin culture, I believe that my merge into the society, into the work, has been very much facilitated by that,” Carvalho said.
The Philippines was the first Asian assignment for Carvalho, having previously served as resident humanitarian coordinator in Costa Rica.
Holding a doctorate in sociology from the University of Essex, a masters in social planning and development in Third World countries from London School of Economics and Political Science, and diplomas in public and social policy, Carvalho has always wanted to work in development and poverty alleviation.
She spent 15 years working on social development with the government of Brazil, before moving to the United Nations Development Programme, her mother agency, in 1999.
Arriving in the Philippines in 2012 at the start of the world’s longest Christmas season, Carvalho and her retired architect husband were given a “social induction” of sorts, meeting new friends in the many diplomatic functions during the run-up to one of the Philippines’ biggest holidays.
First big challenge
She barely had breathing space before her first big challenge came: Typhoon “Pablo” (international name: Bopha), the strongest typhoon to hit Mindanao in 20 years, leaving more than a thousand dead.
“I remember when I presented my credentials to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, he said, ‘You come in a very good moment (Christmas time) to learn about the Philippine character.’ And he was absolutely right. This was a very good moment to come to work, and at the same time, and we also had Pablo, so I was very, very busy, working on that,” Carvalho said.
Several more emergencies followed—at magnitudes she had never seen before, not even in quake-prone Costa Rica—but there was no shortage of support for Carvalho and the United Nations’ humanitarian country team here.
She saw this during the response to successive disasters in 2013: The 20-day conflict between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels that began in September, Typhoon “Santi” that hit Luzon on Oct. 12, the earthquake that struck Bohol and other parts of the Central Visayas three days later, and Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” which devastated the Eastern Visayas on Nov. 8.
“I think nobody was prepared for being this busy. Because 2013 was really the year, wasn’t it? There was no crystal ball that showed that it was going to be like this,” said Carvalho.
“But, of course, there was also the fact that the response … was eased and facilitated by the fact that government had the system in place, and private sector is coming very strong, which not many countries have,” she added.
Fantastic donor community
It is one of the many things she said she would miss about the Philippines—the wide network of willing partners who would respond to every call for help, anytime.
“I am going to miss the Philippines a lot because of the development community, the donors, partners. There’s a level of commitment here that I really hope I find in other places. Because it’s impressive,” Carvalho said.
She recalled how back in 2012, newly arrived and scrambling to respond to Typhoon Pablo, she made her first calls to foreign ambassadors in Manila asking for help in the relief effort, still somewhat shy and uncertain that they would respond.
“And I was phoning some ambassadors and telling them, ‘We are here meeting with Secretary Dinky (Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman), can you please support us with some extra tents?” Carvalho said.
“We had airplanes arriving just before Christmas, from AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development), USAID (United States Agency for International Development), from Norway, from all the partners. It’s really amazing,” she said.
She complimented the “fantastic, generous, committed” donor community that always heeded appeals for help. She is also all praises for the Philippines’ robust nongovernment organization community and civil society, citing their role in mobilizing aid for disaster survivors.
“It’s really knowing where you are, how to operate, whom you connect with, and having a big trust among the network. Because it’s networking and trust. These are the two biggest lessons,” said Carvalho of what she has learned from the Yolanda experience.
She also cited her family’s support, grateful that her three children are all on their own, pursuing their own passions. Livia, the eldest, is a biologist currently studying on a scholarship at Harvard University; Pedro Olavo is an engineer taking his masters in energy studies in Australia; and Cassia is a political scientist in Brazil, following in her mother’s footsteps in development work.
“The rhythm is very tense, and to be honest with you, I am happy sometimes that my children are not living with or depending on me because they are of age, so I can devote myself completely to work,” said Carvalho.
The children have spent holidays in the Philippines several times, coming here for Christmas in 2012 and even visiting Boracay, “teasing their friends back home that they had been to one of the best beaches that year,” Carvalho said.
“I have a very patient husband, he was very supportive of [my] function. We had to learn as husband and wife throughout life. It’s not a matter of which one was more important than the other. What he did was fundamental for me, to [enable me] to be in the forefront of the response. So I’m very appreciative of the role that my family played,” she said.
Throughout all the destruction she saw in the Philippines, Carvalho observed how solid relationships always served as the foundation for rebuilding, no matter how many times disasters come.
“This is a country where relationships last. You’re very able to build strong and binding personal relationships, trust and respect. And this is what I most appreciated here. I really feel that here in Philippines, I can call a person from private sector or government, my assistant can call [that same] person, another assistant can call that person, and we receive the same treatment,” said Carvalho.
“This idea of mutual respect and empathy is quite high in your way of living,” she said.
It’s one more of the many souvenirs that Carvalho would be taking with her as she leaves the Philippines. Among them, “the belonging feeling” she felt, and the Filipinos’ unique brand of diligence—“that sense that something more could still be done, to research and dig a little further, to do more.”
Mangoes and rice
The demands of the job took Carvalho to many parts of the country, but she wishes she could have visited more of the famous tourist spots, El Nido in Palawan and Camiguin, among them.
She has developed a liking for adobo and crispy pata—she and her husband loved to dine at one particular Filipino restaurant in Makati City—and knows she will never find mangoes as sweet as the ones she had here.
And, of course, all those cups of rice.
“One of the things I really appreciated here is the richness of discovering how to manage eating rice. I never ate rice in so many ways until here,” Carvalho said, laughing.
Carvalho is sure to be back and hopes that by then, the Philippines will already be experiencing the gains from the reform and the drive for inclusive growth, the beginnings of which she “was very lucky” to see during her tour here.
“I hope that in a very, very short time, the Philippines will be seeing the fruits of the development that we are seeing now,” she said.
She cited the country’s impressive economic growth, the passage of critical legislation such as the sin tax and reproductive health laws, enhanced disaster response systems and the signing of the peace agreement with Moro rebels.
“So all these discussions on … the future path of the Philippines will require that actors come together and are really able to come to an agreement that favor all the people, but preferentially favor those who are least endowed,” said Carvalho.
“This is urgent. And this is what the Philippines has the capacity to do, because all things are very favorable now. It’s a very good moment to do this: A contract, a pact among all sectors, that the benefits will trickle down and be absorbed by the communities that most need them. This is what I wish,” she said.
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