IN Filipino, the closest word for volunteering is Bayanihan. It derives from the word Bayani which means “hero of the country”.
Volunteering is recognised as a pillar of active citizenship and the Philippines, which has the most earthquakes, typhoons and other extreme weather events in the world, needs those heroes all year round.
The rest of the world called it Typhoon Haiyan, but Filipinos called it Yolanda, because the typhoons each year are named locally in alphabetical order, and there had already been two dozen by last November.
Yolanda killed more than 6,000 people. It destroyed 1.2 million homes and 33 million coconut trees. The global effort to help people in Leyte, Samar and other affected islands has been immense, with private donations and aid from the UK particularly appreciated: the most generous in the world. Posters everywhere in Leyte’s main city Tacloban thank the world: they are a genuine tribute from locals, but 100 days on there remains much to be done.
“Building back better” has become the key objective for the next phase when reconstruction replaces emergency relief. The farmers need seeds to grow new crops and help to replace the coconut trees that will take seven years to regrow.
The replacement of hundreds of thousands of homes is the biggest programme of its kind anywhere, ever, and it will need kit as well as cash. Old rusty nails will not hold even the most resilient of new materials in place for long here. And schools and factories need rebuilt, providing the hope that will stop the drift of people into Manila, and other cities abroad, where trafficking and exploitation can be the horrific truth behind the “new job” promised by the smiling stranger.
I went to the Philippines with the charity VSO, which sends skilled volunteers and young people around the world to fight poverty. VSO is working for the long term, building the capacity of local people by working alongside them, and these days it’s a two-way process as VSO also sends Filipino volunteers to share their skills in other countries.
When VSO asked me to be a Philippines volunteer I did not hesitate. I was being asked to work with VSO Bahaginan (their local Filipino partner) and Beyond 2015 (a coalition of Filipino campaign groups) to help them influence the development targets that should replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
That was attractive enough as a challenge but this placement also gave me the chance to learn more about the Philippines where the global challenges of poverty, inequality, climate change and conflict come together in a rare and significant way.
The Philippines will not meet the MDGs; real poverty remains high; they are hit more often by extreme weather events than almost anywhere else; and Filipinos have suffered from conflicts that have taken lives and curbed development.
So this experience gave me a chance to assist those campaigning for change and provided fresh evidence for me to campaign for the new global agreement I believe so vital if we are to end extreme poverty globally by 2030.
The MDGs were important in their time. They addressed the urgent need for a step-change in provision of health facilities, maternity care, clean water, school places and vaccinations. But they were never designed to tackle root causes. It would have been impossible in the politics of 2000-02 to secure agreement to really tackle inequality and reduce conflict. And there was a totally separate track on climate change and the environment despite the obvious links.
Now it is different. We have a chance to move to the next stage, and we need to grasp it with both hands. We are the first generation to have the resources, the know-how and global reach to end extreme poverty. The goals agreed in 2015 will be key drivers on that journey, and we have to get them right. Global leaders will have failed if they do not set goals that recognise peace, environmental sustainability and tackling inequality will make the most difference.
We also have the technology and the resources to protect communities like Leyte’s from extreme weather events, so these new goals must address disaster-risk resilience too. It is possible to develop livelihoods that are strong and diverse enough to survive the wreckage, homes that withstand the water and the wind, and crops that feed families and are commercially viable all year round. So I strongly support the efforts of the United Nations Secretary General to include disaster resilience in these new global goals.
During my time in the Philippines I have seen the importance of organisations such as VSO and Beyond 2015. They work with Filipino volunteers and civil society to make sure this is a locally led effort. I want the negotiations about future development goals to include these local voices.
They are the key to making sure the political machinations of the past do not hold back our ambitions for the future. When the people’s voices lead, then the goals and the action they demand will change lives for good.
• Jack McConnell has just returned from the Philippines where he spent ten days with VSO Bahaginan and Beyond 2015. Lord McConnell was First Minister of Scotland 2001-07.