Private-Public Collaboration (April 2, 2009) by René Azurin

For the past four weeks, I have been an involved witness to an extraordinary example of private sector groups working side-by-side with an agency of government. If there had been a way, during this period, for me to have blocked out news of presidential sons pushing charter change or public bidding committees handing out contracts for more overpriced equipment, I might have even believed that I had somehow been magically transported to another country.

Still, the experience provided a glimpse of how the hardening barriers that divide us citizens from our government can melt away when the officials of a government agency share with civil society groups a sincere dedication to a worthy cause. When public officials actually move to a beat not dictated by distrusted politicos, genuine collaboration between the private sector and the public sector remains possible and the nation as a whole benefits greatly.

To Secretary Angelo Reyes and his team at the Department of Energy is owed much of the spectacular nationwide response to Earth Hour 2009 that saw more than 10 million Filipinos in 647 cities and towns – No.1 worldwide – throughout the country switch off their lights for one hour last Saturday evening in solidarity with the rest of the world in the campaign to avert global warming. Although Earth Hour is a private sector initiative – led globally by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and locally by WWF-Philippines, the Green Army Network Foundation (of which I am a part), and the SWITCH movement – it needs to be conceded that the hugely successful social mobilization for it was due in large measure to the energy of the Energy secretary. Credit must be given where it is due.

Definitely, it would not have been possible for us in the private sector to get the officials of 647 cities and towns to commit to the project in the time available without Secretary Reyes’s personal interventions at various stages of the mobilization process. Moreover, the non-government organizations that chose to follow his lead in the overall effort did so readily because of his passion for environmental causes (demonstrated when he was Environment secretary) and his obvious enthusiasm for the energy-saving project. In addition, it was his detailed organization of the entire massive effort that made the execution of this landmark event unfold as smoothly as it finally did. It certainly was not easy to coordinate the myriad activities of all the private groups that took part – the environmentalist groups, civil society groups, religious groups, youth groups, business groups, professional associations, homeowners’ associations, etc. – with those of public officials all over the country.

In essence, Earth Hour was a global appeal to world leaders – who will meet in Copenhagen this December in a Climate Change Conference to craft the successor to the expiring Kyoto Protocol – to take decisive action on climate change. Secretary Reyes expressed it very well: “This was a symbolic act, a declaration that you can take the future into your hands and change the world. What next? What should come next is action at every scale of human organization.” Those sound to me like the words of a planetary statesman.

     I might be amused, if it weren’t so potentially catastrophic, that some people still try to peddle the notion that man’s spewing some 31 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year – 46% higher than the yearly spewing rate in 1990 – is not going to cause us any harm. That’s pretty much like saying that living in an enclosed space with a car whose motor is running will not damage one’s health. I guess some people tend to overlook the fact that the Earth is an enclosed space. Even if the planet itself possesses regenerative powers that will allow it to recover – in time – from whatever damage a blundering mankind might inflict, there is no similar assurance that our species will survive our own follies.

Fortunately, the efforts of such naysayers did nothing to stem the global outpouring of support for the save-energy initiative. What began in Sydney in 2007 has turned into a truly worldwide phenomenon with an estimated one billion people in 3,943 communities in 88 countries across 24 time zones switching off their lights at precisely 8:30 pm (local time) of March 28th in a united call for action on climate change and energy conservation. The “Vote for Earth” was unmistakable even without automated counting. In the Philippines, approximately 611 million watt-hours of energy were saved.

“Efficiency in energy use in the light of global warming is an issue that cuts across all sectors,” Secretary Reyes stressed in an interview. He pointed out that recent developments, like the recent passage of the Renewable Energy Act, should transform the energy sector and cause an eventual shift to “green” technologies: “This should encourage power companies to now use clean and indigenous sources like the wind, the sun, and the ocean waves to generate our electricity.” Work at the Energy Department is being hurried apace along this road.

I do not think it is too much for us citizens to demand that the people who wield government power in this country think and act for our benefit rather than for theirs. Sadly, though, this is no longer commonly the case at the highest echelons of our government where self-aggrandizement and the preservation of personal power have become the main preoccupations, and dishonesty and incompetence the dominant traits. Sadly also, the example of an honest and hardworking public servant like the often brusque Angelo Reyes is easily lost on the public, hidden in the malignant profusion of smiling, smooth-talking, corrupt mediocrities. Civil society groups who are privy to his secret should spread the word that there are still trustworthy public servants like him in this badly governed country. If there were more, we might see more private sector-public sector collaborations even beyond the scale of Earth Hour 2009. Then, we might entertain a bit more optimism about this country’s future.