Analytical Feature

Beyond area visits

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Among the most passionate people in the university are the members of the sector-based cluster (SBC) organizations. Committed members regularly visit their communities, despite numerous hell weeks and heavy academic workloads. Ask different SBC members what their advocacy projects are about and they will give one coherent answer: developing their communities.

KYTHE Ateneo has the Child Life Program which alleviates the stress of children with chronic illnesses and promotes normal growth and development. Musmos has area visits, where members teach values formation to children from the urban poor. Aside from area visits, TUGON Ateneo holds an annual Awareness Week to spread consciousness about child sexual abuse.

Musmos, TUGON, and KYTHE have a combined 86 years of working within their sectors. But such longevity raises questions: When a problem has been tackled for so long, are the right things being done? Does this mean that SBC orgs do not make an actual difference?

Managing expectations

Not exactly. In fact, it is dangerous to think that a single organization can alleviate a social problem. After all, social problems are multidimensional problems that need multidimensional solutions. Furthermore, with their limited capacity, student organizations cannot hope to substitute the roles of governments and multinational organizations in doing the big work in development.

Like other organizations in COA, SBC organizations do not have enough support for funding, nor do they have the capability to conduct large-scale interventions such as building infrastructure, providing health care, and stopping human trafficking altogether.

Instead, Development Studies instructor Anna Mae Dela Cruz suggests a complementary role for student organizations. For example, in health insurance, “you let the big fish take care of the heavy stuff [like] insurance [and] coverage.”

Meanwhile, organizations with limited capacities can complement the activities "big fishes" are doing in development.

She gives Project LAAN as an example, which shifted to a complementary role by helping people understand PhilHealth benefits instead of raising money to subsidize the health expenses of their communities.

Shifting to a complementary role allows the student organization to act within its boundaries, instead of stretching itself and delving into projects it cannot implement thoroughly. The danger is when organizations start to come up with interventions that they feel does good to the community, without measuring whether or not there is really an impact.

Of course, it is unlikely for an SBC organization to create an intervention just for the sake of its members. But to prevent this, it is important that organizations are able to measure the effectiveness of their interventions.

Tracking progress

In organizations that conduct development interventions, having a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system is essential to see if the goals of these interventions are met.

Dela Cruz reveals that out of several student organizations that have been consulting with her, none have an M&E system to track their progress in terms of social impact. She also claims that “at least half of them didn’t have clear social impact objectives.”

Having unclear objectives, or not knowing if they are making an impact, is a concern among members of SBC organizations. One of Dela Cruz’s criticisms against these organizations is that the interventions were made to enrich the college experience of its members and let them feel good about themselves rather than to make genuine change on the community.

“Maybe one reason why student orgs don’t feel compelled to question their impact is because they are in fact performing well on the kind of impact that matters to them: To enjoy [and] feel good about what they’re doing,” Dela Cruz states. “But [they] don’t think about [other] important objectives like what is [their] impact on the community.”

The fact that some SBC organizations had been existing without a sound M&E system in place can be seen as a testament to this.

To stay true to their initial purpose of developing their sectors, these SBC organizations have started implementing M&E systems. Musmos is on its first year of its three-year plan of monitoring and evaluating their intervention. KYTHE Ateneo’s M&E system has existed for a few years, but it was only in this year that they began an M&E system towards their community, in an effort to align with their current thrust of getting to know the community more.

One of the concerns of sustaining an M&E system is continuity, particularly with how a term for an executive board in an organization lasts for only a year. Musmos President Melody Lee Yu is familiar with this concern. However, she believes that proper transitioning and communication will cancel out this problem. “[We communicated that] this is what the outgoing [executive board] wants to show and it’s something that the next team actually felt that was important din,” she says. “So I guess it’s that leveling off with the transitioning and all that.”

There is also a concern regarding intangibility. Unlike business success which can be measured in profits, the goals of the interventions of SBC organizations are harder to pinpoint. A child’s happiness isn’t easily quantifiable. However, Dela Cruz understands the complexity of measuring intangible objectives, in the sense that some of these are for the long term. In response to this, she asserts that “everything can be measured.”

Politicization in SBC

Sector-Based Cluster Head and former Ateneo TUGON member Katherine Culaba believes that politicization among the organizations is crucial to making a difference. “We have to go beyond, kasi it is not giving us real change,” she says. “Okay, may impact, but in the long run wala rin siyang ginagawa, so we need to go beyond and my suggestion is politicization.”

To illustrate, Culaba uses her former organization. “Ano ba nagawa ng Tugon, for example, in the bigger picture of sexual abuse?” she says. “If you make a kid happy that doesn’t necessarily equate to doing anything about sexual abuse.”

For Culaba, an example of a student organization that “went beyond” was the Ateneans for Agrarian Reform Movement, which was able to help Coco Levy farmers push for a bill in legislation. “They were able to help Coco Levy farmers to push for the bill and I think pwede yun sa sexual abuse…. You engage the government institutions if you want a concrete answer,” she says.

Culaba contends that lobbying in legislations is not the only way an organization can politicize. The images that come to mind when an organization is politicizing are directly engaging with local politicians in interventions, releasing stands, and forming coalitions with other organizations with the same advocacies.

However, TUGON Ateneo President Sofia Trinidad says that there are difficulties with this. “To directly engage in politics is difficult for an organization like ours given that we are partnered with different institutions,” she says. By making a response or statement as TUGON Ateneo, we can directly affect those affiliated with us.”

This year, TUGON Ateneo has attempted to engage with social issues through infographics and advocacy talks to raise awareness on child abuse, despite their difficulty to directly engage with politics.

The question seems to be the relationship of politics to the development of their sectors. While it can be argued, in Culaba’s words, that “everything is political because the problem is structural,” we must examine the extent to which an organization can and should be “political.”

The answer to this question depends on the nature and purpose of an organization, and its accepted role in its social issue. If organizations are scrutinized for delving into projects they cannot commit, they should be held to the same standard when it comes to engaging in politics that can jeopardize the community it operates in.

On whether engaging in politics should be a priority, KYTHE Ateneo President Issa Yang believes that politicization should only be incidental in the SBC’s vision of the development of sectors. “I don’t think that [politicization] must be the main focus of the cluster since our sole focus is serving the sector better,” Yang says. “Politics is just one part of the experience of the sector.”

For the kids

It is clear that SBC organizations have good intentions in helping their sectors. However, it is more important that good intentions actually pave the road to development.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. In fact, feel-good measures, such as conducting interventions without regard for measuring their effectiveness, can be very harmful because it blinds people from the possible reality that the intervention is not working at all.

Dela Cruz says that organizations may have to sacrifice a bit of feeling good to do actual good. “[They] should not just limit themselves to positive reinforcement and encouragement [while] not really asking for results,” Dela Cruz states. “That has to change for the sake of the communities you are dealing with.”

The biggest hurdle to this, she says, is leadership. To increase the capacity of organizations to implement effective interventions, some sort of discipline and intensive training must be imposed in the membership. A stricter implementation of measures may be harder for leaders who want to protect their members’ feelings, but it should be reiterated the SBC organizations should not merely act as an avenue to feel better about oneself. While it is important that the members are motivated to go to area visits, it is to keep in mind that, above all, to allow genuine change and interventions is the primary concern.

Editor's Note: In an earlier version, Melody Lee Yu's name was written as "Melody Yu." Additionally, some paragraphs were modified to include additional information from interviewees.

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