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Leni for President? ‘No hesitation if I can ensure change’ (2)

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Leni Robredo says she’s proud that she and her team turned the Office of the Vice President (OVP) into an advocacy-centered institution.

Despite a meager budget and being an outlier in the Duterte administration, the OVP, she reveals, reached out to “the farthest, poorest and smallest communities around the country… and “people in the communities would tell us they finally felt government had seen them.”

In this last of a two-part exclusive email interview, Robredo recounts her short-lived stint as anti-drug body co-chair, the OVP’s partnership with the private sector in disaster and pandemic response, and what would stop her from running for President.

What was your immediate reaction when President Duterte appointed you as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD)?

It was a bit of a surprise. If you will recall, many of the people around me warned that it was a bait and I should not allow myself to be trapped into something where there was no chance for me to succeed.

I felt differently. I had very strong feelings about how the drug war was being conducted and here was an opportunity for me to, at least, exert effort to influence a change in policy. While I was cautiously optimistic, I knew it was something I had to do.

But the President himself fired you after only 18 days. How would you interpret this action? Do you believe he was really concerned over the issue of sensitivity of certain documents?

I was certain I was going to be sacked. I knew that the President didn’t really mean to appoint me as ICAD co-chair, that he didn’t expect me to take on his dare. When the offer was made, there was no official letter, the position had not been created yet, and it was seemingly made on a whim.

The expectation that I would not be there long enough to really make changes made me work extra hard. It was like we were racing against time. I met with the clusters under ICAD, visited the agencies to get an in-depth assessment on how their initiatives were doing, met with organizations that advocated for a broader, more humane approach to the drug problem, and went down to several communities where drugs really affected the way of life.

So when we received the news of the sacking, we were ready to submit a data-driven assessment of the campaign against illegal drugs and a comprehensive set of recommendations.

To set the record straight: The sensitivity of certain documents was a non-issue from my end. In fact, when my co-chair then, PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) director general Aaron Aquino, offered to show me the target list, I refused. I declined considering that the President at that point had already expressed reservations as regards my complete access to relevant documents. While I felt that it was an important part of my duties, and I needed that information to perform my responsibilities to the best of my ability, I deferred to his judgment.

I spent only 18 days as ICAD co-chair, but I learned a lot from this experience. I am proud of the work we had done in that short time — a chance to show Filipinos that the drug problem has many working parts and requires a holistic solution.

The OVP was quick to respond to emergencies such as typhoons and a crisis like the pandemic. You took to social media to request for assistance, and people helped. The OVP has become a warehouse of donations. Has there been donor fatigue among those who help the OVP?

At some point, we were wary of the possibility that it could happen, because the calamities came one after the other. That is why we have always made it a point to set an end period to the donation drives that our partners launch.

At the start of the pandemic, for example, the donation drive of our partner, Kaya Natin Movement, went on for just a month, where we were able to raise some P61 million.

But even if the online portal for donations was already closed, in-kind donations continued — and still continue — to come in, especially during the series of typhoons that hit Luzon in late 2020.

It helped that we have been very transparent about everything: Issuing receipts, informing donors who the recipients are, and posting about them on social media. We are fortunate that people always responded whenever we called for assistance.

I believe a lot of it has to do with the trust that we have cultivated over the past five years with our Angat Buhay partners and with ordinary Filipinos who contribute to our initiatives. This is why we put such a premium on transparency.

The OVP also took the initiative of aggressive Covid testing in Malabon when it was a virus hotspot. Has the program continued in other cities?

Yes. Aside from Malabon, we have brought our Swab Cab initiative to Marikina and Quezon City in the National Capital Region; Imus; Naga City; Tuguegarao City; Puerto Princesa City; and Imus.

The initiative is meant to support existing efforts of local government units for testing, contact tracing, and isolation, so we partnered with these cities’ respective LGU, as well as the barangays of identified hotspot communities, in order to carry this out successfully. Our private sector partners and volunteers have been an immense help as well.

And then the OVP launched the Vaccine Express drive-through for public transport and delivery drivers with a P500 gasoline incentive. What was the response like?

Many of the delivery riders and TODA (Tricycle Operators and Drivers’ Association) drivers said it was a convenient set-up for them. Vaccine Express is a drive-thru service, which meant they could get their shot on their motorcycles.

As you wind up your term as VP, what are you most proud to report as the greatest achievements of your office?

I am proud that my team and I were able to turn the OVP into an advocacy-centered institution. Coming into this office, I promised to reach the farthest, poorest and smallest communities around the country. Many times over, as we did this, people in the communities would tell us that they finally felt government had seen them.

That has become part of our motivation: To tell the last, the least, and the lost that we know they are there and we want to help them rise.

On a more personal note, I am proud of my staff. Many of them are young public servants, and the OVP has benefited much from their perspective and bright ideas, their enthusiasm and perseverance, and their ability to adapt to the rapid changes before us.

With the limited resources we had, our work demanded excellence, and they always delivered. I am grateful to learn from them, too, every day, and I am confident that they will thrive wherever life takes them after this.

Many people believe you’re the most formidable, qualified and credible person to run for President in 2022. There is actually a genuine clamor for you to run. What will stop or discourage you from doing so?

I think the principal objective in 2022 is to achieve a change in the style and direction of governance that has prevailed over the last few years. If I am the person in the best position to ensure that change, then I will have no hesitation in putting myself forward.

But it is still too early at this stage to determine whether I am, indeed, the one who can create the broadest possible unity among groups that are seeking change in 2022.

So, my chief concern is achieving that unity, achieving that broader base, so we can see a truly positive change in the outcome of the next elections.

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