Leni Robredo at CPL eventIt’s been a long year for Leni Robredo, former vice president of the Philippines. But she’s not done yet.

Robredo has spent a busy fall in Cambridge as a Hauser Leader at the Center for Public Leadership. From speaking in front of Harvard’s Philippines Caucus to advising Harvard Kennedy School students in one-on-one consultation sessions, she has used this time to enhance what she has learned from political life and share those lessons with others.

Robredo’s six-year term as vice president ended in June. She campaigned to succeed the controversial Rodrigo Duterte as president. Despite losing the election, Robredo built a national movement of passionate grassroots supporters who view her as a democratic champion of Filipino people’s rights.

Through the anti-poverty programs she launched during her term, Robredo took the Office of the Vice President from ceremonial to transformational. These programs were known under the umbrella term “Angat Buhay,” a Tagalog word that translates to “uplifting lives.”

Now, Robredo is leveraging her experience to continue advocating for people in all corners of Filipino society. In July 2022, just weeks after leaving office, Robredo launched the Angat Buhay Foundation: a non-profit NGO that is growing the work Robredo began as vice president. While her political opponents may have hoped her defeat at the polls would lead her to let up in her fight against poverty and corruption, she is doubling down.

Accountability is at the core of Robredo’s vision of leadership. “Accountability can only come with transparency, because knowledge is power,” she says. “Transparency is the fountain of knowledge that allows people to assess how well public officials are meeting their responsibilities.”

In the Philippines, she says, the fight for transparency and accountability is particularly important “because corruption is endemic” in Filipino government. As a member of the Congress of the Philippines from 2013-2016, Robredo authored two bills to address this troubling trend: the Freedom of Information Bill and the Empowerment Bill.

Neither bill passed. “There’s a built-in resistance,” says Robredo. “It’s an ongoing fight.”

So how, amidst uphill political battles, can public leaders start making a difference and improving people’s lives? The answer, according to Robredo, is by building inclusive and durable institutional systems that involve all facets of society and last beyond any one politician’s term.

“I’ve seen firsthand how empowering people through enacting systems democratizes public institutions,” she says. Giving constituents a chance to scrutinize public leaders and get involved with policy spurs “a natural tendency to put your best foot forward…and the constituency becomes more cooperative. They participate enthusiastically because their voices are being heard.”

Angat Buhay logoIt’s on this model of transparent and accountable leadership that Robredo has built her NGO, Angat Buhay.

Even when Angat Buhay was a program of the Office of the Vice President, it received no government budget. From the initiative’s inception, Robredo and her allies have relied on successful relationships with private sector partners to fund Angat Buhay’s endeavors. “Our only capital is trust,” says Robredo.

To select these non-governmental partners, Angat Buhay uses a process that Robredo calls “developmental speed dating.” Drawing first and foremost from local knowledge and experience, the organization invites representatives from poor communities to make pitches for programs that would most impact their areas.

When funding partners- which range from civic clubs to international development agencies to social responsibility divisions of corporations- find a pitch that aligns with their goals, they enter a partnership with that community. Angat Buhay serves as the bridge between communities that need help and organizations with help to offer.

In 2017, ISIS militants seized the Filipino city of Marawi. The siege lasted for almost a year, prompting mass evacuations and the destruction of many locals’ homes. In response, Angat Buhay raised funds to rebuild over 100 houses. But instead of managing these funds themselves, they connected the local beneficiaries directly with the organizations providing the money. They also built a relationship with a local university, which became the steward of the funds and assisted the families moving into the new homes.

The strategy is based on grassroots organizing. “It empowers people in the sense that it isn’t doled out. They are active participants with obligations to the work,” says Robredo. When Angat Buhay funds new housing, residents build the homes themselves. Angat Buhay provides the materials; the community uses their own skills. This cultivates a collective sense of pride that traditional approaches to philanthropy often neglect.

“The greatest asset of the Philippines is its people,” says Robredo. “We are passionate and resilient. We have gone through many difficulties, but we have always managed to shine.”

By Isabel Feinstein