Once he joined politics, he knew he would have to stand in baptisms, visit wakes, attend funerals and maybe even kiss babies. But once Rep. Albee Benitez hit the campaign trail, he quickly realized all that were nothing but surface features of a political system badly in need of rejuvenation.
He quickly realized, he now confesses, that the job was actually bigger than he had initially thought and would require more than just attending baptisms and funerals. This realization, Albee adds, is in fact the biggest lesson he’s learned in politics. It would take all his business savvy and business skills to do it, with a serious amount of his own private resources thrown in. But in the process, Albee may well have found new ways of attacking the old problems that have been festering Philippine communities from way back when, some of them even long before he was born.
In the last three years, he came eyeball to eyeball with the problems of the country – the suffering and poverty – and how he reacted to them in his own unconventional way could serve as lessons worth holding up.
It wasn’t just in his programs that Albee applied new ways at tackling old programs. He may well go down in history as he first Negrense to see exactly what the problem is with the sugar industry. [See sidebar]
Albee simplifies his program into three major components, health, education and livelihood. But the way these were implemented was anything but simple; their impact, even more so.
On his first days of campaigning, for example, he found people in his area in dire and urgent need of access to medical services: 90 per cent of the requests for assistance he got were all medical in nature. And so, once elected, he launched the Negros Occidental Comprehensive Health Insurance Program, to which some 40,000 indigent families in his district have already enrolled as of the last count. It is by far the biggest enrollment to a community comprehensive health insurance program in a district in Negros island, and perhaps even in the country. But the figures do not seem to impress the man; he had targeted to enroll 45,000 and like the no-nonsense businessman that he is, he is quick to candidly say he is still “short” of his target.
Having been trained as a child to value the importance of education, Albee saw the need to provide children in his district access to it. Again, he addressed the problem in his own, unconventional way. Instead of simply directly funding scholarships, as is the usual tack in opening access to education, Albee asked: “How can we make education efficient?” Given the realities and resources at hand, he thought the problem had to be attacked from that front so the largest possible beneficiaries could be helped. For that, he turned to modern technology.
“Our current system relies up to 95 per cent on teachers,” he says. “If you have a good teacher, you’ll have good students, if you have bad teachers, you’ll end up with bad students.” But with computers, we empower our schoolchildren to learn, even on their own, he says.
He launched a cyber education program precisely to open the windows to the world and beyond to the schoolchildren, providing them access to the world wide web which he says is the “great equalizer” of our time. A student in Gawahon, Victorias who has internet connection has the same access to knowledge as the one in Harvard or Stanford, Albee says.
The United Nations standard is one computer for every child, he says, but we cannot afford that, so what we did was cluster them, so they can share. Aside from the cyber libraries, he also provided several schools Interactive Whiteboards which are really big IPads,, that technically replace the chalk and eraser blackboard. Teacher and students use this to tap on a whole huge vault of knowledge, to “travel” together from their third world classrooms to the world beyond and learn.
Interestingly, Albee found out about these electronic blackboards in the Department of Education, where a program to distribute them to schools had been lying around, unable to take off because there were no funds. He got five of them, paid for by his personal funds, for selected pilot schools in the district. The results were immediate: attendance in these classes went up, and students’ achievement test results improved.
The same no-nonsense, get-to-the-root-of-the-problem approach animates his livelihood program. We can do all the skills trainings we can, he says, but in the end what we need is to provide employment opportunities. And so, aside from vocational and technical skills trainings, he has also launched jobs fairs to connect people to jobs. Thus far, his office has organized six jobs fairs, attracting 26 employers and over 10,000 jobseekers.
He is also going right to the heart of job generation: bringing in investors. He says tourism related investments and sugar expansion projects are the fastest areas to tap for immediate generation of jobs.
Considering the district hosts the airport in Silay, it is the gateway to the province, and should therefore be able to convince businessmen of the tourism potentials here. Work on an eco-tourism loop that would open access to Patag form two points, rolling out the scenic mountains has started. [See pages 16 and 17]
This eco-tourism highway should encourage people to invest on these upland places and turn them into mountain resorts. We should be able to build or upgrade existing ones there and attract international tourists who will pay more. “ We can also become a convention center and offer cheaper rates aside from the have that we have nicer food and friendlier people. “
Investors are finalizing plans for an Enchanted Kingdom Talisay, he adds, and they are just settling the question of how big the project is going. These are his businessmen-friends, he also says, because “usually, the ones you can convince to come are the ones who know you.”
Doing things differently was not exactly difficult for Albee. In fact, it came naturally to someone who was new to the system. “I can shed traditional practices because I was never part of it to begin with,” he says. “ I wasn’t a traditional politician to in the first place, so all those practices being done or used I can say I wasn’t part of them so I can freely criticize and freely make some suggestions how to improve.”
In the process of so doing, Albee, unconsciously may have sparked the hope that after all is said and done, Philippine politics can still deliver what it should: create the conditions so people can build better tomorrows. And that begins with the realization that being a politician involves more than going to baptisms and wakes and kissing babies.*