OSLO, Norway – For Karla Cruz, founder of The Cool Kids, a tech advisory based in Manila, the first step toward tackling humanitarian needs in the Philippines is building better connectivity networks.
This includes projects such as developing a national identification system or bringing fiber internet to communities.
Peacebuilding Deeply spoke to Cruz at the Oslo Freedom Forum about the challenges facing aid distribution in Marawi city, the need for online voting systems and the women working to bring internet and supplies to communities in need.
Peacebuilding Deeply: How does the issue of national identification impact post-conflict Marawi city?
Karla Cruz: One of the biggest issues we found at the end of the Marawi crisis was that a lot of NGOs couldn’t distribute emergency aid because people weren’t properly tagged. We don’t have a national ID system.
Super Typhoon Haiyan came about 11 months before, and a lot of the aid (that had been distributed after the typhoon) had disappeared. We found out it was being sold by local government officials. Everyone after the Red Cross didn’t want to give more than emergency aid, because people didn’t have proper IDs and the organizations didn’t know who was from where, who had already been given food, shelter and medicine.
So anything that wasn’t emergency aid wasn’t being given out.
Peacebuilding Deeply: This can mean everything from healthcare to stabilization assistance, right?
Cruz: Yes. Immediately after the crisis had ended, in a town about 100 kilometers (60 miles) outside [of Marawi], the governor was standing on her balcony and just saw masses of people walking into her town because there was no more food, no more medicine, and people started getting really ill.
That was the biggest incentive that got us towards this national ID system – the mistrust in the government’s identification system, the distrust that basic necessities would be distributed right after a crisis, and the rebuilding policy hasn’t been put in place.
I just want to give light to people that are still working there – that are never going to be recognized because they are Muslim women.
Peacebuilding Deeply: Can you talk a little bit about these women working to help in Marawi?
Cruz: The wives of the politicians [in Marawi city] who have come together and are working on, for example, trying to get internet access in Marawi city. The only internet connection that is live is the one at the university. The government is charging them 5 billion pesos ($95 million) to rewire the city.
But why should we have so much fiber internet when essentially we could build a mesh network?
So, they are trying to get the people access to information, to educational material, to be able to monitor people so they can know who needs help, but they are not able to do that because they don’t have basic infrastructure like a telephone or the internet.
Peacebuilding Deeply: We saw what access to internet or access to 3G can achieve in Syria, where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to do things like have a real-time map showing where the water distribution was. But you need someone that is trustworthy and neutral.
Cruz: Exactly, that is what we need, someone who isn’t Catholic and isn’t Muslim, and maybe someone who isn’t even religious in any way. We haven’t seen that yet.
Peacebuilding Deeply: How have these women been able to make strides helping the community?
Cruz: They are the ones who are really in touch with the elders of the community and they have been able to tell us, on the outside, how they are supposed to be organizing [the IDPs] so they can go home more efficiently. You can speak to an elder, but you can’t speak to a member of the military, for example. They have been a very good guide for people who are still funding this, like us.
We are sending money to them to buy basic medicine, water, because not everything gets to the people who really need it. But they’re still in camps.
Peacebuilding Deeply: You are sending it to the wives?
Peacebuilding Deeply: So the women are distributing the aid?
Cruz: Yes, but it’s not a large town that has been affected.
We’re doing a lot now with the government, trying to lobby. I was just speaking to a woman from Eritrea and she said, “You’re lucky that you have a parliament where you can actually change the rules – we’ve got nothing to work with.” That made me stop and think.
Peacebuilding Deeply: What rules do you want to change?
Cruz: For example, internet voting. If we change the rules on internet voting, then [millions of overseas Filipinos] will actually have a voice.
Peacebuilding Deeply: Do you think people would vote if they were able to?
Cruz: They were able to vote last election, but it was manual, locally, it was fully automated. So the overseas Filipinos didn’t trust it. If we are able to do that, then they can vote. Why we are also also trying to change legislation is that with our first overseas election our voter list got hacked.
Our entire voter system was hacked. 54 million voters had all of their information hacked. So my home address, my passport number, my birthday, my parent’s names and my sister’s are all on a spreadsheet and available on the web.
Peacebuilding Deeply: Was the purpose only to prove that the system was not secure?
Cruz: Yeah, I think so.
Peacebuilding Deeply: How did people in the country react?
Cruz: That’s the funny thing, nobody in the country cared. They don’t have an understanding of what these things mean.
Peacebuilding Deeply: From your experience, what can be done from our perspective, to help improve the situation?
Cruz: I think the first thing is that there needs to be more attention to people on the ground, people who are actually brave enough to talk, but don’t have an avenue to speak, because there is no freedom of expression left in the country.
The president has shut down every major newspaper in the country, or has taken over ownership, which – in the pattern around where martial law has gone in the past – is the last step before they declare martial law.
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Natalie Sikorski contributed to this article.