Public Service in Pink: Interview with Leni Robredo

Public Service in Pink: Interview with Leni Robredo

. 9 min read

Leni Robredo is the 14th Vice President of the Philippines, serving from 2016 to 2022. Prior to her term, she first entered the Philippines’ political scene in 2013, when she was elected Member of the House of Representatives. Soon after her term as Vice President, she set up Angat Pinas, Inc., a non-government organization that now carries the Angat Buhay Program.

You have a background as a human rights attorney. How did this influence your desire to pursue the Vice Presidency and your goals while in office?

A lot [of] what made me [run] for office was not deliberate. I ran three times. The first one was when I ran for a seat in Congress, at the House of Representatives. It was right at the heels after my husband perished in a plane crash. So I was sort of thrust into it, because the party suddenly became headless. The next time I ran was for the vice presidency. It was a nomination from the party. They needed a lady and the first choice decided to run for president, so I was the second one.

For the presidency, it was also different. It was during a very difficult time in our nation's history.  While other runs [had] not been deliberate. I [felt] like my experience as a public attorney, working with the communities, deepened my understanding of a lot of things, especially the constituency we were serving. So while I didn't deliberately seek it, I feel like it was one that gave heart to the service that I rendered during my entire time as [a] member of Congress [and] as the Vice President. It is also the reason why we decided to pursue anti-poverty advocacy when I was Vice President, because it was a continuation of the work I was doing before.

As Vice President, you worked on developing Angat Buhay, which, for our readers who may be unaware, is a program addressing poverty in the Philippines. Now that you have completed your term, how do you evaluate the success of the program?

The intention of the program was just to make sure that we [wouldn’t] waste six years just doing ceremonial work. Because the Office of the Vice President in the Philippines is just that—it's a ceremonial office—and we felt like it would be such a waste not to do advocacy work. So that was the intent.

But when we were doing Angat Buhay, we were able to harness private sector support. So Angat Buhay was premised on collaboration between government and the private sector. At the end of the six years, we were able to mobilize about a billion dollars. We were [present] in more than 300 communities. We partnered with about 700 private organizations. I feel like it was the most productive six years, and not just because of the projects we were doing, but how we were doing [them]. [We] were able to prove that if [the] private sector is inspired, [the] private sector becomes a very able partner of government.

Since your vice presidency, you have also created the Angat Buhay Foundation to continue your work. How has working within the nonprofit sector changed your approach to anti-poverty work?

What we’re doing now is still Angat Buhay, it’s the same program, the same everything. But the difference is that we don't have a government office that serves as the sanctuary for Angat Buhay. Now it's a nonprofit, and there are challenges. The challenges are different. The first challenge is that we have to survive with only minimal staff, because we don't want to be spending our minimal resources on overhead and salaries. We want whatever help we receive from the private sector [to go] straight to all the projects. So it's a challenge. But the advantage also is [that] there are not a lot of restrictions now that we're no longer [in] government. When I was still Vice President, there were a lot of things that we wanted to do, but decided not to because we were treading [a] very complex political environment. Right now, because I'm in the private sector (no longer in public service), technically, those limitations are not there anymore.

And we were able to prove that we are trustworthy. The first few years were the most difficult [for] Angat Buhay, because we were trying to prove ourselves to our partners—that any help you give to us will go straight to the communities. And I think [during] the six years we were able to do that. So now it's easier in a sense, because there's nothing to prove anymore. The challenge for us now is how to convert Angat Buhay as a platform for volunteers to participate in. Because during the campaign, we were able to mobilize a lot of very young people. And you want them to keep being involved, even if it's not a political exercise anymore; give them a platform where they can continue being relevant in the communities.

During your vice presidency, you were also a notable critic of some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies. Why did you choose to be vocal about your opposition to his policies on, for example, illegal drug abuse?

It wasn't like that, at first. I was fully aware that in the Philippines, people will not look kindly on [a] vice president who is not supportive of the president. In fact, in the first few weeks of my incumbency, I took great pains in trying to reach out to the President. Even if we were not [on] the same team, I was trying to reach out to him. There were a lot of difficulties already, but I think I was able to prove to the President that I meant no harm.

I was appointed to the Cabinet as Housing Secretary because our Constitution allows [for] it. But when I was Housing Secretary already—I [had] been attending cabinet meetings—it was the start of the very bloody drug war. A lot of human rights abuses were being committed. A lot of deaths were being committed. The target was the very poor.

It was a difficult decision for me. I [knew] that people [would] not look kindly on me, but I felt like I could not be silent about what's happening. I felt it was my responsibility. So it was a risk. And as expected, people were angry, especially because the President is very popular. So speaking against what he [was] doing was [was] political suicide in the Philippines. But I felt like something happened.

How did your public opposition to Duterte affect your working relationship with him?

When I became very vocal, I was booted out of the Cabinet. It was a very unceremonial removal from Cabinet because it was made through a text message. I received a text message informing me that I was already barred from attending Cabinet meetings. It was not unexpected, but the manner in which it was made was unexpected. The more normal thing to do is the President would call for me and say that [my] staying in the cabinet is no longer tenable. That was what I expected, but to receive a text message…. But looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised by how they did it because there were a lot of things they were doing that were out of the norm, and people felt he was being very authentic about it.

How did you strike a balance between being willing to speak out for what you believe is correct and presenting an image of unity or collaboration?

It was very difficult because of misinformation. I felt then that the ideal thing would have been [that], in the issues we did not agree on, it would be okay to disagree. But the larger picture should have been: even if we don't agree on some of the things, you can still work together. But disinformation polarized our constituents. It was either you agree on all or you don't agree at all. So that was shaped by misinformation. And that's the sad thing about it. Because I feel like, for example, for the economy, or for disaster preparedness, or for education, for health, it would have been best if we [had] worked together. But that didn't happen because of the polarization. And that was essentially a result of propaganda and disinformation. It’s like us versus them all the time. I feel like we were not able to maximize a lot of opportunities which came our way because of it.

Following your Vice Presidency, you began a run for the presidency, which was termed as a “Pink Wave.” Why was the color pink such a focal point of your campaign?

You know, it was not of our own doing. Actually, I like blue. And when I announced my candidacy, I was in blue, my daughters were in blue. But our supporters came in [droves] and they were all in pink. And apparently—and we learned this belatedly—pink was a color of protest at the time that we launched my candidacy. So we were the ones who adapted and I felt like we did the right thing. Because it's now called the “Pink Revolution.” Every rally we went to was really a sea of pink. And pink galvanized everyone. We have pink Wednesdays. We have pink food being served in all our activities. So people became very creative. We put up a Museum of Hope—it’s called Museo ng Pag-asa—to showcase all the creativity of our supporters. So I think it was a very inspired decision to use pink.

How do you anticipate, or hope, that your vice presidency and prominence in Philippine politics will influence other future female Filipina elected officials?

I exert effort to continue inspiring, especially the very young. I feel like even if we lost the election, during the campaign, we were able to start something big. By all indications, a lot of very young people were very passionate. The fervor, you will feel it everywhere you go. And I think it's something we can build on. When I say something we can build on, it doesn't [just] need to be electoral politics, but just making government accountable or pushing for transparency all the time, pushing for inclusivity all the time. And we do it by many different means, but the main highway for that is Angat Buhay. We feel like Angat Buhay should be the platform for that. I honestly believe that social development is the key to making people feel connected, making young people feel that they're part of the solution. I feel like electoral politics should be the end result of whatever we're doing now and not the, you know, not the vehicle. I think government officials who have immersed themselves in community work are better officials than those who just aspired for it and worked for winning elections. So right now Angat Buhay is that platform. I hope people will feel more inspired.

It’s been a difficult six years for us. So a lot of people decided to keep quiet so that they wouldn’t be on the receiving end of the repercussions of their opposition. But the very few people who stood up were Filipinas—were women. Senator Leila de Lima is still in jail now for being very vocal about her opposition. Maria Ressa is at the receiving end of a lot of harassment from government. But I feel like a lot of good things are also happening to us. Like Maria Ressa is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I'm here [at] Harvard. Nobody expected that I'd be invited, but I was. So I want the message to be to just fight for the truth. You fight for what you think is right, and everything else will fall into place.

What is next for you, either personally or with Angat Buhay?

My vision for Angat Buhay is [that] it will be the biggest volunteer network in the Philippines. I feel like if people feel that they have a responsibility to take care of another Filipino, [they'll] be better people. So that's the dream for Angat Buhay.

But the other route is really strengthening the fight against disinformation. That’s the reason why I'm here. It’s also the reason why I’m more active in the international arena, because I feel like it is not just a problem of the Philippines. It's a huge problem in all democracies, being threatened by disinformation now, and the sooner we find solutions to it, the better for all of us. I'm trying to galvanize support, not just in the Philippines, but in the international community as well, like passing laws, doing policy work in making the social media platforms accountable, in asking for more transparency and accountability, in making businesses more responsible. There's a movement now in Eastern Europe that we want to look into. Businesses group themselves and decide that [they] won't place ads in websites that promote fake news. I think it's a good initiative. We've been trying to scan the environment to check whether there are best practices already and there are none yet. [All this is to say], all of us are in the early stages of finding this information and want to be part of it—looking for solutions. My politics is secondary, but my interest in really pushing for this fight against disinformation is that I think that it is the one thing that will save our democracy.

Yarlagadda spoke with Robredo on October 26th, 2022 at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.