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Australian Volunteer: Keeping the Filipino spirit of bayanihan alive amid COVID-19

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Australian volunteer Bala Subramanian works with his Filipino supervisor, Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator Jose Adolfo Jr. and counterpart Simon Montesclaros, IT focal person from LGU Camanan

Located about a 10-hour drive south-east of Manila, the local government of Canaman looks after the municipal services across 24 barangays (villages) in Camarines Sur. It’s a large remit for the LGU, which includes looking after housing, waste management, health, nutrition, education and infrastructure for 36,000 citizens.

But the town is receiving some expert help – since 2013, Australian volunteers have been supporting the local government of Canaman through the Australian Volunteers Program. The most recent volunteer is is Bala Subramanian, an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) professional from Sydney, Australia, who travelled to the Philippines alongside his wife in June 2019.

“The original 12-month assignment in the Philippines was to help the local government of Canaman develop an ICT plan, to enable them to better deliver services to their citizens,” said Bala.

“The plan included identifying and implementing a number of initiatives that would have impact, helping them improve their capability, while ensuring the engagement of all stakeholders in this process.”

The delivery of the plan was going well. The team had implemented a local area network to connect offices across the municipality, and started a project to back up and digitise key records.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Bala and his wife had to return home to Australia.

Jose Adolfo Jr, Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator at Canaman said that with Bala’s help the team had identified priority projects and had developed a clearer idea of the ICT needs for the organisation.

“When it was disrupted, we were deeply concerned if we could sustain the gains and momentum on our own,” said Jose.

Bala was undeterred. With plenty of work still to do, he continued supporting the local government of Canaman as a remote volunteer, helping out online from his home in Sydney.

“My enjoyment in working with the local government, and the value they realise from my involvement made it an easy decision to continue as a remote volunteer,” said Bala.

From his home in Sydney, Bala continued to help develop an IT system to support barangays provide the right services to citizens, and another to manage livelihood grants provided by the municipality. At the same time, he continued supporting colleagues in the Canaman team to build their own skills.

Jose says the team have learned so many things from Bala – not just practical and technical skills, but the cultural and personal aspects that come with working with someone from Australia. One of the main ways Bala left his mark was in his approach to project management.

“We had some encounters with project management, but had never experienced it the way Bala did it. It gave us a lot of insights and has largely influenced our mindset and approach within our work – it enhanced and elevated our professionalism” said Jose.

Working remotely had its challenges for both the team in the Philippines and Bala in Australia. Internet quality could sometimes be patchy, and it was harder to coordinate and engage with all stakeholders across their projects with everyone dialling in from different places.

Structured weekly online video meetings helped, as did the flexibility and commitment shown by Bala and the team to find solutions to any problems as they arose.

Bala feels he has received much from his experience volunteering with the LGU Canaman team.

“I have learnt much about the business culture and way of life in the Philippines, and have been able to contribute something while learning along the way,” said Bala.

“The enthusiasm of the Canaman team to show us the Philippine and Bicol way of life and their keenness to learn from my IT experience will stay with me forever. It motivates me to continue to work with them on an ongoing basis.”

Australia helps our partner organizations in the Philippines achieve their development goals by matching their needs with Australian volunteers who are committed to sharing their skills and knowledge. For more than three decades, skilled Australian volunteers have been supporting organisations from across the Philippines through the Australian Volunteers Program.

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