Giving Voice, Leading Change
April 24, 2019
When The Asia Foundation says it believes, and invests, in emerging leaders in Asia, it goes a step beyond leadership programs. The Foundation opens itself to be steered by the very leaders it cultivates. I saw this first hand when, as a graduate of the Asia Foundation Development Fellows program, I was appointed to a two-year term on the Foundation’s board of trustees.
Those two years, from January 2017 to January 2019, expanded what I had learned in my 13 years as a development professional. It was one thing, I found, to have expertise in governance and development in the Philippines and Southeast Asia; it was another to have a voice in shaping programs in the 18 countries where the Foundation works. Understanding the broad thematic issues in Asia was, again, one thing; confronting the perplexing nuances of intra- and intercountry issues was another.
Meeting and working with the Foundation’s program officers and country representatives, with government officials and civil society partners, were rocket boosters for my understanding of the wellsprings of change in Asia. I saw how the Foundation nourished civil society in Myanmar by introducing mobile software to disseminate information about elections and candidates. I saw them help women and small entrepreneurs in Vietnam gain access to vital banking and financial services, transforming talent and ambition into economic opportunity. I learned how the Foundation’s program officers and country representatives could marshal the organization’s technical expertise to nurture the seeds of democratic reform in contentious political environments. And I marveled at the courage of Foundation staff, whose commitment to their work was unwavering in the face of serious security concerns.
Issues of economic empowerment, gender and development, civil society, security, and democratization are common themes across Asia, yet it is striking how particularities of the political and economic landscape in each country, region, district, or village can destine an initiative to failure or success. Through decades of learning, the Foundation has built a body of expertise that is unique to each country. It is this kind of deep local expertise that makes it possible to venture further and attempt new initiatives that will advance the state of the art.
As a trustee, I witnessed this blending of experience and innovation first hand. I sat on committees with distinguished ambassadors, prominent academics, philanthropists, and industry leaders with decades of experience in their respective fields, many of whom I had been reading, and reading about, since my earliest years in the profession. Yet, when I offered a contribution to the discussion, they listened, because, they said, I was giving voice to the communities that the Foundation serves and the changemakers on the front lines where the Foundation’s most important strategic and operational decisions can change lives.
That is the lesson I will take with me from my intense exposure to the Foundation’s work. Any effort to foster change and development in Asia must begin by creating a space in which the voices of people can be heard—the voices of individuals and communities, of advocates and emerging leaders, of women, of entrepreneurs. The Foundation’s commitment to hearing those voices extends all the way to its board of trustees.
My greatest personal satisfaction has been the affirmation that the contributions I made in the two years of my term were valued by my exceptional colleagues. As I said my thank-yous and farewells in January, they sent me off with a heartening “see you again.” I look forward to that eventuality with enthusiasm, knowing that The Asia Foundation, led by its board of trustees and managed by its exceptional staff all over the world, is equal to its commitment to improving lives in Asia.
Czarina Medina-Guce is a public-policy and development practitioner in the Philippines and a former Asia Foundation development fellow. She recently completed a two-year term as a Foundation trustee, and now serves as senior adviser to the Foundation’s Leadership and Exchange programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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