Two debate tournaments read the youth’s pulse on compelling urban issues in the Philippines—from climate change and equitable urbanization to recovery from armed conflict

On October 28, UN-Habitat Philippines rounded out Urban October with the conduct of Manila Urban Debates, held at the Ateneo de Manila campus in Quezon City, in partnership with the Ateneo Debate Society.

It was the second leg of the Philippine country office’s first Urban Debate Tournament, a pioneer initiative in its Urban October campaign, which launched with the Mindanao Urban Peace Debates, held 13-14 October at the MSU-IIT campus in Iligan City, in partnership with the MSU-IIT Debate Varsity.

UN-Habitat held the debate tournaments to hear youth voices on topics from national conversations around today’s pressing urban issues. Topics or motions used in both the Mindanao and Manila debates were selected from a longer list of topics proposed by youth representatives, in itself a barometer of what urban issues resonated most with the generation that would pick up where we leave off in 2030, the deadline for delivering the global framework for sustainable development.

Mindanao Youth on the Road to Recovery from Conflict

Peace promotive activities and youth engagement are key components of the Rebuilding Marawi Shelter and Livelihood, a Japan-funded project being implemented by UN-Habitat with Marawi City and national government partners. And the Mindanao Urban Peace Debates were an advocacy platform for dialogue on peace and development.

It endeavoured to enable its participants to gain a stronger awareness of the normative discourse in rebuilding cities and towns damaged by violent conflicts, to have a nuanced appreciation of the complexities and sensitivities of rebuilding Marawi City in the canvass of larger regional conflicts, and to recognize the role of young people and the academia in shaping the community and national conversations on Marawi rehabilitation.

About 50 youth participants, which included debaters, judges, adjudicators, and organizers from MSU-IIT, attended the two-day event, with majority of them coming in from different cities and provinces.

Twelve teams from seven organisations debated on the following topics:

  • Whether justice is better served by truth and reconciliation commissions rather than seeking prosecution for atrocities in societies rebuilding from conflict
  • Whether racial/ethnic integration in housing policies and projects should be heavily promoted in societies rebuilding from conflict
  • Whether the use of foreign contractors should be banned in societies rebuilding from conflict

The tournament used the British Parliament format, which meant that topics were embargoed and only handed to debaters 15 minutes before the debates started. Debaters wouldn’t be able to do in-depth research, much less necessarily argue the positions they personally believed in. But the exercise was a pulse read of immediate youth perspectives—their impressions, stock knowledge, assumptions—on a range of urban issues, ultimately contributing to UN-Habitat’s and other development actors’ understanding of how the youth viewed risks and opportunities in urban communities facing threats of armed conflict.

To supplement this pulse read with substantive dialogue, an open forum took place after the elimination rounds with a panel that would offer insights on the first two topics debated: 1. whether justice is better served by truth and reconciliation commissions rather than seeking prosecution for atrocities in societies rebuilding from conflict; and 2. whether racial/ethnic integration in housing policies and projects should be heavily promoted in societies rebuilding from conflict.

The panelists were Sultan Amron Aragasi, Secretary-General of the Marawi Sultanate League, professor, and conflict negotiator for the Maranao people; Jamila Sanguila, peace building consultant and lecturer on Mindanao history; and Nery Ronatay, UN-Habitat Philippines Peace and Development Officer—each of whom had a wealth of insights to offer on the topics given their extensive backgrounds and exposure.

The topic on racial/ethnic integration in housing policies hit close to home, in light of UN-Habitat’s ongoing shelter and livelihood recovery project in Marawi.

Ace Guro, one of the adjudicators and a senior officer of the MSU-IIT Debate Varsity, shared, “The reason we’re very much hesitant is because when you’re a minority, the only badge of honor that you have is the fact that you get to live with the people and the land your ancestors fought for.”

“So I’m wondering if integration is absolutely necessary,” she continued. “If the dominant culture doesn’t understand the minority’s culture, why does the latter have to give up so much for the former to get where they’re coming from? Are there other things that can be done? Do we have to be battering rams for people to understand our culture?” Her point hinged on the the belief that in integrated communities, the burden of adjustment and adaptation will always fall on the minority.

Another senior debater offered his insights on integration in post-conflict housing settlements, this time within the context of existing rido (generations’ old clan feuds) rather than in the context cultural or ethnic groups.

“If the question is about willingness among individuals from clans who have histories of long-time conflicts, in my case, although I’m not necessarily directly involved with rido in general; I think in as far as integrating clans, I think it’s also a matter of being able to align their perspectives.”

“In as much as we are all Maranaos, we have to be able to deal with the intricacies in our own setups…most of the time the conflicts last up until future generations. So for me, it’s not so much a matter of whether we are willing or not. As far as ridos are concerned you don’t even get to ‘pick’ your enemies. You only know the clans to which they belong.… What most have to understand about rido is that it’s something that can be taken by another clan on your behalf.”

“But (after the Marawi siege), there were times I did feel that people do have a willingness to set aside historical clan conflicts especially because we would still be the same people needing relief goods or any other form of assistance. And I think that has to be one of the mindsets perpetuated, the idea that (the Marawi siege) happened to everybody. And as much as we’d like to take into consideration the intricacies of our own setups, we also have to take pause to think of the greater good. At the end of the day, we’re still Maranaos, and clan conflict or not, the siege of Marawi is now something we all have to survive and recover from.”

The tournament culminated with a championship round on whether or not Martial Law was a barrier to rehabilitation in urban societies recovering from conflict.

Overall debate champions were from Ateneo de Davao, best speaker from MSU-IIT, with MSU Marawi and Ateneo de Davao tying for overall best judge.

Making the Personal Political in Manila

Following the Mindanao leg of the debates was the Manila Urban Debate Open, held 27–28 October at Ateneo de Manila’s Loyola Heights campus, which dealt with topics surrounding climate change in the context of cities and equitable urbanisation.

Forty-eight participants from 24 teams and 27 adjudicators came together to discuss the following topics: 1. whether or not to abolish exclusive gated communities; 2. whether or not a country with limited resources should abandon efforts to prevent climate change and instead focus on adapting to its consequences; 3. whether or not to forcibly relocate individuals and their families from disaster-prone areas.

As with the Mindanao debates, the Manila leg used the British Parliament format, and topics were only disclosed to debaters 15 minutes before each round. To shed professional insight on the points raised during the debates, an open forum was held on the first two topics—1. whether or not gated communities should be abolished; and 2. whether countries with limited resources should focus on climate change adaptation rather than mitigation.

Arguments supporting the abolishment of gated communities common to all concurrent rounds hinged on the notions that gated communities perpetuated deeply entrenched inequalities through socio-economic segregation; that economic investment, both public and private, are inequitably targeted at areas with gated communities; and that when gated communities are abolished, the elite would have the incentive to invest in public security.

Arguments against abolishment used the right to safety and security as a principal point, with secondary points including how abolishment unfairly punishes middle-class individuals who are able to improve their lives and gain the mobility to move into gated communities and how the abolishment of gated communities in and of itself doesn’t eradicate social inequality.

The open forum panelists were Nora Diaz, Policy Development Group Director of the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board; Mia Quimpo, architect and President of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners; and Cris Rollo, UN-Habitat Philippines Habitat Programme Manager.

Director Diaz initially stated that opening gated communities to allow public access would be an ideal scenario especially in easing traffic, but that it was a legal issue.

“If you notice there are now also gated communities for low- to middle-income groups,” Director Diaz began, a statement on how more and more areas have become private and inaccessible.

“Now, when do you open private roads within these gated communities? That’s a conversation that even we at the HLURB struggle with. Presidential Decree 1216 says that roads and open spaces can be donated to local government units. It’s only when these private roads and spaces are donated to and accepted by local government units that they can be used by the  public. These arguments have been raised before. But once communities raise the issue on safety and security, you can search Supreme Court decisions on this, laging talo ang gobiyerno (government always loses). But as part of urban design and urban development, the HLURB and a lot of planners would like to see these private roads opened to the public.”

“There was one group that said that areas with poor people aren’t appealing to investors,” Ms. Diaz added. “I think in Metro Manila, that’s not true anymore. What do investors do to poor people occupying areas they want to develop? They ease them out. Because the location is good, they buy the property. Then they buy areas outside to which they can relocate the poor.”

“I also find difficult to accept the perception that communities are gated because of the fear of being robbed by the poor. There are a lot of countries that have rich and poor alike that don’t have gated communities.”

Director Diaz went on to illustrate how the current trend of developing excessively huge tracks of land can inhibit the mobility of people, and that the future of housing, if we are to promote social equity, cohesion, and integration, is one that may have to look to smaller houses and lots, smaller apartments, shared spaces, ultimately posing a challenge to the youth in the room: “Can you adjust your standard of living? Can you make do with living in smaller spaces? Smaller houses and lots?”

For the discussion on whether countries with limited resources should focus on adaptation rather than on mitigation, the open forum led to debunking the adaptation-mitigation dichotomy, saying, disclosing how mitigation has evolved into a function of adaptation in global frameworks. Investing in reforestation with the intent of creating carbon sinks, as a mitigation measure, for example, can lower temperatures in areas with micro climates, which then becomes an adaptation measure to increasing temperatures brought by climate change.

It gave examples of how looking at mitigation and adaptation as complementary actions can enable poor countries to gain the capacity to do both, and the question ‘How can we contribute to mitigation when we have to survive climate change?’ is something the Philippines is also trying to answer today. It brought back the focus on mitigation as a shared global responsibility and the more productive course over country shaming and blaming.

The Manila Urban Debates culminated with a championship round on the topic of whether or not to support a household-level carbon tax, with La Salle Debate Society and the UP Manila Debate Circle supporting household-level carbon tax and two teams from the Ateneo Debate Society opposing it.

Shortly after, the participants were asked what new takeaways they gained from the event, especially the forum.

“In debates, we’re often asked to defend in absolutes. Insights from the forum showed that in reality, this is rarely the case,” said one of the debate judges. “Projects and policies are best built with compromises that reflect values from both sides of an issue.”

“The open forum really exposed me to the different processes of how things come to be,” remarked a debater. “In debate, we often skip the more detailed processes, and hearing people with experience in the UN helped me ground the discussions we often debate about. It helped me realize who is involved in policy-making, what the different considerations in making proposals are, and how long it takes for these things to be a reality. It taught me that development is a long, collaborative, and complicated process that still aims to be sustainable and inclusive.”

One of the debaters, a resident of a gated community, shared a shift in paradigm: “Ironically, I argued for the abolishment of gated communities despite living in one. My personal experiences helped me become cognisant of the different problems they pose to urban planning. I felt a little hypocritical initially, but ultimately I think I felt more self-aware. I think it is debate rounds like these that help me conduct a personal privilege check, and understand that my own personal concerns of safety and community may come at the cost of many people around me. Ultimately, I think this speaks to the power of debate, and its ability to take you out of personal context, but to also make what is personal also political.”

Overall debate champions and overall best speaker were from Ateneo Debate Society, overall best judge was from La Salle Debate Society.

The Overall Verdict

The debate tournaments in Mindanao and Manila, apart from being a discussion platform for various relevant urban issues, demonstrated how differing and even opposing views can come together in the spirit of tolerance and democracy. They were an oratory exercise that at the same time behooved its speakers to listen—and it is UN-Habitat Philippines’ intent to continue to do so on the road to better, peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable cities.

UN-Habitat thanks all the Mindanao debaters from Ateneo de Davao University, Bukidnon Debate Union, Caraga State University, MSU-IIT Debate Varsity, Mindanao State University Main Campus – Marawi, Western Mindanao State University, and Xavier University; and all the Manila debaters from Agora: The UA&P Debate Society, La Salle Debate Society, Lyceum Debate Society, PUP School of Debaters, San Beda Debate Society, The Parliament: UPLB Debate Society, Thomasian Debaters Council, and UP Manila Debate Circle for joining Urban October.

The few days spent with these youth participants—among them possibly year 2030’s mayors, urban planners, policy makers, engineers, humanitarians, development workers, and urban champions—have shown that amid the odds, there’s reason to be tremendously optimistic.

Watch the Mindanao Urban Peace Debates and Manila Debates on UN-Habitat Philippines’ Facebook Page