Technology, Evolution and Gender to Inform and Prioritize Policy” for Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) Partners’ Lecture Series (PLS)

March 21, 2024

My sincere greetings to everyone here today. I am honored to deliver this lecture as one of the opportunities to synthesize and share insights on policymaking and guiding principles shaping my work.

In my four terms as Senator and one in the House of Representatives, I can trace a history of policymaking in this country and have seen many successes as well as pitfalls. As you know, of particular interest throughout all those years are culture and heritage, environment, climate and disaster resilience, women, MSMEs, education, and other fields that give greater opportunities for our people to develop and be lifted out of poverty. It should not surprise you to realize that all of these fields are intimately interrelated, but they are woven together by very important principles that need to be navigated by skill and brinkmanship to achieve desired outcomes.

As a lifelong learner as well as a politician and a skeptic, I have chosen for today only three fields of study that hold the potential to change the landscape of policymaking as we move forward: Technology, Evolution, and Gender Equality.

First, technology. Technology is not only a driving force but needs to be a part of all decision-making. I see it as a vital component of the country’s development policies that I principally authored and co-sponsored the Philippine Innovation Act, and advocated for the integration of innovation in all government programs.

The promise and threat now of artificial intelligence, the challenge of computer learning and data crunching to inform policy decisions, and the wide expanse of opportunities to solve problems with innovation are areas that every legislator needs to be familiar with, and it is a continuing challenge.

I refer not just to computer technology but the technology needed to make better decisions such as natural capital accounting. I filed a bill on this as early as 20017. The United Nations recognized only in 2022 that we can no longer treat natural capital as zero in our economic indicators and adopted the System of Economic Environmental Accounting, a framework that integrates economic and environmental data to provide a more comprehensive and multipurpose view of the interrelationships between the economy and the environment, as well as the stocks and changes in stocks of environmental assets, as they bring benefits to humanity.

Last year, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed on third reading the Philippine Ecosystem and Natural Capital Accounting System Act. The House subsequently adopted the Senate version, so and it is only a matter of time before this reaches the President for signing. We are hoping this happens in time for Earth Day in on April 22. I know there will be sufficient impetus for this law to help our country use the necessary technologies to make natural capital accounting fast, less costly, and widely accessible so we will know what we stand to gain or lose in every development project or governance decision we make involving the use of our resources.

The second field of study is Evolution, a difficult matter to understand even if it informs everything that happens in ecosystems. Branches of science and social science that blur barriers between disciplines are rising such as behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and an interesting cross section between evolutionary theory and policy-making. This last one is a field of study that so far has no widely acceptable name yet, but I will call it “evolutionary politics.” It is about understanding how we have so far evolved and how the drastic changes we are making cause us challenges and problems.

Over half the global population now live in cities. How we react to these environments as must be considered. David Sloane Wilson, in his important work titled “This View of Life,” cites examples of public health issues faced by societies that can benefit from evolutionary theory. Epidemics of myopia, for example, especially among young children, have been found to be influenced by the number of hours children spend indoors. This should inform the way we design schools going forward.

Diseases that compromise our immune systems may have something to do with our overly anesthetized environments. Antibacterial soaps and wipes and overuse of antibiotics may be giving rise to superbugs. We cannot be assuming that we need to get rid of all microbes and make decisions to sanitize everything, especially since the pandemic, but we need internal and external microbiome communities to stay healthy. We evolved with these communities in our gut, our skin, our entire bodies and will be immunocompromised without them.

Let me bring to your attention one last important example that might be overlooked in research and education. As we suffer the consequences of a rapidly warming planet, we cannot only look at extreme weather events or disease vectors but also the feedback loops of our means to address them. The usual means to determine what levels of heat humans can survive is what is called the wet bulb temperature, currently set at 35 degrees centigrade if the humidity is 100%. In practical terms, wet bulb temperature conditions are supposed to be a proxy indicator for what a human body can withstand to continue regulating its own temperature, past which the body couldan no longer perform the functions necessary to regulate its own temperature, resulting in heat stress or death. This is of course complicated by the number of hours of exposure, as well as individual variations as it is set at what a healthy individual can take.

As a tropical country, we should be very concerned with reaching limits to adaptation, and whether our measures will be sufficient if we do not consider our ability to withstand heat, other variables at play such as the variability within the population, and how the most vulnerable will fare. If we consider air conditioning as the primary method to combat heat, it will only be part of a vicious feedback loop that transfers atmospheric heat from one place to another and exacerbates the use of fossil fuels.

This brings me to my third field of study, which encompasses nearly all other fields. We must not think of gender as a separate field as it transcends all fields. The foreign service happens to be a vanguard in this area. Women comprise at least 58% of the Philippine foreign service across all levels and women head 42% of diplomatic and consular missions. It is only right to expect the highest levels of progressiveness in gender balance and seek as much inclusivity as possible in previously ignored fields. Quite apart from your regular duties such as negotiation of international agreements that touch on gender, the women-led foreign service must be a beacon, guiding not just the DFA but influencing the entire civil service to pursue excellence in highlighting the critical issues of our time.

As the climate crisis continues to shape the global policy and investment landscape, as it is likewise affecting migration, security, and conflict, the matter of gender becomes front and center. Women’s greater burden from climate impacts gives us the unmatched capacity for insights and strategies to promote inclusive and resilient societies.

I also would like to share with you the 2022 Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) which revealed that 18% of women with intimate partners reported experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional violence. As a legislator, I have been advocating for women’s rights and well-being, championing initiatives such as the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act, which I principally authored to safeguard women and children from all forms of violence and abuse, and the Magna Carta of Women, which guarantees women protection, representation, and involvement in community decision-making, as well as equal access to education, employment, and comprehensive health services.

Despite these legislative efforts, gender inequality persists, as many women here today can attest. Alongside our roles as public servants, women often undertake unpaid care work at home, managing household responsibilities and caring for family members without receiving due recognition. This unpaid care work exacerbates existing disparities in income, employment, and opportunities for women. In this regard, I proposed the Unpaid Care Workers Welfare Act to ease the load of unpaid care work and recognize women’s role in bolstering families and communities.

Beyond acknowledging the struggles that women face, we must showcase women as holders of valuable knowledge and agents of positive change at home, in the service, and the whole of society.

I have given a few examples of what we may be missing in terms of substantive fields of inquiry. There are many more and I think the highly educated and professional men and women of the Foreign Service, having cleared a high bar by passing your exams, should think it their duty to expand the horizons of their knowledge to address the greatest challenges of the times.

We can do this through collaborative or participatory research, diplomatic training, cultural exchange, cross-disciplinary global initiatives, global cooperation in climate solutions, disaster preparedness and response, and public diplomacy campaigns that reduce the noise and clutter of current discourses. We need to focus on creating synergies. And we have to do this with the largest segment of the population in mind – the youth.

They are the ones with the supple minds to still take on many of the challenges we are faced with. But they also need room to grow. They need interesting and innovative education approaches. They need opportunities for civic engagement. They need mentorship on critical thinking and media literacy. Youth programs are critical because generations always have judgments on younger generations, sometimes without basis. Engaging in interactive projects with them in the future will bridge generational gaps and boost innovative approaches.

So let me wrap up by citing an interesting graphic that integrates the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and makes quality education the main driver to achieve the others. As we grapple with the multiple statistics that show learning poverty, our students’ results of standardized tests, and the EDCOM 2 findings, education of our youth might be the keystone program that can break us out of our slow achievement of our SDG goals. We need an educated population thinking critically and innovatively to push together to reach these goals. And we need to engage them by exciting them using material and experiences that are familiar to them.

I hope you join me in this continuing journey and challenge to mobilize our citizenry: to deliver quality education and break us free from the climate and biodiversity crises using technology, evolution, and gender equality.