ABA ROLI’s ACCESS Program Completes 2nd Virtual Annual Subgrant Forum

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) held its second sub-grant forum entitled “Sub-grant Portfolio Retrospective” under the Access to Justice and Support for the Rule of Law (ACCESS) Program, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Following the success of the 2020 sub-grant forum, organized online due to the pandemic lockdowns in the Philippines, ABA ROLI gathered its 18 civil society organization (CSO)-partners for a two-part annual forum and capacity building activities. The Annual Forum provides an important opportunity for USAID to meet with and hear directly from the ACCESS partners, and vice versa allowing ACCESS partners to hear from USAID and other ACCESS partners regarding results achieved and challenges addressed.

Part I of the forum was held on September 30, and ABA ROLI’s Senior Director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives, Mr. Scott Carlson joined remotely from Washington, DC to provide welcoming remarks and expressed appreciation to USAID, a long-standing partner of the ABA in the Philippines and globally. Ms. Carlson also acknowledged the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) as key partners of ABA ROLI’s in the Philippines and expressed appreciation for their commitment to human rights and access to justice. He also acknowledged the challenges of the Philippines in coping with the pandemic and congratulated ABA ROLI partner organizations for achieving so much, through such challenging times. He also noted that the United States government, particularly USAID, has provided significant support to enable access to vaccines. Scott shared that ABA ROLI celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020 and remarked that of those three decades, ABA ROLI worked in the Philippines for two decades.

Part I included sessions with CHR, represented by Commissioner Karen Gomez Dumpit, the IBP, represented by National President Atty. Burt Estrada, and legal experts Atty. Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and Atty. Rona Caritos, Executive Director of Legal Network for Truth Elections (LENTE). With CHR and IBP, ACCESS partners had the opportunity to raise questions on how to establish, improve, or strengthen collaborations between the institutions and civil society actors in protecting the legal rights of the most vulnerable. In response, Commissioner Dumpit assured that CHR has always strived to carry out joint efforts with CSOs, giving examples of the provision of legal aid through CHR’s “E-lawyering” program, legal aid caravans, and legal services provided by its 13 regional and 7 sub-regional offices.

Commissioner Dumpit also shared existing partnerships with two ACCESS subgrantees, the Alternative Law Group and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates. CHR organizes community-based dialogues with these subgrantees that promote human rights through enhanced relationships between communities, CSOs, and the security sector. In the session with FLAG and LENTE, the discussions included access to justice reforms through other accountability measures, use of technology, and a discussion on inclusive and participatory electoral processes, in view of the national elections taking place in May 2022.

IBP President Atty. Burt Estrada shared activities of the Bar Association, in particular, those aimed at addressing the important issue of killings of Filipino lawyers. Atty. Estrada explained that IBP has established a special committee tasked to collect evidence and has opened the IBP’s doors to families of the deceased lawyers in need of pro bono legal aid or other types of assistance in seeking justice.

For the capacity building sessions of Part I, ABA ROLI invited speakers from Lyf Solutions represented by Mr. Voltaire Tupaz and Mr. Rupert Mabil, the Medical Action Group represented by Ms. Justice Fernandez and Ms. Mercy de Joya, Dakila represented by Ms. Leni Velasco and Ms. Darlene Ramos-Gan, and Change Initiative represented by Mr. Jost Wagner. This segment of the forum was designed to offer the CSO partners recommended strategies to improve their media presence and program development, innovative hosting of online events, using art as media for advocacy, and ensuring mental health and work-life balance in the pandemic setting.

The final segment of Part I was the orientation provided by Mr. Jun Orbina, the representative of the World Health Organization Office in the Philippines. Speaking on the government’s vaccination rates, Mr. Orbina shared that as of September 27, 29.1% of the target population aged 18 and above have been fully vaccinated, while it remains a challenge that 3.9 million senior citizens or those above 60 years old remain unvaccinated. To emphasize that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, Mr. Orbina also talked about the process of development, testing, and authorization for use with data on vaccine acceptance from the communities in the country.

On October 6, ABA ROLI held Part II of the sub-grant forum dedicated to ACCESS partners to share milestones built on and achieved under the program and updates on implementation challenges encountered.

The Opening Remarks for Part II was delivered by Ms. Sara Sandford, Council Chairperson of ABA ROLI’s Asia Law Initiative Council. Ms. Sandford congratulated the ACCESS subgrantees for the remarkable accomplishments of the program in Year 3 despite the challenges of rolling lockdowns and multiple waves of COVID-19. Ms. Sandford shared with the subgrantees that the ACCESS program reached 311,798 Filipinos through its diverse portfolio of grants in the areas of human rights, gender-based violence, indigenous peoples’ rights, human trafficking, drug use and rehabilitation, agrarian reform, environmental protection, alternative lawyering, and provision of legal services for vulnerable communities.

Thereafter, Mr. Sean Callahan, USAID Acting Mission Director, shared remarks. In his opening statement, Mr. Callahan shared that USAID was celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and the Philippines was one of its first partner-countries and remains one of the agency’s key partners in promoting sustainable and inclusive development in the region.

Mr. Callahan commended the subgrantees for their dedication and hard work to implement ACCESS amidst the threat of COVID-19 infection but also underscored the heightened need for assistance to vulnerable sectors from CSOs, such as those working with ACCESS for critical information on legal rights, and services. Describing the CSO’s work as “leadership” in critical issues, Mr. Callahan spoke of USAID’s appreciation for such partnership through ACCESS and previous collaborations as part of USAID’s history in the Philippines.

The program was divided into three reporting sessions; Defending Human Rights, Protecting Women and Minorities, and Protecting Indigenous Peoples and the Environment. Presenters from each of ABA ROLI’s 18 partner organizations shared a brief background of the objectives of their grant, together with an overview of results achieved and success stories in providing legal awareness raising and legal services to vulnerable communities.

In the conclusion of the annual forum, speakers from USAID included Mr. Mohamed Dansoko, Democracy and Governance Team Lead, and Mr. Gerardo Porta, Senior Democracy and Governance Program Manager. Mr. Dansoko thanked ABA ROLI’s Country Director Ms. Susan Cowley for cultivating the relationship of the ACCESS program subgrantees with USAID and for organizing the yearly event. He also acknowledged the subgrantees, their dedication and accomplishments over the year of unprecedented challenges. Mr. Gerry Porta responded to some of the subgrantees’ queries on possible future opportunities and also thanked the CSOs for their commitment to the ACCESS program.

Survey Results

ABA ROLI conducted a Poll survey during the Forum to determine whether partner organizations agreed with the original data collected at the beginning of ACCESS.

In terms of accessing legal assistance or defending their rights, indigenous people (39% responses), the urban poor, and women (with 19% responses each), are among the respondents’ 1st choices of who are considered the most vulnerable sectors. Meanwhile, children (28% responses) and the farmers/fisherfolks (21%) are among their 2nd choices. Notably, the results were the same as the responses recorded 18 months ago wherein indigenous people, urban poor, women, and children are still considered the most vulnerable persons, especially during this pandemic wherein the lockdowns resulted in increase in abuses particularly among women and children.

In terms of the factors that hinder vulnerable persons in accessing legal services, respondents indicated the lack of financial resources (45%), and inadequate legal assistance offered by the government (19%) as the two main obstacles, which matches the data collected in 2019.

The 2021 annual forum received positive feedback from the partners with 100% of participants rating the event either 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 in terms of satisfaction.

Finally, in their own words: Excerpts from Respondents’ key takeaways of the event:
  • The outcomes and experiences of other organizations will help our organizations to develop strategies for the betterment of the project;
  • Successful and inspiring stories from partners despite of the pandemic situation;
  • Importance of CSOs in bridging the Access to Justice gap, especially among marginalized sectors;
  • We have several good initiatives where we can build upon future initiatives. We need to sustain these efforts;
  • CSOs are at the forefront of promoting, advocating and protecting the rights of the different sectors in the Philippines;
  • The spread of issues being catered by the ACCESS project;
  • Organizations in the Philippines, if given the support needed just like what ABA ROLI -USAID did, would contribute to make a better and safe space for our children;
  • The ACCESS program helps support a lot of very important projects.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Asia & the Pacific.