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Action, agility, and empathy

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In mid-2021, upon the suggestion of one of its senior fellows, Action for Economic Reforms (AER) decided to refresh the organization’s brand identity.

The exercise coincided with AER’s 25th anniversary, but there were several other reasons behind the decision to rebrand.

AER was long overdue for a visual refresh. While pushing for reforms for the past 25 years, AER felt that it neglected its brand. Its visual identity was outdated and did not communicate the essence of AER or align with the purpose of galvanizing support for our advocacies.

AER’s programs itself were also growing beyond the confines of the existing brand. Since its founding, the organization has branched out into many different areas of work: macroeconomic policy, health policy, freedom of information, industrial policy, human development, and most recently, data-driven development. As we had not refreshed our brand in 25 years, our vision, mission, and values statements lacked key concepts which are now our programs’ key pillars. One of these pillars is inclusion, an anchor of our new data-driven development projects at the local government level.

After months of reflection and brainstorming, with the help of designers and marketing experts, we came up with a new visual identity along with refocused mission, vision, and value statements.

Our new vision is now much simpler, emphasizing our goal of sustainable, equitable, and inclusive development.

And our mission is now: “To advocate economic and governance policies and practices that promote Philippine development through independent, rigorous, and timely research, analysis, and engagement.”

But what I found most interesting was our review of the core values that guide AER. There are three core values that I resonated with the most: action orientation, agility, and empathy. AER is an organization led by its values, and so I see these words as concepts the organization knows intimately and consistently puts into practice.

One of our biggest goals during the rebranding exercise was to emphasize the “action” in Action for Economic Reforms, highlighting AER’s role as a coalition-builder and mobilizer in civil society.

In AER executive director Men Sta. Ana’s 1996 piece “Charting new paths,” which explains AER’s mission as an independent policy advocacy group, he wrote that AER was formed to respond to an urgent need for nuanced analysis on reforms’ specific features, context, enabling conditions, timing, phasing, and sequencing. The tendency, he said, is to gloss over technical work because of the perception that technocracy connotes elitism. He wrote that the organization’s goal is to educate the public on tradeoffs, opportunity costs, and other consequences, providing nuanced positions rather than polarized perspectives.

But through the years, AER has done more than research, education, and analysis. In its pursuit of influencing policy and practice, it has mobilized coalitions (such as the Sin Tax Coalition, which successfully contributed to the legislation of several sin tax reforms), networked, and engaged in dialogue. It is now delving into local problem solving through its Data-Driven Development projects, venturing into promoting the use of data and evidence for local governance, policymaking, and citizen participation, with 14 local government unit partners from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Another core value we identified is agility, or the ability to move and adapt quickly to political and economic constraints. AER interacts with different politicians, civil society actors, technocrats, and the private sector, and adopts different strategies depending on the political climate. AER understands the importance of compromise and pragmatism in reform, which allows it to continuously engage with different policy actors and secure progressive reforms.

Lastly, empathy is a value that needs to be highlighted in policy reform and in the big picture of national politics, now more than ever. In this polarized political climate, two weeks after the landslide victory of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., emotions are high, and empathy is dwindling for those who have been deeply disheartened by the results of the elections. The results confirmed that despite all efforts, there is a huge gap in understanding the majority of Filipino voters. The gap is so huge that, as Manolo Quezon wrote, “the minority does not quite believe the majority exists; because if it does, it would be too alien and loathsome to inspire either empathy or a continuing desire to serve.” If we want to continue the fight against disinformation and authoritarianism and bridge the huge cultural divide, we will need to rekindle empathy and deepen understanding.

Dr. Gideon Lasco recently wrote that the challenge now is not to “educate” others but to make them feel part of whatever it is that you’re fighting for. While education remains important, the elections just further demonstrated that we live in a post-truth world where facts do not reign supreme. This poses a challenge for a think tank like AER. While we prioritize rigor and being data-driven, times are changing, and communication strategies should adapt accordingly. Getting our message across, getting people to buy into our vision for sustainable, equitable, and inclusive development, and securing reforms will require a lot more creativity, empathy, and telling compelling stories.

Pia Rodrigo is Action for Economic Reforms’ strategic communication officer.

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