Treasurer Rosalia V. De Leon - Charting a resilient future: The trailblazer of disaster risk finance in the Philippines

Source(s): World Bank, the

Several years ago, Rosalia V. De Leon, or Treasurer Lea, found herself stranded under the light rail transit system during a severe typhoon—a distressing reminder of the frequent disasters that afflict the Philippines. Trapped in this situation, she thought about the plight of those who had lost their homes and were left without shelter due to such calamities. Recognizing the persistent presence of calamities in the Philippines, Treasurer Lea realized the urgent need to address the issue of financial resilience head-on.

Thus began her relentless journey into the realm of Disaster Risk Finance (DRF) in the Philippines, a country renowned for being among the world's most high-risk due to its location in the Pacific Ring of Fire. “Very early in my career, I developed a passion for exploring ways to help people living in poverty, as they are the most vulnerable to climate shocks. I have always been driven by the need to create innovative-yet-practical solutions to assist these people and remove them from potentially debilitating situations,” says Treasurer Lea. Typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods ravage the nation on an annual basis. However, over the past decade, the Philippines has emerged as a champion in risk finance within the region, pioneering an expanded range of tools and instruments to enhance financial resilience against disasters. 

Among some innovations are a catastrophe bond, the first in the East Asia and Pacific region, and a parametric insurance program for the government, among numerous others. Treasurer Lea stands behind these and many other groundbreaking advancements, tirelessly working to fortify the nation's ability to withstand and recover from the devastating impact of disasters.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional journey. 

I have had the privilege of serving under three presidents as the Treasurer of the Philippines. This professional journey has been immensely fulfilling, particularly considering the significant strides we have made in the DRF space, collaborating closely with the World Bank. Soon after completing college, I started my professional journey in the Department of Finance in the Philippines. I worked in the International Finance Group and liaised with development partners. Later, I was assigned as the Advisor to the Executive Director at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) from 1998 to 2004. Returning to the Department of Finance, I assumed the position Deputy Finance Secretary within the International Finance Group. In an interesting turn of events, from 2015 to 2016, I found myself as the Alternate Executive Director at the World Bank, representing a diverse constituency consisting of Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Philippines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. (I often joke that the Philippines features in this list of Latin American countries, because all our women are always frontrunners in the Miss Universe contest!). Following my tenure at the World Bank, I was honored to be re-appointed as the Treasurer of the Philippines, a position I had previously held from 2012 to 2014 and I have been serving my country in that capacity since then.

I have had the privilege of serving under three presidents as the Treasurer of the Philippines. This professional journey has been immensely fulfilling, particularly considering the significant strides we have made in DRF.

What inspired you to work in international development, especially risk finance and climate finance?

When I first started working in the Department of Finance, I was very interested in the field of international finance. I would observe how multilateral agencies like the World Bank and ADB, and bilateral countries supported the Philippines in their development roadmap. At the time, the Philippines was facing a lot of challenges and was highly reliant on foreign assistance. There would be instances when we would receive commodity assistance and would have to put our marketing skills to the test to sell these commodities and generate cash. This made me think of ways in which we could improve the system so as to maximize the utilization of all this foreign assistance. Also, the Philippines suffers losses amounting to about 1% of GDP due to disasters. So, I have always been focused on out-of-the-box solutions to help the most vulnerable. To ensure quick response. To create solutions that are innovative yet practical and easily implementable.

What is the role of collaboration in the DRF agenda? 

It is absolutely vital. We are constantly looking at ways to provide incentives to local governments to build their own DRF strategies, so they don’t need to rely too heavily on the national government to address local issues. In addition, the kind of problems we face due to climate shocks are shared by our peers in the region, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. This has given birth to regional collaboration and dialog, which has culminated in the institution of platforms such as the Southeast Asia Disaster Risk Insurance Facility (SEADRIF) and  ASEAN Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance (ADRFI). As a member country, we have been very proactive and vocal in terms of how this regional platform can help each country in the southeast Asian region, in terms of setting good examples and highlighting best practices in DRF. 

What can we expect from the Philippines, on the DRF front, in the coming years? 

Well, first of all, we’d like to complete the national asset registry. At the same time, our farmers, our fisherfolks… they are the face of poverty in the Philippines. We want to improve on the kind of insurance that’s being provided by our agency, the Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation, and formulate better technologies to navigate and assess the kind of risks that farmers/fishermen face.

 We are constantly looking at ways to provide incentives to local governments to build their own DRF strategies, so they don’t need to rely too heavily on the national government to address local issues.

You have built an incredible team. How do you keep your team motivated? 

You know, when we recruit people to join the Bureau of Treasury, the first thing we tell them is that, at the most, we can give them a salary that covers the cost of fuel for their car and a few nice meals outside! We acknowledge that the pay may not be lucrative. However, we firmly believe in the potential for personal growth and empowerment that our organization offers. One of our core principles at the Bureau of Treasury is to foster a culture of independence and encourage our team to embrace their creativity and take leadership initiative in any project they undertake. We provide our team members with support and resources to excel in their roles. We prioritize their professional development by sending them to reputable training programs and facilitating networking opportunities. Through these initiatives, our employees gain a comprehensive understanding of current issues, existing systems, and other relevant factors that impact their work. I am incredibly grateful to have dedicated staff members who have been part of our team for over a decade. Their loyalty and expertise are invaluable assets, as it is the quality of our people that truly elevates our organization. Their commitment and contributions enable us to shine.

With your demanding schedule, how do you manage to maintain a healthy work-life balance? 

My two siblings are in the United States, so my second family is the Bureau of Treasury, and I am very dedicated to making it a better institution, one that will be recognized not just within the country but globally too. This is the legacy I want to leave behind. As for fun, Sundays are for me to rest and catch up with friends. When the university basketball season kicks in, from September to December, I enjoy watching games with my staff. We have a sort of friendly rivalry going, where we each root for our alma mater! This apart, we enjoy nights out together, sometimes even meeting up with ex-colleagues. Within the Bureau of Treasury, we all enjoy good friendships and a strong sense of camaraderie.

*Treasurer Lea was recently appointed as Member of the Monetary Board of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

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