Maria Vicedo Ferrer
Finding purpose in the worst of times
After packing up her bags and bidding Spain adios, Maria headed right into a disaster – she was thrown into a world of emergency response that suddenly has her dedicated to urban resilience.
In 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan barreled through the Philippines leaving 10 million people dead and 11 million people affected in its wake. It was then the world’s strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded, and just days after, 28-year-old Maria Vicedo Ferrer was on ground zero.
An infrastructure specialist and disaster risk reduction project manager for the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), Maria by that time was no longer a stranger to typhoon-caused destruction. Just as she had done with others before, supporting coordination and contributing to disaster needs assessment, she was sent to Tacloban to review the damage. But this was different, she said. “This was really the most shocking.”
In that tumultuous assignment, she found affirmation, that this is what she ought to do, to combine her civil engineering background with disaster risk management and to focus on helping cities become more resilient.
When she joined ADB in 2016 as a young professional, Maria has done nothing but that as part of the Pacific Regional Department. She has been involved with different projects, including technical assistance projects and even serving as team leader processing the Integrated Urban Resilience Sector Project in Tonga. However, since the Young Professional Program requires these budding development experts to rotate departments to gain more operational knowledge, she was recently assigned to work with the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department (SDCC) for one year. Fortunately, she shared, she was still asked to continue handing the Tonga project, which will improve the water and sanitation infrastructure in Nuku’alofa as well as introduce flood management in the city.
For Maria, working for the Pacific has been beneficial for the path she wants to take. “It’s a relatively small department, so maybe because of that I’ve been given responsibilities and exposure since the beginning. I don’t feel like I’m a junior.”
More importantly, she added: “Now I feel like I’m contributing to making an impact. I’m motivated with the work I do.”
“In terms of projects, we really need to look further down in time to make sure that what we build now is what is really needed in 5 years and that it will last 50 years. It's about having long-term vision.”
Maria Vicedo Ferrer
What’s your story? How did you end up in the Philippines?
Maria: I come from Spain. I’m a civil engineer and a musician. I studied civil engineering, which now is my work, while music is my passion.
My first job was working for the private sector, but I didn’t feel motivated with the work I was doing. After a couple of experiences, I decided to try new things—those not so related to traditional engineering work. First, I did an internship with the European Commission. After that, I saw what was probably a life-changing opportunity, which was to go to the Philippines in 2011 to work for the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. They were looking for a person with a profile similar to mine: a junior staff with civil engineering background and international experience. They hired me and offered me a nine-month contract to implement a disaster risk management project in Pampanga, a province in Central Luzon. So I came to the Philippines for nine months, and I’m still here!
It has been six years. What made you stay?
Maria: Well, my responsibility was to implement that project but very quickly I was tasked with other responsibilities. Apart from more engineering tasks and general project management, I started getting involved with policy support. And since the Philippines is affected every year by disasters like typhoons and earthquakes sometimes, in December 2011 there was a big emergency with Tropical Storm Washi that hit Cagayan de Oro and with limited knowledge about emergency response I was sent there. That was my first experience in disaster management and facing a humanitarian crisis. After that I got the responsibility of dealing with emergencies and disaster risk management for the Spanish agency, and then I got involved with all the emergencies after that, including Haiyan in Tacloban.
What was that experience like, being there in the aftermath of Washi?
Maria: It was quite shocking. The level of devastation was quite high even though the area affected was limited. The typhoon basically washed away part of Cagayan de Oro. It was very localized but the level of devastation was immense. I was staggered. It was tremendous, no? What are the people going to do now? I thought.
But even after that and going through several others, these were nothing compared to Tacloban. I arrived there the fourth day after the typhoon hit. That was really… well you know… all the Filipinos know it. This was really the most shocking. Haiyan made me realize how important it is to work on resilience building for population and cities. It increased my interest on working on disaster risk management and to combine my engineering skills with what I’ve learned later in disaster risk management and focus a little bit more on resilience. So Washi was the first encounter and why I got into this world I am now but Haiyan was the turning point for me. It was the clincher.
You eventually worked for some UN agencies. Why did you switch to ADB?
Maria: I was actually already planning to leave the Philippines after almost five years. I had learned a lot, and if I wanted to keep on expanding and progressing my career I had to look for other opportunities in other countries. So I started looking and applying, and that’s when I discovered the ADB Young Professionals Program. Even if it was still based in Manila, you still have an opportunity to work in other regions. I thought it was such a good opportunity that it would be a pity not to apply and anyway the work here would be different. So I decided to apply, and they took me. True enough, I am based here but I’ve been working in the Pacific for one year. And after my year with SDCC I will go back to the Pacific region. I feel really happy with my decision.
Any challenges you’ve encountered here?
Maria: I’m used to shorter periods of time in terms of processing and implementing things. Here, everything takes a long time. It also makes me think that in terms of projects we really need to look further down in time to make sure that what we build now is what is really needed in 5 years and that it will last for 50 years. It’s about having a more long-term vision. But, I think the most challenging thing has been learning all the ADB acronyms!
Tell us about your music. How did this start?
Maria: I started studying music because I was obliged by my parents to take piano lessons when I was very, very little. Many times I wanted to quit until I reached a certain point when I suddenly changed perspective and you start playing things you heard in concerts or CDs. And then you realize you can make that music happen. I became totally passionate about it, and with other instruments. I took up violin lessons and I joined several choirs. Here, I bought a piano and I keep playing at home or for friends when they visit me. I also play with a colleague who plays another instrument, sometimes we make a duet. Whenever I can play, I play. Mainly classical but other styles work too.