Agenda For Hope

Building on the basics

The Filipino process of nation-building is far from complete. National political elites have disappointed many for their abuses and their failure to deliver good results that are felt on the ground.

It is perhaps for this reason that reformers have increasingly relied on local governments and citizen groups to deliver the needed basic services. These, for their part, have yielded significant results, and have often created "best practices" that are lauded both here in the Philippine and abroad.

But the best practice cases in local governance, in civil society, and even inside the bureaucracy are only a start in reforming the Philippines. They are insufficient when they remain confined with the limits of their respective reform spaces. Unless these patches of successes are scaled up and connected with reforms in the political arena, their impact will be limited and isolated. They will not alter long-standing power relations that have kept our people poor and our country in a perpetual state of underdevelopment.

Diffusing power

The process of diffusing power from the center started as soon as martial law ended in 1986. Not only was there an effort to give more powers and functions to the local government units (LGUs), the role of the citizens and the private sector in governance was also recognized.

The passage of the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991, in particular, paved the way to many successes at the local level. These best practices have been hailed by many as "patches of green" or "islands of good governance."

These best practices in local governance have been attributed largely to two main success factors: leadership and citizenship. A favorable political context that is facilitative of social mobilization sets the groundwork. A capable local chief executive provides effective leadership. People’s participation in all stages of project management leads to initiatives that are relevant and with strong people’s ownership.

Scattered islands of good governance

The best practices serve as showcases for decentralization’ s full potential and as promising examples of local development. However, local governance is plagued by issues that affect its performance, including the incomplete decentralization process. One of the more critical challenges that raise doubts on how effective is the LGC-framed local governance as a strategy ushering national development is how to create and sustain a critical mass of best practicing LGUs.

The best practices are seemingly unsustainable in the long run for they continue to confront socio-political realities that are endemic in Philippine politics. One of these realities is the prevalence of patron-client relations that breed the culture of dependency and disempowerment. The best practices are not sustained and replicated to create a critical mass of well-performing LGUs that will usher national development for they are mere scattered islands of good governance in a raging sea of patronage politics.

Overcoming patronage

The situation of patches of green in a murky political ecology points to the imperatives of building and strengthening modern democratic institutions. Structures and institutions of politics and government are powerful in shaping actions and in achieving consistent outcomes that can aid in producing the critical mass of well-performing LGUs.

There are at least four key institutions that must be developed and reformed: the bureaucracy, the electoral system, the political parties and the accountability mechanisms.

Developing a well-functioning bureaucracy is significant in any reform endeavor for it remains the most efficient machinery for large-scale operations like that of the government. Political parties serve as a screening mechanism for prospective candidates and perform the important role of interest- aggregation and platform-developmen t. The electoral system determines how public posts are filled up, hence the allocation and distribution of power. Accountability mechanisms have to be well-functioning so that the exercise of power can be checked and accounted for.

Developmental and democratic state

The effort of building these institutions may be defined as nation-building — a process of strengthening the capacity of the state to achieve greater control, efficiency, and production. Unfortunately, the Philippine state remains weak. It is unable to withstand assault by particularistic elite interests. There is also the lack of popular support due to the public’s alienation from the state leadership.

To address these weaknesses, the state should not only be strong and developmental, it should also be democratic. The building of a developmental state must be done within the framework of democratic deepening. The same people from whom the state must be insulated, the traditional political elites, cannot lead the process of strengthening the state. The traditional political elites had their shot and failed in bringing growth and development to the Philippines.

In today’s dispensation, only the forces that are reformist, modernizing, and democratic on the ground can usher the maturity of a strong developmental state, which remains the most viable mechanism for growth and development.

Wielding a political force for change

The first order of business then is to find and mold these reformist, modernizing, and democratic forces that will establish a developmental and democratic state.

These forces are the reform and radical democratic movements in the LGUs, within the bureaucracy, in the civil society and social movements, and perhaps even among the circles of a few modernizing elites. These movements, which continue to be vibrant and alive, are characterized by the strong fervor for change with its anti-traditional politics brand. These movements are democratic for they live by and breathe the democratic values that enabled them.

However, these movements are scattered, uncoordinated, and without direction. These movements must be transformed into a formidable tool toward the strengthening of the state. To do this, they must be able to breed unity in diversity, find a shared vision for the country, identify common reform agenda, and develop an effective coordination and synergy of action.

The direction will have to be political. It should offer an alternative leadership that would serve as a countervailing force to the traditional political machinery.

The best organizational form is a political party or a party coalition since it’s specifically constituted for the attainment of power. This party or coalition should be an integration of the reform movements on the ground with the goal of strengthening institutions to democratize political and economic power.

This does not mean that the way forward is still a top-down approach led by a national elite of reformist leaders or cadres of whatever ideological stripe. The way forward is to change the country from the base, place by place, island by island. The integration and unity must be achieved with respect to the diversity and plurality of struggles; but a conscious effort is needed by the leaders of these initiatives to connect their struggles and execute a coordinated strategy of taking power at the national level.

Once this political machinery of reform movements in the Philippines wins power, it has both the broad social base and moral ascendancy to bring a developmental and democratic state, which can effectively lead the process of nation-building. This is a formidable challenge, but it has to be done. By building on the basics, we will change the Philippines.