April 2007
Faces of change /Changeless places

Popular expectations and political ‘miracles’

WHEN ANDRES Montejo became mayor of Malalag, Davao del Sur in 1994, he dreamed of turning the fifth-class municipality into an agricultural center of Region XI. His town, unfortunately, was not strategically located, stiff competition drove the value of its people’s produce down, the locals lacked technical skills, and municipal employees did not have the necessary capabilities for development planning, resource development, fiscal management, and enterprise development. Neither did Malalag seem to have the capacity to generate its own funds; at the time, it was almost fully dependent on its share of the Internal Revenue Allotment.

DESPITE commendable successes in local governance, the everyday decadence of Malacañang and national-level politics allow little room for political optimism.

But the undaunted Montejo gathered his people into a project-management team tasked to build municipal personnel capacities in things like fiscal management, service delivery, local development planning, and economic enterprise management. Their unified objective was to put in place the necessary elements that would transform Malalag into an agri-industrial center. At the same time, Montejo networked with foreign funding agencies to access alternative sources for their needs. The municipal teams eventually embarked on a series of training programs to build various capacities not only of municipal personnel, but also of partner civil-society groups and barangay officials. In addition, the training enabled stakeholders to become effective partners in governing the barangay. The mayor’s teams then came up with a new land-use plan, a local development plan that included an area industry plan, and a new tax system, among other things.

Just a year after the new projects were implemented, local revenues increased by 98 percent, while the local citizenry enjoyed more effective basic services delivery. More importantly, the municipality of Malalag grew more politically mature and empowered. Their local government crafted a clear development plan, generated resources to realize that plan, had a citizenry capable of partnering with the local government, and was serviced by a competent bureaucracy.

For us Filipinos who have been straddled with centuries of ineffective governance, stories like that of Montejo and Malalag seem miraculous. In a way they are, but they are not singular. Still, the everyday decadence of Malacañang and national-level politics allow little room for political optimism. The view from the top presents a dismal picture of narcissistic political styles, obsessed with personal and family ascendance, and bankrupt of social idealism. And even as the picture from below is illuminated by a number of commendable local-governance cases, the political shadows of traditional politics continue to call the shots. Pun intended: There are still many provinces controlled with an iron fist by warlords, and municipalities ruled by families that benefit from the locality’s stagnation and bondage to poverty.

And one can wonder which question makes more sense: why there are so many localities that were able to realize their potential under the Local Government Code of 1991, or why there are so few that did.

THE CODE, after all, has allowed great changes taken in small steps to happen in Philippine governance. This is the reason why people who have worked with local governments see hope in realizing democratic, responsive, and effective governance in our country, despite the destructive politicking and corruption on the national level. Stories of effective local chief executives are growing in number year after year. There are dozens of replicable cases documented in Kaban Galing by Simon Gregorio, and other remarkable cases studied by various nongovernmental organizations throughout the Philippines. All these successes were made possible with the granting of local autonomy.

Understood simply, local autonomy means that local governments were given the power, responsibility, and resources to govern themselves and provide basic services to their constituents. The Code gives local governments a guaranteed share of the national internal revenue and allows the local government units corporate powers so that they can enter into contracts with other entities.

This means that local government units no longer have to be dependent on national or provincial politicians to administer and develop their province. Now they have their own money, they can raise more resources on their own, and they have the right to make their own plans without interference — only supervision — from the higher government units.

Idealistic local officials slowly began to realize that they could actually function as professional administrators. Skilled local leaders could exercise the positive powers of their office without lackeying up to national officials, and without constantly jockeying for resources that would only be bestowed to the favored.

And so some local officials tested the waters in fund-raising (e.g. floating bonds and securing loans), in development planning, in land-use planning, and basic-services delivery (e.g. build-operate-transfer schemes). Many were at a loss at first, but they eventually realized that if they had the skills for administration and the daring to imagine possibilities, and if they had the ability to draw their citizenry in active participation in governance, then they could work small miracles — little revolutions in governance.

Every year we award those localities and their leaders for their daring and imagination to realize the possibilities written into the local government code. Their deeds are changing the governance landscape.

Gregorio’s Kaban Galing collection identifies these seeds of political hope in our country: an innovative watershed co-management scheme with local communities by the provincial government of Nueva Ecija; bureaucratic streamlining through a management information system in the province of Bulacan; a permanent barangay fishing port in San Carlos City through the initiative and mobilization of the local community and the support of the local government; and the establishment by the local chief executive of a Grameen-type bank to alleviate poverty and create livelihood opportunities in Sampaloc, Quezon.

But they are not the defining presence in Philippine governance, and that is largely because our political landscape tends to preserve a kind of balance that keeps things in place.

THE POLITICAL terrain keeps the local chief executive in a precarious position because s/he finds her/himself positioned in a complex web of power relations, Pinoy style. This has to do with the impoverished majority’s state of disempowerment and the minority’s need to maintain its grip on the population. Our democracy is founded on the simple fact that anyone who wants to win a post in government has to win votes. These votes are won from the majority of the people who live on the fringes of society and are often unable to access resources for their own survival.

THE poor are those whose ways of life and systems of understanding are excluded from mainstream political discourse and activity, whether it is politics of the left or the right or the middle.

Although the situation of the poor is complex, at heart they are the people whose ways of life and systems of understanding are excluded from mainstream political discourse and activity, whether it is politics of the left or the right or the middle. These are the people who do not understand the need for contracts and accounting systems between townmates, since the dangal (honor) and reciprocal utang-na-loob (debt of obligation) practices are more familiar and binding. These are the citizens who do not prosper in the systems imposed on them from above, because their ways of life have been rendered ineffective and ignorant by social systems that dominate even their world.

To understand how they think and feel with regard to politicians and politics, we have to try to imagine how their lives are. Imagine that you are a farmer in a municipality of Albay where your fields are flooded during the rainy season and completely dry during the summer. The government is no help to you because agricultural officers can only advice you to use high cost, foreign inputs that only result in social and material debt. Nothing can be done about what you really need — i.e. irrigation and flood control — since both national and local government units claim that they lack funds.

On top of this, stiff foreign competition is driving the price of your produce down so that you cannot pay the loans incurred for inputs. Considering that this is a yearly problem, every year you sink deeper into debt and four months out of 12 your family is hungry. You cannot do anything to improve your life because you do not know what controls the prices of inputs and outputs, you do not know how to influence your government to the point of positive and effective action, and you do not know how to — and neither are you interested in — seizing control of government so that it is more responsive to you.

This is how it is to be disempowered. Everything happens in your world without your influence and you can do nothing to improve your life because you do not have the resources to effect change. But you do see people around you who are bridges to the resources that could, at the very least, stave off starvation.

Usually these bridges are the local government officials. They are the bridges to resources otherwise inaccessible to the poor. Thus it is important to be close enough to one of these officials so that they can include you in poverty-alleviation programs, alert you to projects, give you money for funerals, and even get you a job.

THIS IS why a confidential employee of a Bataan mayor says that by five a.m., a queue of people has formed in front of the mayor’s house. By the time there is no one left in the line, it is already dusk. All of those who were in the queue had requests for such things as assistance for funerals and petitions for jobs.

It gets no better in the cities. According to barangay officials in four Quezon City barangays, people come to them for everything, from loans for the day’s marketing to the pots for cooking their food.

These stories are repeated elsewhere in this country. This is because one of the few sources of resources for the poor is the government official who can either directly dole out resources or who can open doors to offices that hold these resources. Local officials from the barangay captain to the governor are captive to the demands of the poor because if the poor electorate does not perceive the official to be an effective bridge to resources, then they will not be elected into office — unless of course votes are bought with guns and goons.

This is one side of the so-called patronage system that we often miss: the local officials are under pressure to prove that they are an effective bridge to resources. That is why they are so obsessed with projects delivery even if these do not contribute to genuine development. What matters is that they can deliver.

But there is another aspect of the political landscape that begs consideration: the demands of national officials who often have greater access to greater resources. These officials have their own demands from local officials. More often than not, local officials are the guarantors of votes or support. This means that a presidential aspirant must have a network of governors, mayors, barangay captains, and purok leaders, all bound in a pyramid of vote delivery.

This is what most politicians mean by an electoral machinery: Candidates have a series of ward leaders from the ground upward who can promise the votes of the people under their jurisdiction. The more of these ward leaders the aspirant to office controls, the greater their chances of winning. Local government officials who can prove themselves reliable at vote delivery are most in the favor of higher officials who control national, provincial, or municipal resources.

Thus, we see how a local government official stands sandwiched between two layers of accountability: to the people for the delivery of much needed resources and to the higher level government politicos for the delivery of support, which during elections translates to votes and during non-election times translates to other forms of support such as the attendance in rallies. (A fuller explanation of this theory can be found in Agustin Rodriguez’s paper on “Grassroot Governance” published in Social Science Information in 2003.)

Here we see how the performance of the local official, especially the local chief executive, is measured by demands other than those of administration and good governance. In such a scenario, the local chief executive and the officials under her/him are concerned with resource and vote delivery and that takes time away from actual administration.

RATHER THAN imagining and realizing the development possibilities of their localities, local government officials are caught in a Sisyphusian task. On one hand, they are hard-pressed to access resources for projects that demonstrate their capacity to deliver but do not effectively respond to the problem of poverty. On the other hand, they are politically obliged to mobilize partisan, fickle, and temporary support for higher-level officials. If they fail to deliver on either side, they lose both sides. Given the immensity of the task, who has time to govern — much less govern with dynamism and creativity?

Thus we see how much more heroic the innovative local chief executives are, and how understandable it is for local officials to stagnate or keep the status quo. The tendency of local chief executives is to focus on survival, which means to balance the expectations and demands of the constituents with those of more powerful and “resource-full” politicians. The local government official stands at the nexus between two conservative worlds that need to draw from each other. In other words, it is easier for the local chief executive to facilitate the unhealthy symbiosis between two separate worlds.

The Code, however, gives local government officials a chance to be otherwise. They have the right, duty, resources and, sometimes, the capacity to realize their potential to become the facilitators of genuine development of their communities. The main obstacles are the fact that the Internal Revenue Allocation does not fully cover their financial needs and that they often lack the capacity for fiscal management, development planning, and resource generation.

But idealistic local government leaders have allies both among national agencies, universities, local and national civil-society organizations, and donor agencies. Many organizations believe that sustainable development begins with responsive governance and that furthermore, responsive governance begins at the locality. Thus there has been much outpouring of funds for local-governance training, local civil society capability building, and best-practices recognition to support decentralization. Slowly but surely, we have been hearing more and more anecdotes that tell of men and women realizing their new powers and their full capacities to infuse new life to their languishing political worlds.

Yet this question remains: what pushes some localities to explore the new paths while others remain as they have always been? To maintain the status quo is easy because the pressures of both worlds keep you in place. To embrace the innovative possibilities of the new governance regime requires an energy that will break one out of the balance of the status quo.

Reading through the documentation of winners of the Galing Pook awards, it seems that the best local government units always have a dynamic chief executive committed to professionalism and good governance; can partner with external support groups-usually both foreign funding agencies and national and local civil society groups that can provide training or support in the realization of development plans; can easily mobilize citizenry toward change, and have broken or weakened the cultural stranglehold of traditional politics.

It has been 15 years after the passage of the Local Government Code. Time enough for small but significant victories. But not time enough to break completely with decades of centralized and stifling governance.

Both Cristina Montiel, Ph.D., and Agustin Rodriguez, Ph. D., teach at Ateneo de Manila University. Montiel is a professor of peace/political psychology and has been with Ateneo for 30 years. She currently coordinates the doctoral program in Social-Organizational Psychology. Rodriguez is an associate professor of philosophy. He has worked with various governance NGOs to lobby for the authentic implementation of the Local Government Code and its people’s empowerment provisions.