January 2007
Good (Local) Governance

Postcards from the road back

Up in North Upi

TAKEN BETWEEN MAGSAYSAY AND DAVAO. Maybe there would be more smiling faces if it had been taken in Magsaysay. [photo by Red Batario]

Everything was different yet the same. The smell of early morning cooking — fish stew called tinowa simmering in an earthen pot — was a welcome greeting as we crested the last hill of the village. The same puny shrubs snagged our pants and the same emaciated dogs sniffed our legs. But where were the furtive glances, the scurrying away at the sight of strangers, the palpable presence of fear, or the guns openly wielded by almost everyone?

This was, after all, North Upi, a Maguindanao mountain town only 36 kilometers away from Cotabato City with a long history of war and conflict. We had been here in the late ’80s doing a story on internally displaced persons, victims of war. It was also here, in a small schoolroom with bullet-pocked walls, where we were held overnight by armed men incredulous at the tale of two journalists who walked for a day but wished only to do a story and nothing else.

We’ve always had this fascination with what’s going on in faraway communities, lured by the idea of living out of a suitcase. But we’d inevitably find ourselves repeatedly crossing the line between journalism and development work and, along the way, seeing little difference between the two.

As most journalists go, we had been trained to nose around, dig deep, unearth wrongdoing, write about problems, tell the public what’s wrong as truthfully as possible, especially about governance. But our journeys revealed that there was more to what we were reporting on, that some things were working in many small communities, that citizens and leaders were by themselves finding solutions to problems — that governance, at least in those places where our footloose nature took us, seemed to be working well. We were doing only part of the whole story.

Now we were retracing our footsteps, trying to bear witness to the transformation we had written about earlier. In many ways, our trip back was to validate in our heart of hearts that what we had seen years before had translated to self-sustaining, autonomous, and forward-looking communities. But the truth was, we weren’t really sure what we would find.

AND SO there we were, back at North Upi. We listened to the coughing of a truck engine, half-expecting a burst of gunfire to erupt at any moment. That was how we got stuck in that school up in the mountains years ago. But instead of gunfire, we now heard the gay chatter of children at play. We turned to look at them; behind the children, we noticed the newly painted office of DXUP FM, the station that Upi townsfolk proudly referred to as “our Peace Radio.”

Mayor Ramon Piang said the establishment of the radio station in North Upi was pivotal in addressing “our town’s most pressing concern…peace and order.” People need to know what’s happening the quickest way possible about local initiatives to bring peace to a seared land, he said. The programs do not focus on conflict like clan wars, but discuss the indigenous ways by which these can be resolved. “It is sort of facilitating,” explained the mayor.

The radio was only one result of Piang’s efforts in reshaping the governance landscape of North Upi, not through gunfire, but through dialogues and community consultations. After his election in 2001, he had asked the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), church leaders, lumad elders, Muslim clerics, and businessmen to form the Mayor’s Advisory Council to arbitrate local conflict — but “not act as a court” — by integrating formal justice mechanisms and indigenous justice systems.

It didn’t take long for citizens to explore other avenues for participation, which Piang encouraged. They put up a Kapihan ng Sambayanan (community roundtable) to debate local issues and to examine and assess local government performance. What is not surprising is that discussions tended to focus on how to meld peace and development in the town. The Kapihan had limited impact, though, and larger implications of the issues discussed did not get wider public attention. So was born the Peace Radio through the formation of the Community Media Education Council composed of multi-sectoral representatives and chaired by the vice mayor.

The council sets the policy direction for the station and brings in multicultural voices into its programming. Many of its staff members are volunteers who were sent to training workshops around Mindanao.

It’s a good thing people in North Upi simply love to talk. By around 10 in the evening of our return visit, we were ready to call it a night — but people were still chatting around the town plaza bathed in light. A stiff breeze blew into the valley carrying the whispers of distant mountains. We spent the night in North Upi lulled to sleep by the stars we could see from our open window.

Magsaysay on our minds

“Can you see that curve in the road down the mountain?” she asked. “That’s where we’ll have to wait for the jeep that will take us to the junction.” Which was about an hour’s walk away. Sweet penalty for having started off late and for not eschewing breakfast.

We were headed for the town of Magsaysay in Davao del Sur, a place we could scarcely remember, having seen countless others wrought in the same small-town layout and architecture. What we could recall were the endless rice paddies and its old, quaint name, Kialeg, referring to a B’laan chieftain noted for his bravery.

The B’laan and other indigenous peoples like the Bagobo had long since retreated to the remote hinterlands from where they make contact with the rest of the townsfolk through tribal councils that they helped set up with Magsaysay’s local government.

Late afternoon found us in Barangay Kasuga where residents were rushing to have their teeth fixed, pay their residence tax, get their children’s birth certificates, request for seedlings, or have their animals vaccinated. Tomorrow the government was moving to another barangay, bringing with it essential basic services that people in remote areas find difficult to access. The mayor, Arthur Davin, called it Paglilingkod Abot Kamay (PAK, or Service Within Reach), a simple, no-frills approach to service delivery.

Town officials were obviously proud not only of PAK, but also of their other programs that they said were developed with the help of civil-society groups and other sectors that made up Magsaysay society. PAK and other programs like the Integrated Pest Management (IPM)-Diversified Organic Farming System (DOFS) were later incorporated by Mayor Davin in his Executive Agenda (EA). The EA spells out the local chief executive’s governance blueprint.

An elderly woman, lips red with betel chew, gave us a toothless smile when we asked her what she thought of the local government’s programs and services. She then pointed to a sari-sari store where a teenage boy was arranging on shelves newly milled upland rice in one-kilo plastic bags. We took a closer look and lifted one of the bags with “MagRice” printed on the stick-on label.

“Our very own Magsaysay rice,” said the woman, who was fondly called by neighbors Onor or Yonor — we couldn’t be sure, given the noisy exchanges going on among the women around the store.

What we did gather was that MagRice was not only developed to address poverty issues in the municipality by eliminating middlemen and providing farmers direct trading conduits, but also was an important result of the organic farming system introduced by the local government.

We also found out that despite initial difficulties like identifying markets outside the municipality, MagRice is now being exported to cities like Davao and Cebu with the help of the Magsaysay Self-Help Cooperative, which was put up by a local NGO and supported by the local government.

Over dinner that night, we couldn’t help talking about Magsaysay and its will to make things work without much external assistance. Its secret, we agreed, was getting people to understand that governance is all about sharing a common dream or vision for the community and of seeing that this is realized in the end with everyone’s participation.

“Are there others like Magsaysay?” We left the question hanging as we packed our bags for Bohol in the Central Visayas.

Charmed by Catigbian

UNUSUALLY HUGE waves slapped the hull of the fast watercraft from Cebu. We could feel their jarring impact down to our feet. It wasn’t always like this during our travels to Bohol, when calm waters swiftly carried us in less time than it takes to finish a VCD movie to the port of Tagbilaran.

We peeked through the fogged up windows, trying to make out the outlines of Tubigon where we were supposed to disembark. Rain began to lash the boat. But just as suddenly it stopped and we were mooring at the small pier lined with food stalls. We had never taken this route before and we felt a sense of adventure as we stepped off the gangplank.

We’d traipsed much of Bohol years ago and were proud to have, at one point in our peripatetic lives, participated in the province’s crafting of its environment code, the first in the country in the late 1990s. It was a time of much hope for what the Local Government Code, the decentralization law of 1991, could offer by way of opportunities for popular participation. Bohol was at the forefront of reinventing governance then. Now we hoped to see its impact on local communities.

A friend, journalist Diosa Labiste, had written an interesting piece about health and governance in Catigbian, a little-known place in Bohol. Here’s her introductory note: “While easily reached from Tagbilaran and Tubigon, the two major trade and transit points, Catigbian seems remote because of the sorry state of its roads, its poverty, and reputation as rebel-infested. It is said that only a Catigbianon loves the town that was bypassed by progress, if, among others it means potable water and the absence of malnutrition and other preventable diseases.”

True enough, we were soon replicating our bumpy boat ride on a van that had seen better days for the place we hoped we could love as well as one of its natives.

In Barangay Triple Union, we ran into Virgilia Sequina, a community leader who manages a Botika sa Barangay. A very busy woman, she also heads the Health Leaders Association and is active in the Department of Health-LGU’s Leaders for Health Program that brings together the mayor, town doctor, and community leaders to reinvent healthcare delivery. Through the program, the mayor and the community leaders attend a Certificate Course in Community Health Management at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business, while the doctor takes up a Masters in Community Health Management, also at the same school.

With many barangay folk suffering from preventable diseases and more than 850 children out of 3,331 in 2003-2004 weighing below normal, health was a governance priority in Catigbian. With the program’s introduction finally came a doctor who wanted to stay.

IT WASN’T easy at the start, and people like Sequina were skeptical that the newly elected mayor would be able to work with the doctor and community leaders almost like equals. The health center was a sorry mess and health workers were demoralized. But the mayor, said Sequina, was driven by a “mission and vision” just like the vice mayor, who understood quickly enough that waiting sheds could wait but health couldn’t.

One of the first things Roberto Salinas did as mayor of Catigbian was to ensure that the town’s two ambulances were used only for medical emergencies and not to ferry officials to fiestas and functions.

The program encourages the integration of health in the development agenda through needs identified in the barangay-development plans. It also ensures greater transparency, accountability, and efficiency by allowing spaces for participation by the volunteer doctor who is expected to stay for four years, the community leaders, and other governance stakeholders in developing the town’s health agenda.

During our visit, we found the Triple Union barangay health workers — all volunteers — preparing to conduct one of their regular village visits to give lectures on breastfeeding, sanitation, and the proper use of toilets. It was but another busy day, but we noticed a lightheartedness in the way they went about their tasks.

We asked one volunteer why they seemed so happy. Her reply: “Not only do we now have a new health center and renovated public market, we also have a doctor who even goes to the remote sitios and a mayor who believes that people’s health should be a governance priority.”

Soon the same decrepit van that brought us there heaved into view. But before we could board it, one of the health workers came up to us and said, “The changes you see here…the newly-painted office buildings and health center…are the physical ones but what had happened here in Catigbian is really all about changing our own mindsets and attitudes about how to govern a town.”

Suffice it to say that like any other Catigbianon, we’d fallen in love with the town.

As we headed for Cebu on the last leg of our journey, it dawned on us with amazing clarity that local governance is not about managing the affairs of the community, implementing programs, or crafting policies.

Sourcebooks and handbooks for local chief executives define governance as the act or process of governing through the exercise of governmental powers such as police, taxation, and eminent domain in the maintenance of the affairs of the state. It is also argued that governance is not the sole domain of government and that there should be a continuing interaction and cooperation of civil-society organizations and the private sector with government in crafting policy and implementing programs.

It is said as well that the context of governance arises from the understanding that sovereignty resides in the people and that public officials citizens elect and to whom they delegate power and responsibility are merely stewards of this power and are therefore accountable to them. It should also be understood that governance and participation are mutually reinforcing.

From our brief encounters with local folk in several small communities around the country, we’ve come to the conclusion that local governance is all about developing the capacities of people to fulfill their obligations and claim their rights while opening spaces for their meaningful participation. It is all about harnessing the potential of citizens to build community by sharing a dream. It is all about leaders who listen to the people they lead and who understand that steering well is better than rowing hard. The good thing about it is that it is happening in many parts of the Philippines.

Eternally optimistic, we are hoping the same thing could happen at the national level.

Victor & Adelle were the pseudonym used by Red Batario and Girlie Sevilla Alvarez when they were writing the column “On the Road with Victor & Adelle” for the Manila Chronicle. They currently head the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD) as executive director and program director, respectively. They also consider themselves occasional journalists, since much of their time is now devoted to training other journalists.