January 2007
Good (Local) Governance

The good, the bad, and the ugly

WE VOTE for them every three years to guard our interests, be our representatives, and run our towns, cities, and provinces. This May, we are about to do that again. Yet for many of us, local politicians remain strangers, despite the annoying billboards and streamers most of them set up to greet us during the Christmas season or to trumpet some of their supposed achievements (using our money). Perhaps the only time we pay real — if still fleeting — attention to our local politicos is when they get involved in some scandal or become targets of assassins.

Which is a pity. In 1991 came a groundbreaking law that gave local governments — and local officials — enormous power and responsibility regarding services once dispensed by the national government. Among other things, the Local Government Code devolved five basic services to local governments: health, social welfare, agriculture, environmental protection, and local public works and highways. Doing so was supposed to enable local officials to craft development plans appropriate to their constituents’ needs. To help fund these, the local governments’ shares from the national income-tax collections were increased; the Code also gave them new sources of revenues.

In an ideal world, this would have resulted in better towns, cities, and provinces, which in turn could have only made a truly strong republic. But reality seems to need the presence of scoundrels, several of whom can be found in the political arena. Sometimes, too, sheer incompetence is to blame for the messes that elected officials try to pass off as governance.

At the same time, however, there are places where people are smiling not because they have just won in jueteng, but because they find genuine satisfaction in the way their communities are being run. In many cases, the residents in these areas are also active participants in the transformation of their communities. For sure, in some instances, that happened because the people themselves pushed to be included in the decision-making process. But there have also been officials who thought it important enough to consult their constituents regarding the needs of their communities.

As part of PCIJ’s pre-election coverage, i Report will spend January to April looking at local governments and local politicos. We will be examining past and present trends, old and new political families and faces. There will be good news and there will be bad news — actually, it can even get downright ugly.

For the entire month of January, however, our focus will be good governance at the local level. According to the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), good governance has eight major characteristics: participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law.

Adds the UN body: “It ensures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account, and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.”

Even UNESCAP, however, admits that finding in one place all the elements that it says make up good governance is difficult. No matter; in the next few weeks, we will be visiting places where at least one positive change has taken root because of local government initiatives. By the time January is done, we hope to leave you fortified with hope regarding the prospects of your own community — and conscious of the importance of your vote in the coming polls.