Fellows Speak

The Prospects of Participatory Local Governance and Development Work in the Aquino Administration
Prof. Roland G. Simbulan
University of the Philippines &
Senior Fellow, CenPEG
(Center for People Empowerment in Governance)
(Keynote Address before the Annual National Conference on Participatory Local Governance (PLG), Davao City, August 14, 2010)

It is both an honor and privilege to address all of you this morning and to be your Keynote Speaker in the 2nd Annual National Conference on Participatory Local Governance. Your work in painstakingly engaging local governance by seeking transparency and accountability as well as through partnerships with local governments is commendable. Your role is important: To broaden the practice of grassroots democracy at the local level, which can push local government units to be more accountable to its citizens.

When I was preparing my keynote speech for this occasion, I realized that you are asking me to address the following question:

    How can people participation be enshrined in the public policy-making process in the country , especially under the Aquino administration?

Already, the Aquino administration has pledged to carry out a "good governance" initiative, and has committed itself to transparent and accountable government. Our response to this can only be to widen participatory governance, that is, to broaden the participation of progressive organizations and civic groups in the political process.

So today, I will examine the possibilities and challenges of participatory governance under the administration of Aquino

There is no definite consensus about the definition of participatory governance. I shall define "participatory governance" as governing by inclusion and participation of non-state actors or organizations in the policy-making process. (Clingerayer J. & Feiock, R., Institutional Constraints and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance. Albany: State University of New York, 2001)

Governance is the process by which a society is managed and looked after. Good governance is when that process is handled honestly and efficiently for the benefit of all citizens, respecting and promoting human rights and human development.  We must reclaim this government that has long become alienated from its people, and in so doing, to alter and even change our own understanding of what governance means if we are to move forward as a nation and people.

In practice, we have never really had democracy in governance in this country. Such a situation exists even as we have good constitutional provisions --  hard-won democratic space by popular struggles -- which still have yet to be realized and maximized. On paper, these provisions have institutionalized people's participation in governance:

1. "The State shall encourage non-governmental, community-based, or sectoral organizations that promote the welfare of the nation."
  (State Policies, Art. II. 1987 Constitution)

     2. "The State shall respect the role of independent people's organizations to enable the people to pursue and protect, within the democratic framework, their legitimate and collective interests and aspirations through peaceful and lawful means. People's organizations are bona fide associations of citizens with demonstrated capacity to promote the public interest and with identifiable leadership, membership and structure."  (Sec. 15, Art. XIII, Social Justice and Human Rights -- The Role and Rights of People's Organizations, 1987 Constitution)

3. "The right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making shall not be abridged.  The State shall, by law, facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms."
(Sec. 16, Art. XIII, 1987 Constitution)

What is our situation today?

   1.  Even with the 1987 Constitution, we have a fake democracy. We have an oligarchy: a government controlled and manipulated by the elite - 250 political clans and dynasties who own the largest tracts of land and biggest businesses
When the United Nation's Development Program's Human Development Report (1991) defines democracy as a condition where, "People must be at the center of development...it has to be development of the people, by the people, for the people," do we see this in the Philippines? In short, we are a nation where economic and political power is narrowly concentrated in the hands of the few.

The State has not been entirely autonomous from non-State actors. Some social actors especially big business and big landlords have long developed and maintained a close relationship with the State. Agendas of big business interests are always often channeled through public officials who in turn have direct or close ties with big business. Public officials tend to represent and articulate business interests in the policy-making process. Thus, participation has long been limited to powerful vested interest groups, such as trade or industry associations which have resources to raise their concerns in the policy process, and usually they fund the political campaigns of politicians. The power and influence of business in participatory decision making has always been there and firmly implanted because officials are themselves part of or are involved with big business. Just look at their Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SALS) and you will know what I am talking about.

The poverty that we see daily in our communities and country is not a natural state, but one constructed and maintained by unequal relations and structures of power. That is why our advocacy and development work is an organized effort toward an empowerment perspective. We seek and aim at a citizen-centered local community which involve the coordinated efforts of people to change policies, practices, ideas and values that perpetuate inequality, intolerance and exclusion of the poor majority. Ultimately, as an organized effort, we aim to bring system-change, not merely palliative reforms in policy, regulation or implementation. Effective advocacy challenges existing imbalances of power and changes thinking.

But, government-initiated participatory governance mechanisms, while intended to broaden participation of diverse and broad social actors, are often dominated by powerful interest groups who are either related to government officials or have close family or business connections with them.

Thus, in our advocacy for people empowerment, we are faced with an Elite-driven government that thrives on political patronage, elite domination, weak political party system, corruption, inefficiency and low budgetary priorities for the poor in terms of basic social services.

  2. When public officials sometimes involve citizens, it is when the issues have already been framed and decisions have been made, ready for implementation.

As citizens, we are not supposed to just see ourselves as passive constituents, voters or recipients of the leadership of our representatives or of our leaders. We do not just keep government on its toes; we must make government, its institutions and the system work for us. But this can only happen if we equip the people with democratic sentiments, values and capacities.

Who, and what is government?   We give it its resources and money to spend. We give it legitimacy. It speaks on our behalf. And it represents us. At the very least, government should be transparent and open to the people, its real masters, and, as President Aquino said recently, we are his "BOSS".

Thus, the people should be involved in strategic decision-making, in agenda and framework setting, not just in implementation. Thus, it is imperative to assess the level of citizen participation. Such an assessment can provide useful insight for understanding participatory governance.

Schools of Empowerment

Your organizations and networks are schools of empowerment of our local communities. More effort must also be concentrated on grassroots education and consciousness raising. It is public awareness that puts the greatest pressure on the different levels and branches of government to fulfill the government's commitment to the delivery of better, basic social services.

How many times have we heard many of our people say that they have feelings of powerlessness in their relationship with irresponsible government of corrupt and inefficient public officials?  Citizens need to take command of the nation again.

There is overwhelming evidence that participation of people in governance reduces alienation and raises not only the level of consciousness but also productivity. When a community pushes for its own issues and demands, it subjects itself to possibilities for transformation, a democracy of everyday life.


But a major obstacle to genuine participative governance is the attitude of the oligarchy in this country who immediately suspect those who are in advocacy work, as subversives, terrorists, and trouble-makers. This is because the elites are generally afraid of reforms, much more if it is fundamental social change. There have been many extra-judicial killings, involuntary disappearances, etc. For the record, let me share with you the data of the human rights organization, Karapatan from Jan 21, 2001 to June 30, 2010:

Extra-judicial killings   -  1,206
Missing                     -     206
Torture                      -   1,028
Illegal arrests             -   1,963

Most of the victims are farmers in our rural communities. These are alarming developments.

It is perhaps ironic that the very machinery that we finance with our taxpayers money and which is supposed to be our protector, is now also our oppressor through its coercive and repressive machinery.

Public awakening drives great change and reforms. But why are committed people who only seek to reform and improve the lives of our people, are themselves the targets and victims of violent repression? Is this an indication that the Elite-dominated government is afraid of the people who after becoming aware of their rights, get organized for socioeconomic reforms to build a truly democratic society? Maybe, more tolerance of an empowered people by the oligarchic state, and guaranteed by the effective protection of life and liberties, is what will lead us toward the resolution of armed conflict, as we try to resolve the structural roots of poverty, insurgency and rebellion,  and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Grassroots political power

I have always believed that local governance is the key to building grassroots political power, and eventually a genuine, platform-based political party firmly rooted among the masses. To do that, we must dissect and master how government works. We need to understand and master the present public policy process and in so doing, help enshrine and enhance empowerment and people participation in policy making and reform.  And it is imperative to project an alternative national development program and develop from the grassroots, leaders who can excite and capture the imagination of our people.

But, I must tell you, that we must be wary of the kind of localized "people empowerment" espoused by some governments and multilateral institutions as a cooptation of grassroots organizations. They want us to compete or scramble for funds from foreign agencies or force us to design our projects according to the priorities of the donor countries or agencies, not according to the people's needs.

Packaged programs of governance and anti-corruption which hews close to the IMF-World Bank economic line are destined to further impoverish and dis-empower the people. States, in the framework of imperialist globalization, are being restructured and streamlined to be effective instruments of global and transnational capital. THE INFORMED PARTICIPATION OF THE PEOPLE, THEIR EMPOWERMENT FROM BELOW AND BUILDING THEIR CAPABILITIES AND SOLIDARITY, IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE DOLE-OUTS AND GRANTS FROM FUNDING AGENCIES WHICH OFTEN ARE FORMS OF OUTSIDE INTERVENTION MANIPULATED BY FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS AND MULTILATERAL AGENCIES.

We must understand that the World Bank-IMF and bilateral institutions have their own "good governance" agenda for macro-economic stability in the form of anti-corruption institution-building programs. This is also their concern so that social control systems of states can be streamlined to facilitate repayment of loans extended to other countries. These institutions also view corrupt and racketeer states as disrupting the market forces of competition, from the point of view and framework of neoliberalism. Only an empowered and vigilant citizenry  -- at the national and local level -- can curb the excesses of the state that serves the narrow interests of the local elite and foreign elite transnational interests.

And though micro-management in the work place, in local politics and in the communities is important to be exposed to the everyday lives of the people, we must remember that the struggle is still a political struggle and a question of power. 

This is not to downgrade the achievements at the grassroots and municipal level where social movements are already in some instances, already performing quasi-government functions, or perhaps more accurately, the functions of an alternative government in a parallel system. 

For the struggle to be sustainable, the people must not only be politically educated; they must be equipped with the necessary skills to ultimately govern themselves at the local and national level.  Ultimately, the task of organized people's power is to challenge the power of the oligarchy in the political and economic realm, and to restructure that power at the national and local level according to what serves the interests and needs of the basic sectors.

We can further professionalize and develop expertise in lobbying and policy intervention.   The expertise for oversight by people's organizations should be developed and improved, and a mastery of the accountability and governance mechanisms of government enhanced.   The engagement strategy means that, to have impact in terms of policy prescriptions and intervention that would improve the lives of the basic masses, or to defend their interests, we should prepare for effective engagement even with the technical experts harnessed by government, international financial institutions, and transnational corporations.

Prescriptions for participatory local governance

And what is my prescription for participatory local governance ? Since local officials are closer to the people and their grassroots organizations, local public officials can be more easily held responsible and be open to public scrutiny than national officials.  Let us learn to:

(1) Guard closely our money that they spend for public projects and programs;

( 2) Monitor performance of public officials, for after all, they are the public's "servants";

(3) Open and increase leveraging and access to information on all government activities and government operations. It is the right of citizens to know what their government is up to and government agencies have a duty to make information and records accessible to the people who support the government with their taxes.

The  Aquino administration is now over a month old. The best appointments that I have seen so far are those of Atty. Leila de Lima at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and Mr. Jesse Robredo at the Dept. of Interior of Local Government (DILG).

At this point, I would like to mention the statement of the new DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, which he issued and published in his column in Abante, July 19, 2010 with the title, PALAKASIN ANG PAMAHALAANG LOKAL:

"Kung hangad natin ang pagbabago na madarama ng mga ordinaryong mamamayan, kailangan magsimula ito sa mga probinsiya, lungsod, munisipyo at lalung-lalo na sa mga kaliit-liitang barangay. Malaki ang papel ng mga local government units o LGUs sa pagpapatupad ng pagbabago sa grassroots level."

On the issue of transparency and accountability in local governments, he said:

" Kailangan ilahad nila ang kanilang budget, procurements, bidding process at anumang impormasyon na gustong malaman ng publiko. Sila rin ang pananagutin sa kanilang mga palpak, ilegal at maanomalyang gawain."

On the role of  NGOs at people's organizations, Robredo said :

"Palalakasin din natin ang boses ng mga civil society organizations sa pagpapatupad ng mga reporma sa mga pamahalaang lokal dahil sila ang tunay na kumakatawan sa mga ordinaryong mamamayan."

Imagine, if even just half of our country's 42,000 barangays were empowered in the sense of being truly transparent and accountable to their constituents-- what a change it will be! And if the beneficiaries themselves --through their local governments --were involved as planners and participants for basic needs programs.

I am sure that many of you have many stories and experiences to share from your communities of how local empowerment can be attained through people's initiatives to make our Local Government Units (LGUs) more responsive and effective for people's needs.

I believe it is possible to change toward a professional and incorruptible government, especially if the national leadership is committed to transparency, honesty and professionalism in government. May I also emphasize that we should not miss on utilizing advanced Information Technology (IT) to increase access and participation in local and national policy-making and in service delivery.

May I reiterate, my friends, that it is time once again to reclaim our government, and to make it work for us. The times are challenging .The burden of our national problems challenge us. I have always looked up for strength to the hope and wisdom of our people in the face of hardship and repression. The people's strength inspire us all even as we resist the fear that threatens to engulf us. The commitment of others as well as their unflagging dedication, fire us with the strength to achieve our collective goal which is to liberate our nation from poverty, an outcome of structural inequalities in our society.

In sum, how do we respond to the Ninoy Aquino government ? Our organized efforts and actions should try to use the openings in the political system to establish and implement laws and policies that will create a just and equitable society. After our nine-year bangungot or nightmare  with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, let us hope and push the new administration to broaden and even institutionalize the participation of citizens, NGOs and people's organizations in national and local policy-making, as already directed by the 1987 Constitution. I have been told many times by foreign friends, that when it comes to NGOs and work in people's movements, we are already a superpower in the Philippines;  let us therefore convert and translate that strength and power in influencing strategic decision-making both at the national and local levels so that we can have a pro-poor and pro-Filipino government.
May our advocates for transparency and accountability in governance ever increase!


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