Lessons for the academe from Jesse Robredo
Two years ago, in his last public appearance before an academic community, Jesse Robredo underscored the critical role of universities in strengthening local governance. He noted that knowledge partnership involving academic institutions is a means ‘to harvest the power of collaboration.’
“You are an important part of the piece of the puzzle that is local governance. The academe is an untapped resource. We need you to spearhead the call for transparency and participation. We need you in disseminating the use of financial documents disclosed through the Full Disclosure Policy (FDP). Use them as a tool to make local chief executives accountable.”
Jesse’s stirring words become more crucial today as we confront the public cynicism amid the never-ending tales of corruption issues and deepening social inequality. As national government institutions continue to get marred by scandals and self-serving political plans, some reform-oriented sectors look at local governments as viable arenas for responsive, open and accountable governance. Jesse was among the pioneers in this journey.
The continuing challenge pertains to 'doability' or ‘replicability’ of the Naga City exemplars in other places with different contexts. Local government units (LGUs) are also beset with many issues affecting governance – e.g. sluggish local economic development, poor infrastructure, and limited tax base. With the onslaught of corporate-inspired governance, some LGUs have to contend with powerful business groups.
How should local officials, for instance, deal with a situation where an executive of the country's largest real estate developer, Ayala Land, oozing with confidence (if not sheer arrogance), has no qualms to declare the statement below?
"We have resources far beyond any developer in the Philippines. By developing big tracts of land, we become the government; we control and manage everything. We are the mayors and the governors of the communities that we develop and we do not relinquish this responsibility to the government. But because we develop all the roads, water and sewer systems, and provide infrastructure for power, we manage security, we do garbage collection, we paint every pedestrian crossing and change every light bulb in the streets - the effect of that is how property prices have moved."
I wonder how the leaders of leagues of provinces and municipalities would respond to this haughty pronouncement, which somehow derides the capacity of local governments and reflects the perils of governance steered by the unfettered market.
Like it or not, however, some LGUs really need assistance in terms of conducting mutual learning exercises that can enhance their governance capacity. This is where academic institutions can have strategic roles to play.
Saul Alinsky, an American community organizer, said that the word academic is synonymous with irrelevant. By academic, Alinsky was referring to a defensive posture by those who are constantly afraid to get involved in conflicts and changes. There was a time when many universities embodied this kind of aloof and disengaged stance. Until now, some higher education institutions (HEIs) are perceived as detached ivory towers.
As an emerging trend, however, learning institutions are increasingly embracing the concept of university community engagements (UCEs) where engagement is about the collaboration between HEIs and their larger communities for sharing of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. For institutions that have been used to old school bookish knowledge transmission, there is a need to ground theoretical constructs in real world issues such as competing development paradigms and democratic spaces for citizen participation, among others.
When I was still handling classes, I witnessed how students long for a learning process that nourishes the mind and nurtures their own involvement in something that shatters the myths constructed by personal comfort zones, something that transcends the limits of classroom culture. This knowledge experience calls for an academic setting that is able to merge curriculum-based education with research endeavors and UCEs. Some academics call it engaged scholarship. For me, this is grounded education.
While some well-established universities have already been doing this multi-dimensional learning, many smaller and financially-constrained schools are saddled with problems that confine them to the traditional instruction-oriented mission. In some institutions, faculty members are burdened with teaching loads that prevents them from initiating any meaningful research or community activities. Others lament that professors are ill-prepared to conduct research projects and UCEs are treated as an ‘add on’, rather than integral, dimension of university functions.
From classroom provocateur to intellectual entrepreneur
There is now a growing voice in the UCE circle that encourages professors to go beyond being knowledge provocateurs and engage in social transformation as intellectual entrepreneurs. Intellectual entrepreneurs are scholars who produce and are accountable for their scholarly outputs. They are innovative agents of change. By being part of the process, academics are able to apply their conceptual approaches that can contribute to better governance.
When we implemented a multi-sectoral social accountability project, universities together with civil society organizations (CSOs) played an important part in assessing local services to the poor in various parts of the country. Students acted as independent monitors who collected vital information on local poverty-alleviation projects. Some professors worked as trainers for capacity development sessions. Others took part as researchers who documented the lessons from the partnership between government institutions and CSOs.
My interaction with professors from our partner schools enabled me to appreciate the role of intellectual entrepreneurs in driving local development process. As grounded intellectuals, they are expected to uphold the same transparent and accountable processes we expect our public servants to observe. They need to grapple with temptations to serve as co-opted and highly paid consultants who are hired to legitimize the execution of certain socially unjust projects. Intellectual entrepreneurs, therefore, should have the visionary outlook, ethical judgment, technical competencies, and political acumen to be able to deal with the vagaries of public engagement.
Jesse knew the value of disseminating publicly disclosed documents to make local chief executives accountable. Our experience demonstrates the importance of openness among LGUs. One usual concern is to gain the trust of local officials. When relationships between universities and LGUs are tenuous, a common problem encountered is access to critical data, which are in the custody of local government offices.
In Malungon Saranggani, one of our project sites, the series of training activities helped assuage the fears from the LGU to provide information on a health project in the area. Capacity building became a venue for confidence building. After going through various learning exercises, the initially apprehensive LGU invited its partner university to assess other heavily-funded municipal projects.
It takes an enabling environment to build and deepen a constructive partnership between engaged universities and the learning bureaucracy, which are both service-providers to local communities. The academe has a huge potential in creating this atmosphere. Faculty members and students can bridge the seemingly divergent worlds of academe and local governance. As intellectual entrepreneurs, they can be the likely allies of Jesse's matino at mahusay na lingkod bayan in the academe. - Rappler.com
Redento Recio used to work with the DLSU-Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance. He is currently doing research on informal urbanism, grassroots collective action, and development planning.