LGUs in the Philippines

[OPINION] The dark street: On the importance of local government units

Michael Raqim Mira

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[OPINION] The dark street: On the importance of local government units

David Castuciano/Rappler

'The residents of that small corner of the barangay don’t care about larger-than-life battles happening in Congress or Malacañang. They just want their lights fixed, their pockmarked streets smoothed out...and their canals widened...'

The street is less than 18 meters long. There are only nine houses on this street, most of which are connected to form a singular block. At the end of the street is a large, beautiful house with Filipiniana-style architecture, which has sat unoccupied for almost a decade. The residents of this street are either related or close friends. 

Multiple generations of children who grew up in the area used to foot race down this street. They would explore its canals and vacant lots before real estate development took over. During the town’s fiesta, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, the residents celebrated along the street with a joy that rivaled those of larger barangays. Bright lights adorned balconies and fireworks illuminated smiling faces.

However, when there aren’t any holidays to be celebrated, the street is almost completely dark. There are only three light posts along it, their bulb casings resembling a psychic’s crystal ball. Staring into them in the daytime, you can predict the future: there will not be light again until after the local election.

A resident on the street, who asked to remain anonymous, told me the cause of this darkness.

Kaunti ang mga nag-boboto dito. Kaya tuwing election, pinapabayaan ng mga kandidato ang maintenance sa kalye (There are only few voters here. That’s why, during election season, the candidates discontinue maintenance work on the street),” said the resident, whose house is next to one of the broken light posts. 

Imagine each voting district broken up like fragments of peanut brittle. The smaller the piece, the fewer the peanuts. The candidates running for barangay captain or even city council concentrate their election campaigns towards the larger subdivisions, where large amounts of voters are. This unethical style of campaigning ends up brushing those tiny areas with few voters off into the “unimportant” category. 

How important are light posts, anyway? Well, one could argue that dark streets partially contribute to an increase in crime. In the same way that broken windows and general dereliction can encourage further vandalism — known in criminology as the broken window theory — dark streets could encourage deviant behavior such as theft and robbery. 

One resident on the street animatedly told me about the time he stumbled upon a couple having sex in the dark alleyway at the end of the street. They weren’t even from that neighborhood. They went there because it was dark and seemingly private. 

Although it was a light-hearted and harmless example of deviance, home invasion robberies have occurred in that area as well. In fact, other parts of the city, not coincidentally, that lacked public lighting experienced higher crime rates. Other public safety effects were higher rates of road accidents as well as the elderly tripping and injuring themselves.  

Readers might wonder why such a trivial matter even warrants an essay. I would like to argue that a broken light bulb on a small street, in a small city, is symbolic of our local, provincial, and national governments’ ineptitude and self-centered agenda. It’s a microcosm of the deeper fundamental issues ailing the nation. 

If tax-paying, law-abiding residents on a small dark street in the province can’t get local officials to replace a cheap lightbulb — since they’re deemed unimpactful in an election cycle — then what does that say about the macro version of this “minor” form of corruption? 

The Philippines has always had a patronage-based political system, in which wealthy, powerful oligarchs amass votes by appealing to working-class citizens. They promise jobs, infrastructure funding, revitalization initiatives, environmental protection programs, and improvements in health care. However, once they win their political seat, those promises become promissory notes, then they become I.O.U. cards, and eventually they are altogether forgotten.

The worst version of this is what’s called clientelism. In this type of scheme, politicians will promise personal favors or grant exclusive access to public-funded infrastructure to those who donate the most to their campaigns or help influence the community in voting for that candidate. It’s like vote buying, which is illegal, but since there’s no money trail, there’s no way to prosecute it. In any case, what prosecutor or internal investigator would even dare to go against a powerful politician? It could mean the end of their career or life. 

However, let’s take it back to the dark street. The residents of that small corner of the barangay don’t care about larger-than-life battles happening in Congress or Malacañang. They just want their lights fixed, their pockmarked streets smoothed out so that the elderly won’t have to worry about injuring themselves, and their canals widened so that they don’t always flood when monsoon season comes. 

In a way, the local government unit (LGU) is more important than whoever is president or who’s showing off their expensive suits and dresses on the Senate floor. The Filipino social and political structure has always been composed of barangays that form a network. 

In pre-colonial times, each barangay or village had their own chieftain, medicine man, spiritual priests/priestesses, and elders who provided council and wisdom. Essentially, micro-local culture and politics were the most important form of social structure, especially in an era when the concept of a nation-state was nonexistent. I would argue that local governance and communities are just as important today as they were in ancient times. 

That’s why those burnt-out lightbulbs are important, why the local officials refusing to do their public duty is very problematic, and why you should care about every dark street that resembles clogged arteries in this vast country. The economy of the Philippines is currently booming and the middle-class is growing, but despite the brightness of our future, there are still literal and figurative dim areas of our nation that deserve illumination. – Rappler.com

Michael Raqim Mira is a writer, photographer, and videomaker based in Texas with roots in Quezon Province. His editorial work has appeared in various local publications in the United States and the Philippines. You can find his projects at www.michaelrmira.com.

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