The importance of history

Juan Miguel Luz
By ignoring world experience or going against it, we only hurt ourselves. If others have undertaken reform successfully and the processes that lead to success are proven, what makes us think we can do the opposite and come out with similar success?

Juan Miguel LuzIn June 2012, farmer organizations marched to Manila and the gates of Malacañang to demand land for farmers and genuine agrarian reform.  In response, the President committed to delivering on agrarian reform in full by the end of his term in 2016. 

The debate now centers on how to carry this out and at what cost.  In this regard, the Secretary of Agrarian Reform warns of moving with caution to ensure that land is distributed to real agrarian beneficiaries (as in the Hacienda Luisita case).

The desire to move slowly and cautiously, however, might not be the best way to move forward if world experience in successful land reform is to be followed. 

The three most successful cases of land reform – Japan, Korea and Taiwan – were programs that transferred land quickly to landless tenant farmers (from 3 to 5 years at most) and forced absentee landlords, rent-seeking landholders and landed elites to take bonds (not cash) in payment and to use this as capital to participate in industrial growth in their respective states.

Land reform was a process limited in time, not an institution. The key was the quick transfer of land to farmers so that they would have productive assets using the power of the state (Japan was then under American post-World War II supervision when their land reform happened) for this purpose.  

Translating this to the Philippines in 2012, this means (a) transferring land to farmers and completing this process within three years (by 2015), (b) paying landowners with credits they can use for investment,and (c) dismantling the Department of Agrarian Reform by 2016. The task of raising the productivity of new farmers given access to land should be left to the Department of Agriculture.

The problem of the current failed state of agrarian reform in the country is an example of how the Philippines, as a country, has ignored world experience in crafting policy.  The result: failure in reform programs despite huge public budgetary investment.  

There are four classic examples in the past 25 years since EDSA 1986:

    •    Agrarian Reform (slow rather than swift)
    •    Local Government devolution (sudden rather than phased)
    •    ARMM (autonomy in a non-federal set-up)
    •    Pre-K-12 (10 years basic education versus the world norm of 12 years before university)

Completing land reform

Agrarian reform, enacted into law in the Philippines as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP, 1987), was given a trajectory designed for failure: landowners had given a window of 10 years to “begin” a process of land transfer that should have been “completed” by year 20.

This left landholders with enough time to (a) sit on land and continue rent-seeking behavior, (b) convert land from agriculture to non-agricultural uses as the ten year mark approached, or (c) ignore policy given the Government’s inability to deliver anyway. 

In the process, we have seen a steady decline in agricultural production with less land available for this purpose and with low productivity to boot.  

What is the lesson in this? 

The key is to look at land transfer as the sole mandate of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) so that it can be effected quickly and efficiently. The responsibility for providing technical inputs towards improving land productivity, including the organization of land reform beneficiaries into production units should be left to the Department of Agriculture (DA). 

DAR should not be institutionalized. Rather, it should be dissolved as a government agency just as soon as all the available lands have been transferred (e.g. within 3-4 years) to farmer-beneficiaries.  

Urgency of devolution

In contrast, local government development through devolution was done far too quickly even before local government units had the requisite capacity to take over specific functions identified by the law. The Local Government Code very clearly stated the urgency of devolution of certain functions (e.g. health, social welfare, agriculture, public works) that were to be devolved to LGUs within one year of the passage of the law. 

LGUs were expected to take on these functions even if they were unprepared to do so, including absorbing government civil servants who were transferred from national agencies to them. 

The most difficult of this was in the area of health where the responsibility for medical care including operating district hospitals and rural health units, and managing devolved health personnel were transferred to LGUs. 

This was made worse when the Department of Health did not transfer the recurring national budgets attached to these health facilities and health personnel to the LGUs.  Ten years after the Local Government Code was enacted into law, devolved health personnel were lobbying to be transferred back to the Department of Health. 

It took almost two decades before this clamor finally subsided.  

The lesson: local government devolution should be phased given the steep learning curve of LGUs. This should be the continuing role of the Department of Local Government: to build the capacity of municipalities and provinces (especially 4th to 6th class LGUs) as a continuing process so that they can become their own drivers of local growth and development.

Autonomy in Muslim Mindanao

The establishment of an Autonomous Government in Muslim Mindanao was undertaken despite the fact the Philippines does not have a federal set-up. What are the chances of an autonomous region succeeding in a unitary state? 

The world experience has been one of failure upon failure of autonomous set-ups in unitary (non-federal) states: Tibet (in China), Kosovo (viz Serbia), Chechnya (in Russia), Christian Sudan (in what is now the newly-formed state of South Sudan). All of these autonomous regions have suffered or continue to suffer inter-ethnic strife pitting the region against the central government to the disadvantage of the region. 

An alternative to this is the establishment of Hong Kong and Macau as Special Administrative Regions of China under a framework of “one country, two systems”.

Today, the establishment of a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao is not one of debate;  the question is what mechanism and structure would allow the region to thrive and prosper. 

The lesson: autonomy under a non-federalist structure is difficult, if not near impossible to attain. The Philippines should start considering certain features of federalism that would grow the ALL regions and not just the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (perhaps starting with constitutional reform allowing for senators to be elected by region rather than nationally). 

ARMM could be the venue for testing out some of these federalist-type ideas towards developing a new governance model for regional development within the country. But for ARMM to be successful, it cannot be a junior clone of Malacañang (i.e. with appointed or anointed heads of ARMM government). It has to become a robust regional development organization able to act on its concerns and on behalf of its immediate constituency.

Expanding basic education

The case of K-12 and the addition of two years to basic education before one is qualified for university is step in the right direction: toward alignment with the rest of the world on basic education. 

While the rest of the world has followed the 12 years of basic education before university as the norm since World War II, the Philippines has been content to stay with 10 years notwithstanding the same curricular coverage as our neighbors with their 12 years of basic education. 

The articulation of K-12 as policy has been made by the Aquino administration though there are still critics that would like to derail this policy.  Is the community of nations – developed and developing – wrong when they adopt a 12-year basic education cycle?  Or is the Philippines so exceptional that we can offer the same basic education in a shorter 10-year cycle? 

The evidence, unfortunately, favors the world. The Philippines is not only an outlier; the country is a poor performer relative to other education systems as proven in international tests. Surely the rest of the world has got it right over the last 50 years and we have, in fact, gotten it wrong.

A complete and full rollout is still at risk, however, given that the additional two years (Grades 11 and 12) will come into being only in 2016 and 2017 or after the Aquino administration.

The Department of Education has also turned over the responsibility for the institutionalization of the additional two years to Congress to legislate. This is not necessary as evidenced by the fact private schools have added years to basic education without violating education policy. 

By agreeing to subject the K-12 policy to legislation, DepED is opening up a critical policy to a political process that could dictate what may or may not be included in the program. What if no legislation is enacted before 2016? Can Grades 11 and 12 be introduced at all?
Successful policy reform

The object of policy reform is change: better governance, improvement of public service delivery and positive impacts on people’s well-being.

By ignoring world experience or even going against it, we only hurt ourselves.  The logic should be self-evident: if others have undertaken reform successfully and the processes that lead to success are proven, what makes us think the Philippines can do the opposite and come out with similar success?

How do we correct such flawed thinking? We need to change the way policy reform is enacted and programmed based on a number of principles:

    •    Reforms based on serious study (Hard research, not opinion)
    •    Policy debate based on evidence (Arguments based on evidence, not ideology)
    •    Cost-benefit analysis to the country as a whole (not for specific interest groups or elite parties)
    •    Long-term national outcomes (not short-term transactional politics)

How to ask the right questions

Fundamental to this is a better appreciation and understanding of history and world experience. The use of history will help us undertake the following:  

(1)    How to ask the right questions about what matters in history and what the rest of the world has done well and how they have achieved these outcomes.  

    •    The what questions:  What happened? What was the outcome?  
    •    The why question: why did it turn out as it did?  
    •    The how question: how was a desired outcome shaped?

(2)     The use of history to build on the past and to build from within.
    •    What is the history of my community?  
    •    My country?  
    •    My region (Southeast Asia)?  
    •    My continent (Asia)?  
    •    The world?

(3)    The use of history to build perspective between local/national consciousness and other-country experience (in a global world, context is important, if not everything).
    •    How do we compare our growth and development with others, especially our neighbors?

History provides us with a lens and even a template for looking at what has worked (and failed) in the world. The expansion of knowledge and progress – what we call civilization – is in fact built on previous knowledge and history. 

When countries close themselves off from learning from the world around them and from other nations, that is the start of decline and failure. The Philippine would do better as a country if we study and learn what has worked for our nearest neighbors and from the world community in general.  

The Aquino administration has a short four years left to do this and get things right. –

(Juan Miguel Luz is Dean of the Center for Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management.  The views expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect the position or thinking of any institution. You may comment on this page’s comment section or email the author at

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