NGOs and the rise of new leaders

To many friends, comrades and scholars studying social movements, the Philippines is an interesting place. We have a vibrant civil society and a large number of NGOs. Philippine activists and development workers have a reputation for great analytical and practical skills. 

When I was helping to establish and expand a Southeast Asian network for women's health in the early 1990s we often came upon Filipino expats in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. At that time these countries were beginning to open up after years of isolation under communist leaders. The first foreign entities on the ground were development non-governmental organizations. And many had Filipino staff. When we would call our affiliates or contacts in, say Cambodia, the head of office would often pass us on to the Filipino, who spoke English, handled the fax machine, wrote the project proposals and narrative reports, accompanied the Cambodian head of office on her trips, and did translations, etc., etc., etc.

The School of Martial Law

I attribute the predominance of our development workers partially to years of training in the difficult conditions of martial law. My own experience was that the very first organizations that were allowed by the Marcos dictatorship to function were health programs. These were put up by activists who felt moved to respond to the increasing misery of the people as the dictatorship consolidated wealth and power. 

The dictatorship had a very difficult relationship with these NGOs. On one hand, it had to prove to the international community that it was not repressive, so it could not ban all civil society organizations. Banning health and other development organizations was particularly foul. Especially so in the light of the increasing lack of health, education, water, agricultural support and other social services.

Yet the dictatorship knew that these NGOs were also a source of resistance. They gave the people a sense of how government should serve them. In making poor communities the focus of their work, they reminded the people of their rights, worth, and dignity. While it is true that many NGOs at that time were put up by activists who were members of, or influenced by, the Communist Party of the Philippines, most who worked in them were not Party members. Many who worked in basic Christian communities or community based health programs had no political affiliations but were merely courageous people who opposed the dictatorship on their own moral terms. Many knew but did not care or welcomed the presence of the communists. During that time of extreme repression, many understood why some would take up arms. Then as now, repression and maldevelopment were the drivers of violent revolution.

Some descriptions of the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship state that the assassination of Ninoy Aquino began the revolt that ended in EDSA I. Those who were deeply involved know that it was a coalition of forces of the Cory yellows and the poor communities and their NGO partners that provided the impetus for social upheaval. The spark of Ninoy's assassination fell on tinder produced by the sweat and blood of development workers like the doctors Bobby de la Paz and Johnny Escandor. 

That rich tradition continues to this day. Many activists who have changed their views about the correctness of armed revolution, have remained in NGOs. Today they continue to provide vital services like health and education including political education to large numbers of people. 

This vital role of NGOs is acknowledged by development agencies like the United Nations and by scholars in the field of development studies.

It is acknowledged, for example, that where government fails, NGOs fill the gap and are able to provide mechanisms for expression, discussion, debate, mediation and even, confrontation, that are important to participatory democracy. 

Reform at the national level such as the enactment of the Sin Tax Law, the Reproductive Health Law, the Supreme Court decision abolishing the pork barrel has been facilitated by the participation of NGOs in the process.

Vibrant margins, dead center

The Philippines is a conundrum. One can see the vibrancy of our democracy in the number, scope, breadth and depth of our NGOs alongside the continuing bankruptcy of our formal systems of governance and representation. As a friend once noted, “the margins of Philippine society are vibrant but the center is dead.” 

More often it is the dead center that threatens the vibrant margins. In our work with local government units we have seen so many fake NGOs put up by the mayor or governor headed by their relatives or retainers. These are then appointed to positions reserved for civil society or awarded contracts.

The fake Napoles NGOs are another example. And let me tell you that as someone who has developed both practical and theoretical expertise on civil society organizations,  the defense of Stephen Lim, Napoles' lawyer that there is nothing wrong with housing NGOs in garages and private apartments is insult added to injury. Take for example his idea that NGOs are mere conduits and that renting office space is not the practice of NGOs. Those of us who use development aid (and I would classify PDAF, if properly used as a form of development aid) are not conduits but implementors. The NGOs I work with run clinics, do trainings, deliver supplies. In this situation, we do need office space.

While they work for far less than what their skills are worth, NGO workers are still workers. They should be given adequate salaries and good working conditions. No, Stephen Lim, we are not mere conduits and we do deserve real offices and salaries we can live on. And since you referred to doctors, I will attest to you that as a health NGO, we do not run our clinic out of a garage. That would be telling our patients, “since you're just poor, you deserve less. Let's treat you in a garage.”

It is also the dead center that limits the political horizons of many of our people. Thus we are left with the depressing situation where people believe none of those aspiring to become the next president are worthy. Indeed, they are not. Whether at national or the local level, politicians arise from the dead center and offer us very little hope.

Building participatory democracy

Faced with this situation, we again consider extraordinary measures such as charter change to extend the term of the current president. Many do not see that if institutions are to be built, changing the rules to fit the current crisis does not allow for the long term evolution of mechanisms that allow for participatory democracy.

The idea that another term for the current President is a solution must be weighed carefully. The lack of a good alternative is indicative of the fragile nature of our governance processes and the solutions to this cannot be short term.

In democracies people need to learn from their political mistakes. We cannot take away from people their right to vote for the wrong kind of politician and for the wrong reasons. In the long term we must have faith in the capacity of people, even the poor and the ignorant, to develop new leaders and new politics. The impetus for this can only come from the dissatisfaction with what they themselves have brought about by their own bad theories and practices. That new leaders can arise and that participatory government is possible has been my life experience working in real NGOs.

People like myself who teach and practice development work can only hope that someday, as it did during the People Power Revolution, the margins can take center stage and that the grassroots can eventually grow in the gardens of Malacañang. -

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women's Health.