The organized voice is always the stronger voice, but how come I’m not hearing much from the stronger voice?

Of late, I’m taking the initiative to keep abreast of the Cordillera Region’s bid for autonomy because, whether or not it will become a reality, this is a critical event for the region and its mostly indigenous people, and which need to be shaped starting at the lowest level of government, the barangay.  In relation to urban management which I’m taking up in graduate school, I foresee the city and region, when granted autonomy, to have more flexibility in defining urban spaces, develop these around non-Western or locally-defined culturally-apt designs (think the ingenuity of Banawe rice terraces).

But if your government, by this I mean the elected, won’t tell you about this  brewing event there’s a thing as active citizenship, in that you do home study and home work.  So I did, and realized again the power of the Internet which delivers information, from around the globe or the region, right at your fingertips.  Before Internet, in my work as a researcher, to make a report of, say, demographic and socio-economic background of xx community, I had to make appointments with individuals and organizations , travel long hours to meet with interviewees or search archives of organizations, negotiate differences in weather, culture and personality, worry about safety and security, etc.  With Internet, time, effort, and costs are greatly reduced, as when you could, even in bed, access websites and databases of organizations you would otherwise have to make personal appointments with.  For example, doing my home study on the region’s move for autonomy, I don’t need to go to, say, Kalinga, to get important data as this information is made available on the Net.  With vital information right in front of you, one only need critical thinking to distinguish related from unrelated information and ability to synthesize and interrelate the information into a comprehensible whole.  But back to the subject of regional autonomy.

My study of the documents generated around the proposed CAR autonomy, particularly the four consultations, which you can read here, here, here, and here, with the public in Baguio City, points to one shocking information:  non-participation of civil society particularly NGOs.  I’m disturbed by this especially that around the globe among major Northern development research agencies and even aid organizations of governments such as UKAid (formerly DFID), discussions are threading around the effectiveness of NGOs and INGOs with regard their role in national and local development considering that the history of NGOs sprang from civil society’s disillusionment with the public sector’s bureaucracy and the private sector’s heartless stance to development.

There are many medium and big NGOs in the city, and there are some which are affiliated with international NGOs, meaning you could safely surmise that their human resources, relative to non-NGO workers, are highly knowledgeable – I know many who have been sent on scholarship to AIM and abroad to study development – about the critical role of people’s participation in shaping national and local development.  If I could be honest about my reaction to their absence in the autonomy consultations, I’d say they are being hypocrites and throw in having a bit of tyrannical streak too:  they preach to others, particularly whom they call the marginalized and disempowered, about the need to participate in shaping their own development and to organize and speak up with one voice, but why when it comes down to it NGOs are not known to practice what they preach?  Having worked in NGOs myself, I think the trouble lies in the assumption of NGOs that what is happening ‘outside’ – external to the organization – will not touch them or their clientele as long as there is money pouring in and they keep their heads down and do whatever they’re doing.  Often, as seen in this autonomy issue, ‘whatever they’re doing’ excludes the public sphere as there is innate aversion among NGOs to engage – not necessarily confront – with government, and this is the NGO’s greatest tragedy.  Also, when I say ‘public sphere’, I meant to include collective organization or unity among NGOs which the sector is seriously lacking in.  These are two reasons for which even with a thousand and one NGOs and similar civil society groups in the country, disempowerment, poverty, and lack of real development continue to plague the people.  Moreover, ‘whatever they’re doing’ is often restricted within the narrow boundaries of projects and programs, with NGO workers losing sight of these projects’ and programs’ continuing impact on, interrelatedness, and connectedness to a system that extends beyond the organization, and this system always includes the government.  NGOs have narrowly focused on just one side of government, the people, forgetting that the paradigm cannot be without the institution (rules of governance), the public administrators and the elected.  In fact, given the present inability of human beings to discipline themselves over the fight for scarce resources, take out government and hello chaos.

Are NGOs losing it too?  As mentioned earlier here, the birth of NGOs sprang from people’s disappointment over the public sector’s ineffectiveness and the private sector’s obsession with economic development, in essence then the NGO is the organized voice of alternative development as desired by the people.  But of late, I don’t hear the NGO speaking out, publicly, relentlessly, loud and clear, for the people or the clientele or advocacy it represents.  Its work has taken the turn into mere marketing, commercializing development, and because the cry for empowerment is commercialized, those responsible to give space for an empowered citizenry could choose either to buy it or ignore it.  But empowered citizenry is not subject to choice of either the governed or the elected, it is a right.  By commercializing development such as churning out more t-shirts and bags than empowered citizens and communities, co-opting the real needs and desires of communities by giving preference to donors’ demands, obsessing over the political correctness of reports to donors and headquarters  instead of over the real impact of projects and programs on people and communities, the NGO is losing its ethic and core values distinct that of the public and private sectors.

In the public consultations around CAR autonomy, a person who wants to be heard as the loudest won’t go in there as an individual representing him/herself unless he or she is a Cojuangco or a Cosalan or a Dangwa.  In these instances, the organized voice is always the stronger voice.  In the attendance roster of the three consultations, there were more representatives from the private sector than from civil society groups and organizations.  Victoria Tauli-Cruz, head of Tebtebba Foundation, commented in a news article that the autonomy issue, to be relevant, should be brought down to the grassroots.  I agree but what if government is adamant it won’t go to the grassroots as in this case?  I say, don’t wait for government to “go down” but go to government instead, what active citizenship is about:  if government doesn’t come to you go to it, you have all the right to present your stand, stake your claim.  But if like Tauli-Cruz, the rest of the local NGOs are standing on a “waiting” mindset – waiting to be invited, waiting for government to go to them – then they’re no better than the people and communities they say lack the drive to participate in development.  NGOs need to renew the culture of humility on which they are founded; humility to approach another stakeholder and engage in genuine dialogue and collaboration because one doesn’t have all the answers and resources.  It is pride that will take them farther and farther from the people and closer and closer to being one of the organized tyrants.

The regional autonomy, if granted, will impact on everyone in the region including NGOs, perhaps more so because in the context of indigenous peoples rights, ‘development’, as imported from the Western world and currently the paradigm used in the country, may take on a different meaning, and to local NGOs this means making a 360-degree change of their (Western/Northern) systems and culture.  I’m all for this change.  Are the local NGOs by their non-participation saying they’re not?  But they have to go up front now and say it and negotiate instead of going on rallies after everything has been settled.  But then again if they’re not for these change, are they saying they’re for the Northern paradigm of development?  Ah, perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all – the lack of clarity of their role; NGOs couldn’t really confront government as could peoples’ organizations neither could they throw stones at the private sector for its cold take to development because it’s where most of the money’s coming from.  And the middle ground is the position of a mercenary which NGOs are often critiqued of being.  Which brings back this presentation to the basic question of, whose development?  whose interests?  is the NGO effective in its role as facilitator for change?  do people need NGOs at all?

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