Rude awakenings Part 2

Fourth: LeniLeaks. This country’s recent political history of coup d’etats with a woman at the forefront has brewed speculations and concerns over VP Leni Robredo’s alleged involvement with her Party alongside sympathetic foreigners in a bid to oust the President. The issue came into the open when the VP was sacked by the President as Cabinet member ie. Chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council in early December last year. This perennial “personality problem” between the two highest seats in the land is an effect of the Philippine electoral system whereby the VP position as with the President is voted on by the people and oftentimes the VP hails from the opposition Party. What if the VP is instead an ally of the President? We can learm from Barack Obama’s final speech as outgoing US President particularly in his reference to VP Joe Biden:

To Joe Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son: you were the first choice I made as a nominee, and the best. Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother.

That ought to be the case. How could a President possibly make progress when he is at the start saddled with an enemy from within his own house? The Vice President whose words and actions in public wilfully undermine the President’s while raising his/her own image as if s/he is the President is in danger of committing high treason and cannot be trusted therefore. Ask also any company president or CEO. Or children of endlessly bickering parents. In any case, that vice president need to re-take a class in Role of the Vice Presidency 101.

Whoever thought and approved of setting up the Presidency for failure should be given standing ovation for this wise move. Past Presidents who had gone along with this system…it was, well, plain self destruction.

Fifth: SSS pension reforms. How did Congress come up with it’s PHP2,000 pension increase recommendation? is the million-dollar question staring SSS member-contributors in the face in the new year. And sans public presentation of computations to back the recommendation the process reeks of yet another pak! ganern! policy making; as if the country’s pensioners are mere cattle being bidded out in the marketplace- 100? 200? 300?…500? 1000? 1500? You there mister? 2000 you say? Going…going…anyone? gavel hits the podium with finality And 2000 it is! Sold to the gentleman in black! Pak! Ganern! In all that noise, not a yea or nay heard from the herd.

Adding fuel to the fire is Senator Drilon’s statement that

The passage of this bill is an early Christmas gift of the Senate to the SSS pensioners, who depend on these pensions for their daily expenses.

I’ve resolved to utter less cuss words this year so. But I understand the decisionmaker’s ie. the President’s difficult position of what to make of the Two Thousand Pesos. In the end perhaps out of public pressure – the figure’s already been publicized and we know the masses- any amount of increase whether or not it’s the right or correct one is good enough – the President just went ahead with One Thousand Pesos.

I remember the head of office at my former workplace who got mad at the practice by some colleagues who placed documents on his table for him to sign (this was before he hired a secretary) without an accompanying note summing up what the document was about or for why he was being asked to sign the papers. With mile-high of documents getting piled up on his table everyday, did his people suppose he was going to do their work ie. read each, page by page and make summaries? As it happened, everyone of us got a memo strongly warning us against “unprofessional behavior inconsistent with an organization such as ours” (I’m one of those people who don’t ever put documents on my boss’ (or colleagues’) table like that so it hurt that I received one. But, that’s life in organizations).

There is of course a scientific process of making policy recommendations in pension systems. Sweden, for instance, in 2006 successfully transitioned from public-defined-benefit pension plan to defined contribution plan and this was attributed to the Minister of Social Policy and parliamentary party members that comprised the review committee who by way of analyzing demographics (age structure of the population and age of median voter) computations demonstrated how the reformed system is better compared to the old. The reviewers used

random sample of the 1995 Swedish Household Income Survey (Statistics Sweden, 1995), which comprised about 20,000 individuals ages 18–65. Because we use data from the census database, the tax authority, and the social insurance board, non-response is 0%. Their income histories from 1960 are known (the previous pension system was implemented starting in 1960).

We then calculate the proportion of winners in the electorate, i.e., those who benefit from the reform. We repeated the calculations for selected years, before and after the actual implementation of the reform in 1999. Given that those who benefit would favour the reform, the calculations indicate what the attitude of the electorate would have been – if the reform had been implemented from 1990, 1995, 1999, 2005, or 2015. The underlying question is: do changes in population structure or economic growth affect the expected proportion of winners?

For this exercise, we needed population and income data for the years after 1995. Population data and population projections by age and sex are from Statistics Sweden.
We simulated income for the years after 1995 using a 2% annual real earnings growth assumption. Simulated earnings rise steadily from 1995. But to avoid a low lifetime income due to a low, possibly temporary income in 1995, we used the highest annual income that was earned between 1990 and 1995 as a starting point. That is, we used the maximum of these years for individuals with income below 1 basic unit.6 Our procedure does not account for switching to better-paid jobs, a deficiency that might be important but mainly for young people. We examine the effects of various economic growth rates and return rates on the individual accounts in the new system and test the sensitivity of our model against some other assumptions.

The voting age in Sweden is 18. We assume that this age is fixed and that identical shares of voters of all age cohorts vote, although younger persons and low-income workers have lower voting rates than others.

We assume that the pension system does not affect lifecycle incomes. To cope with pension commitments in the old system, the future contribution rate must be raised, and this should result in lower wages and accordingly, lower pensions, especially for younger generations. The higher work incentives in the new system affect lifecycle incomes by increasing labour supply and reducing incentives for early retirement. This, in turn, should result in higher pensions, especially for younger generations. Consequently, our result might underestimate the number of non-winners in the old system and the number of winners in the new system, especially among younger generations.

We calculate the numbers of winners and non-winners for each birth cohort. Do winners outnumber non-winners in 1999, which was the year of the Swedish pension reform? Would there have been differences if the reform had come into force in any other year? We used the same values for economic growth rate (g) and return rate of individual accounts (r) as did the pension commission when it described its main alternatives. To simplify, we assumed that everyone reaches age 85.

Why Sweden’s pension reform was able to be successfully implemented, Jan Selén and Ann-Charlotte Ståhlberg, 2007

To give us an idea of the pension amounts in other countries, in Japan for example the full basic pension in 2012 was 4,342 Euro a year or 16% of average earnings of 26,433 Euro a year. In Philippine Peso, 4,342 Euro annually translates to 4,703 pesos weekly. This is an OECD country figure of course, but my point is such is the rational policy making process the people expect from their government. For all we know, PHP2,000 (or, any other amount for that matter) across the board increase standard for all pensioners is not proportionate to each member’s realities in way of their contributions owing to varied salaries and wages. Furthermore, the reality is that there’s a significant number of people outside of the system who should be in otherwise and benefiting, and these are the poor: tenant farmers, workers in shadow or underground economies like maids (who are paid, what, three thousand pesos monthly?), plantation workers on day-to-day employ, peddlers, etcetera) hence even if the One Thousand Peso-increase is legislated these population groups will gain nothing from this purported early Christmas gift. How do we bring these groups into the system (in short, the economy)? It’s jobs, proper salaries and wages, and lifting off for some time (akin to giving preferred companies tax holidays) onerous taxes such as VAT that murder workers before they’re even able to save for the future- the crucial elements in the design of social welfare systems.

Sixth: GSIS retirement fund. In light of news about the agency’s insolvency, fear has resurfaced among government workers, especially public school teachers, that their retirement funds will go kapoot. Philippine Star Jarius Bondoc’s article, GSIS members: watch your bank, reminds us of the agency’s irreputable past:

Presidents played with their retirement mutual fund like personal cash. Political appointees invested those billions in worthless companies. Two of those were banks of business cronies that were bailed out of insolvency on Malacañang’s behest. That resulted in the pointless establishment decades ago of a thrift bank owned 99.6 percent by GSIS. It was, in short, a mere cash cow.

As with any depository run by political stooges, the GSIS Family Bank came short of cash several times. Each time, the parent GSIS had had to recapitalize it with multibillion pesos. Supervision by the new bureaucratic Governance Commission on Government Corporations only led to sloppier operations. As the financial bleeding couldn’t be stanched, the Bangko Sentral placed GFB under receivership last May. Two months later the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp. (PDIC), as receiver, invited private financial institutions to buy up the GFB.

The ailing GFB still had some value: P2.4 billion in assets, P500 million in cash, intact deposits, and a network of 22 branches. Yet no one bit, as the PDIC suddenly changed the rules midstream and doubled the asking price. Last Nov. the PDIC announced to just close the bank and liquidate the assets.

It’s fine for entities or corporations to make investment decisions here and there, because money’s just right there and what’s being passed around, the money, is just a thing but do they for one moment see the faces and warm bodies behind those contributions, ordinary civil servants working hard and long in order to save up for old age? It’s criminal how people’s money are just going to pigs. Something must be finally done about GSIS.

(I was going to mention here the RH law as the seventh, but the President has just signed Executive Order No.12 (Attaining and Sustaining Zero Unmet Need for Modern Family Planning Through the Strict Implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, Providing Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes) which now okays full implementation of the national reproductive health program. Hurray! I was going to say The human body (including the mind) is not State property hence has no hold over it, and that cutting off contraceptives supply is like going around rooms in the hospitals unhooking people off from their life support systems. But these are now moot statements.)

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What is the rush for?

When our rush to create, produce and consume is obviously leading us to destroy our home planet, shouldn’t intelligence compel us to slow down? It should. But it’s not happening.

My generation has been lucky enough to have known a time of stability relative to flooding, typhoons, and natural disasters of the scale and magnitude younger (including my children’s) generations are witnessing now. Unfortunately for these generations as well as developing countries, we all now have leveled up in regard to this issue: to produce less or not? to consume less or not? What would less cars manufactured mean? What would more walking mean? What would more homegrown produce mean? What would less development of open fields mean? What would less clothes and shoes in our wardrobes mean? What would less forests razed down for logs and settlements mean? Will we die or become less human if we created, produced, and consumed less?

In the Philippines though we produce less relative to neighboring ASEAN tiger economies, we do consume more– just look inside malls here, divisorias, and stores where our penchant for hoarding (even if many of these things break down just after a few days of use) and wasteful eating are evident (I hate to hear parents telling their kids to eat up “because there are many who don’t have food to eat”. I mean, that shouldn’t be said in the first place to children as these will stay in their minds and create lifelong guilt feelings over things they ought not to be guilty about. The better reasoning is it’s just the responsible thing to do). In Baguio City, I don’t know why City Hall in view of it’s difficulty to provide waste disposal in it’s own land has not stepped up it’s order on the rationalized use of plastic bags in business establishments whereas in places such as Makati and Ortigas plastic bag is absolutely bawal na.

Such are the concerns and forgotten responsibilities we all need to make time for– think about the ways we create, produce and consume and do something about it immediately. It is good that celebrities who altogether command a huge global following have started to courageously lend their fame, credibility and voice to educating and sensitizing the public. Planet Earth is everybody’s home, after all,

Federalism as an organizing philosophy: some practical lessons

There are benefits to a federated structure which federation members need only to recall when they first federated: (1) wider reach; (2) greater access to funding; (3) recognizable brand; (4) stronger voice; (5) greater impact. On the other hand, federations in contrast to single-structure organizations are more complex given inherent dichotomy in governance i.e. shared and at once independent as well as geographical, ethnic, and socio-political differences among members.

This setup highlights challenges in role delineation among members and the value added role of the central office. On the latter it needs to be understood that the central office is not the federation which is the network of member-associations. The central office ts a separate member of the federation whose typical role in the network includes convener and facilitator. Current management arrangement however in which projects are proposed and managed by the central office and implemented by central office staff in the members’areas, all in behalf of members is a continuing source of confusion among members and antagonism between members and the central office.

Moreover, educational backgrounds and literacy levels of the federation board limit them, individually and collectively, from fulfilling their complex role and responsibilities. Consequentially, strategic management sits squarely with the federation manager.

(The federation) facing scheduled phase out of donor support is at a crossroad in its development…these anticipated events pose continuity concerns for the federation…

The above statement is part of the 25-page document on organizational development which I wrote in fulfillment of a negotiated agreement before my turn over. I had handed the proposal over to my then boss (he had qualms about it but I assured him to just do it) who then gave it to our donor who was in the conference hall with us.

I had purposely written the proposal in a format different from donor requirement which basically asked for simplistic statements preferably bulleted which in effect filtered out in-depth and holistic analysis. I nonetheless had the version conforming to the required format all typed up ready for submission, but only after the donor had read the first document.

The proposal was a product of late nights at the office back when I was the OIC. Then, though I appreciated that board members were worried about me keeping “unhealthy” hours I would’ve appreciated it if they actually stayed up with me. Once, I wanted to humor a board member when he made the comment if he could be so kind garud to make me coffee. I didn’t of course. But I did say in my exit interview with the Board Chair and my then manager that I’d never felt so alone in my entire working life as I’d been during those “unhealthy” hours (translation: where were you, Board?).

I had been studying the federation in those hours. As OIC I felt it was imperative on me to know “the monster” suddenly thrown into my hands (to which a former boss would’ve said, seriously? that should’ve been done yesterday). From 8 to 5, I worked at my jobs – OIC as well as M&E. From 7 to midnight, I studied the federation.

The federation was part of the umbrella of federations in the country’s North and within this group my the federation though the oldest, is the weakest. Crisis after crisis has colored it’s history. In fact, it could be said crisis is it’s name. I wanted to know why this was so. (I once texted a lawyer-friend about another crisis happening to which he replied: (name of the federation) is always in a crisis so what’s new? That momentarily eased my stress and made me laughed out loud, to the surprise of colleagues. But I also understood his unspoken message- you’re working on a hopeless cause why are you still there? But I was already deep in my search.)

I pored over members’ legal documents, strategic plans and results, evaluations, and lessons learned. I took note of implicit knowledge shared to me- accounts by the board, staff, and volunteers. Beyond the office I met with members’ boards, one of the first things I did as OIC.

I had gathered considerable information. Still, the answer eluded me. What I needed was the right framework for analysis.

Then one afternoon in spring this year just when the concern was farthest from my mind (there was already a new manager), I came across a document on the federation model of nonprofit organizations. Excitedly, I turned to the first page. The first sentence immediately struck me: one must look at a federated structure differently from the usual organization of nonprofits in order to manage it accordingly. I realized at once that this was the breakthrough information I didn’t know I’ve been waiting for.

The unexpected discovery led me to reading up on the federalist system as an organizing philosophy, the various federation models, and some lessons learned from managers of the models. I had tapped into a whole new world of governance! Or, not really because we were actually in such a one and didn’t know it. Everybody in the organization has been saying “we are a federation” in meetings with potential partners but nobody understood what ‘federation’ really is about. We’ve been carrying an incredible “weapon” all these time and weren’t aware of it. Incredible! Puzzle solved. Lights off.

I’d like now to refer to this experience of ‘federalist system’ or ‘federation’ at the organizational level in drawing up parallel elements relative to Congress’ proposal for a federalist political system.

Constitutional Standing and Separation of Powers. Decentralized unitary systems such as the Philippines’ also feature separation of powers but what distinguishes a federal system is,

when there is a layer of institutions between a state’s center and its localities, when this layer of institutions features its own leaders and representative bodies, and when those leaders and bodies share decision-making power with the center (Valerie Bunce)

In the federation, it’s six members are separate and distinct as provided in their CBLs, each with it’s own board and supposedly an executive (who members have not hired since the beginning.. The General Assembly, the highest decision making body of the federation, is comprised of those elected by the federation members from among their ranks. The Assembly identifies relevant policies and approves all decisions and actions emanating from the federation board. The federation board, accountable to the General Assembly, is comprised of elected representatives from members’ boards. It provides strategic oversight to the federation. A manager is hired by the federation board to implement approved policies and procedures. The federation office or central office, comprised of the manager and technical and administrative staff, supposedly provides leadership and technical assistance, acting as coordinator-facilitator between and among members and the federation board.

The members’ constitutional provisions fulfill the federalist requirement on legal standing and separation of powers. But there are two things that remain unresolved: (1) considering that a federation is “not an organization but (rather as earlier mentioned) a network of member-associations which provides a vehicle through which the members, separate and distinct from each other, can achieve their purpose and goals as a national (or, regional) movement through collective action and collaboration” (source: A Revised Framework for Success for Nonprofit Federations, Linda Mollenhauer, 2009), it’s registration with SEC as an organization is flawed (quite a lengthy discussion this which I’m not inclined to write about but suffice it to say that a study of actual models of federated structures e.g. INGOs (example here) will point one to this. On the other hand, in order that public laws can be more relevant to newer organizational models the current Corporation Code of the Philippines needs to be reviewed the sooner the better); (2) there is no central office to speak of in the legal sense. The federation or central office is not organized and registered as a separate and distinct entity. Without a legal identity, the federation office is a floating structure or an informal clearinghouse of sorts. Yet, the federation office is convinced that it is the federation, resulting to much role confusion within the federation as I’ve mentioned in the first part of this post.

The practice of separation of powers in the federation is something else. The locus of power are with the federation board and the federation office. Into this enters the external influence (of the donor) which almost always overpower even well-meaning decisions of the two sub-structures. Nobody else in the federation has say. The General Assembly is practically non-existent. I was stunned that, preparing for a special GA meeting, the federation board didn’t know how many or who the GA members were. Clearly, the twin federalist elements of shared rule and territorial self rule are abrogated. There is no system of checks and balances, a danger sign in any organization or system for that matter.

These issues bred a culture of encroachment within the federation- of members on the central office, central office on members, the majority on the minority. This in turn led to deep feelings of betrayal, distrust, and resentment of one another. It dawned on me that even if they all went to therapy one year is inadequate to heal such deep-seated wounds.

This brings me to the question, has culture a significant influence on a political system? If yes, what is the structure or system that best fits the Filipino? Then again in asking this, one needs to first answer who is the Filipino?

Cultural factors in organization. In the context of the federation, the Filipino is multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and so multi-cultural. Across program areas, even across villages in a given province, even among the educated, the people are deeply divided in their values, beliefs, and world views. The divide goes back to their tribes’ histories. In meetings, there was always this palpable tension that the groups brought along with them as if anytime someone from a group would just up and clobber the other. In one such meeting, coming to an impasse over an issue, the donor representative called on me to stand in and facilitate. “You’re neutral,” she said. I later learned that ‘neutral’ meant I wasn’t affiliated with any of the tribes represented there and being a relatively newcomer there was no bad blood with anyone yet. These qualities alone pacified the groups.

But the root of this tension, from my observation even before, stems from indigenous people’s “natural” resistance to organization (of the formal kind). Were they not successful at resisting colonization? On that note, the disturbing lack of initiative I found in the federation could be viewed as active protest to organization. How does one break this resistance down was what I often thought about and experimented with.

Influence of external powers on a people’s initiative. In talking with and listening to the boards, I came to understand the deeper reason for this attitude. They had enthusiasm and initiative in the early stages of the federation, they said, but this had come to naught when the “more powerful hand” stepped in. Ah. Who is this “more powerful hand”?

The first time we discussed about this passivity, it was in my meetings with the boards. The second time was in a more public setting, in a workshop among federation members and donor staff. One of the questions asked of the groups to discuss was, what were the factors that hindered your organization from attaining program goals? Federation office staff were assigned to facilitate in the groups. I had not much difficulty with mine as group members bared it all (even without much probing on my part). They just talked and talked, like dams bursting. I listened and didn’t censure because the discussion was done in the context of learning. At reporting time, the other groups presented the usual things everybody talked about openly e.g. conflict in schedules among participants, inavailability of trainers, the incorrigible weather etcetera. When my group’s turn to report came, silence gradually fell upon the room. The reporter presented things everybody knew about but nobody wanted to talk about in the open. The silence was broken by a federation office. What do you mean by blah blah blah?, he demanded. This woke up the audience who reacted all at the same time. The presenter did his best to parry with the questions. But the “more powerful hands” were determined to undermine him. (It needs to be pointed out here the groups are in the members’ boards at the same time peasant farmers with low levels of literacy, limitations that were being taken advantage of in the ensuing debate.) I knew that I should remain neutral, I was aligned with the central office after all, but how could I seeing that basic and universal principles of development work were thoughtlessly flung out of the windows? I felt compelled to be involved. I waited out the debate and then said the last words. It was something about respecting the experience in the localities, to refrain from imposing tehnocratic knowledge on their experience, and instead why not use that (technical expertise) to improve their experience (of us) so that in future reports, we’d all hear a different story. Nobody said anything more. I was also one of “the more powerful hands”.

The incident offers a glimpse into the power structures at play within the federation. If colleagues at the federation office or even donor staff reacted negatively to my words it would probably trigger another round of argumentation this time between and among technocrats and in front of constituents (which has happened by the way) who I imagined would’ve wondered whether these power plays they had been witnessing had anything to do at all with the development of children and young people and their communities.

The Judiciary. The event also reveals an important element in federalist systems, that of umpire. Who manages the process of conflict management and dispute resolution and how? In the federation, member-level issues are addressed at member level following it’s own system of resolution (which the members didn’t have). On federation matters, the federation board is seen by members as responsible but is also itself overcome by ingrained loyalty to tribe and pressure from “the more powerful hand.” On a break during a meeting with the donor, I reminded the Board Chair that he has the option to say disagree or present an alternative when such is in the best interest of the federation. You understand, don’t you? I said. He nodded. But as it happened, he did not understand when face to face with the donor.

In the nation-state analysis of federalism, when the more powerful does not or will not self regulate, it is the role of the judiciary to uphold the rule of law, to be the light that guides ships in dark seas toward safety. This judiciary is present in each of the subnational governments as well as at federal or State level (i.e. the Supreme Court). It has to be an independent judiciary (when in the mood Philippine judiciary is that so why not do it more often as in make it a habit?). Failure of judiciaries to take on these qualities inadvertently weakens the system if not to it’s collapse.

Executive Leadership. Still on who is the Filipino? It has been my experience and observation that collectively Filipinos expect their leaders to be “strong” in the sense that he or she exhibits Hitler-ish tendencies. We have a love-hate relationship with the strongman or woman. Where is this coming from? Was it the datu-alipin and council of elders hierarchies from before and afterward reinforced by colonizers? Such expectation defeats the rationale behind a federalist system wherein powers of persuasion as opposed to authority are key to getting things done among independent governments.

Financial Independence. Finally, for this venture of a federation to run, it needs money which brings up the subject on financial autonomy. Revenue allocation and formula is among the contentious issues faced by the federation. There’s none to speak of, on paper or in operation. This despite members’ constitutional provisions toward that. The situation has led to unnecessary squabbles, spats, and turfing (or, what staff likes to call self interest-based leadership) among members and between the federation office and members. Precisely why, too, federation members, in disobedience of their constitutions, are donor dependent and consequentially surrendered their will to “the more powerful hand”.

Primacy of Self Interest (for the individual) and Economy (for the nation-state). In the end economics always trumps politics. Money rules the world and I say this from a pragmatic point of view. It’s just a matter of approach- to be crude or sophisticated about it.

One of the first things the board communicated to me during my OICship was that I allow provision for or increase of whatever “incentives” they currently were receiving. I evaded the suggestion at first because (1) I couldn’t believe they actually asked for it considering the federation’s financial situation, and (2) didn’t they know the legal provisions pertaining to boards of nonstock nonprofits? But when the request became insistent I decided to square with them. The gist of my words was, if they could bring in more money then why not but as it were which they already knew as I was just starting to know that federation coffers had almost nothing of our own money in it. I uttered these quite sharply which effectively silenced them. At another time, in an open forum in the area, a board member asked if they would be paid a daily wage for their work in an internal evaluation on program effectiveness that I, also in M&E, was spearheading. Fifty pairs of eyes bored into mine, many of which were board members as well, waiting for my reply. I felt betrayed. But I also recognized that it was a challenge of some sort. I took a moment to think. The way the boards have been pushing that they be financially rewarded, for me, indicated that they were coddled in the past. Yet what had they to show afterward? The federation was a mess. Anger energized me. I decided to be as brutally honest. No, I said finally, boards are not, should not be compensated. If you volunteer for the work it is I presume because you decided to volunteer and not because you hoped to be paid. Only the hired enumerators will be paid a wage. The faces before me looked shocked. I guess that was the reaction of people who were before fed a string of promises (without there being an intent of fulfilling them). I decided to throw them a lifeline before their jaws locked in permanently. I assured them that nobody was going to work on empty stomachs, that there was enough food for all who were part of the evaluation. At yet another time, a board member and I had been discussing another crisis situation that looked like there was no immediate solution available to us. And then from somewhere behind her she brought out bundles of vegetables she said she had harvested from her farm and if I could buy them? Well, fuck me. Didn’t I look stressed enough? (I bought them. What could I say? My kids and I could probably use some fresh produce on the table.)

Political ideologies are easily and conveniently put away into compartments the moment money talks. This  “invisible hand” is given more far reaching influence with the globalization of national economies. Noam Chomsky’s interview on the subject, international capital: the new imperial age published in his book Understanding Power sheds light:

…there was a great article in the London Economist…about the fact that Eastern European countries have been voting Socialists and Communists back into power. But the basic line of the article was, don’t worry about it because as they said, “policy is insulated from politics” – meaning, no matter what games these guys play in the political arena, policy’s going to go on exactly the way it is because we’ve got them by the balls: we control the international currencies, we’re the only ones who can give them loans, we can destroy their economies if we want to, there’s nothing they can do. I mean, they can play all of the political games they want to, they can pretend they have a democracy if they like – anything they please – so long as “policy remains insulated from politics.”

G.A.T.T. is a fine example of an international agreement that is heavily biased against protection of agriculture in certain countries proposing instead that local markets open their doors to (cheaper) imports. I remember the time prior to the GOP signing of the agreement. There were rallies here and there for national government to renegotiate for protection of Philippine markets. But what? No amount of banging by the people on the doors of Malacanan or Congress could reverse a made decision.

A strong and vibrant national economy has a stabilizing effect on politics. The economy, not politics, is the recognized medium of exchange that can buy a country real negotiating power beyond it’s borders. Right now, our politics is essentially dictated by dependence on global markets, the MNCs e.g. BPOs (where many of our young graduates are) as well as international financial institutions i.e. the World Bank, IMF. This was what I meant writing a previous post, that for significant change to happen here, first get the economic equation right and the rest will follow. (Even drug use follows the basic demand-supply formula: it is as much fed by opportunism and poverty i.e. exploitation of an idle population mostly with low literacy levels and bleak economic prospects as it is by wealth and innate gifts to create great works of art.)

What’s the Pitch? ‘Federalism’ in Greek means covenant. Covenant essentially operates on mutual trust and respect and common goals. One will not into a covenant with another whom one doesn’t trust, undeserving of respect, and has nothing in common with you. Constituents of the federalist system trust that each will honor it’s word. Honoring one’s word is the source of system balance. And this system is built on consensus. Have we these essentials already?

Russia is a federalism under a Communist Party. South America countries follow federalist systems of organization not necessarily under democratic rule. African nations as well. Then there’s the G7 countries. Congress must provide a compelling reason for switching to federalism and what model. To be able to do this in clear terms, it has to stop muna it’s broadcast of rambling suggestions because it creates more confusion than anything, as for instance:

Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) and Constitutional Assembly (Con-Ass) both have their pros and cons. Ang maganda sa Con-Con, you have freedom of debate and you have representatives na iyon lang ang trabaho nila. They do not detract from the work of Congress. Kasi sa Con-Ass, it can sometimes detract from your legislative duties because you’re concentrating on the amendments to the Constitution. Ang maganda naman sa Con-Ass, it’s guaranteed to work very quickly because you have a fixed term so you must achieve your goals within a fixed amount of time. The Con-Con, on the other hand, is not bound by that time unless the law creating it puts a time limit for them.

I don’t know if we can say Charter change is inevitable but certainly it will get a big push because of the support of the president and from the fact that it is being done in the first half of the Duterte administration where there is no suspicion of any type of term extension which is historically, or in the last two decades, has been the obstacle to pushing any kind of Charter change.

– Senator Angara’s Statement on Charter Change, 5 July 2016

Congress instead to consolidate their thoughts on a discussion paper – a green paper if you will – that is based on research or analysis of Filipinos i.e. regional cultures and value systems (as basis of subdividing the nation into new regions/regional governments) and evaluation or assessment of the nation’s political history and systems, to be distributed in localities for further input and discussions among locals. Are we not tired of bara bara or renegade approaches? I am. And I know I am “a small voice.” Even then I can always hope.

Congress must lead a process worthy of the people’s respect and trust as what the founding leaders who wrote the Federalist Papers did- they clearly and rationally put forth federalism as the right system in which to uphold liberty and freedom. What’s ours? Surely a Congress in the 21st century can do much better than just talk in bursts here and there.

Defense of federalism here points to nothing being fundamentally changed, in short, it is still the strongman or woman and his or her parliament at the center of the Filipinos’ universe. Now we hear Congress has set September 6 to start discussions of charter change. How could you call a hearing held in Batasan in Metro Manila a “national public hearing”? It’s the absolutist and centralist process all over again, by a minority (who Filipinos are wary of) who feels they know what “we the people” think and will decide for. Where is the federalist spirit in that? We’re already setting out on the wrong foot. We might just as well remain a decentralized unitary system and improve on what we have started with decentralization (of which federalism is a form).

Back to the donor representative to whom the first version of the federation’s organizational development proposal was submitted. I had afterward retreated to the restaurant just in time to savor the eat-all-you-can breakfast before it closed. For the first time in many months, my taste buds were working and I enjoyed the food. With the completion of the document, my mind was finally emptied of all thoughts – worries – about the federation (but more importantly the children and young people out there who relied on this support system). All that was needed to be said had been organized and coded to paper. It was enough for me that the document was read by it’s intended audience. Whether the “more powerful hand” will do something about the situation at the federation is something I’ve finally accepted as having passed outside my sphere of control. The ball is already in their court. In the meantime, lemme eat my steak in peace (to the tune of I Can See Clearly Now).

On current proposals toward change

There are national measures being proposed that appear beneficial on the surface but actually detrimental to inclusive growth, these being:

Income tax reduction. This has no effect on the poor whose wages are below standard daily rates therefore are already exempt. The proposal favors those whose incomes are within and above standard. Hence the net effect is maintaining the status quo between classes. Nothing essentially changes.

Instead why not a review of the Value Added Tax which is shouldered by all consumers rich or poor. It acts as an effective barrier keeping goods and services even basic ones out of reach of the poor. Public schools teach children the importance of a balanced diet, but such teachings are of no use in households that cannot buy, say, bananas sold at PHP75 a kilo! And that’s just dessert although many poor households actually have it as their main dish. One cannot anymore squeeze blood out of a half dying animal without risking it’s death. VAT applies to first world economies. When our country has reached that status then let’s apply it. But not now when many are struggling to have decent meals and roofs over their heads. In an economy in which majority of able human resources are not productive participants, VAT is murder.

14th month pay in the private sector as law. This is the stupidest Bill ever! It doesn’t even deserve discussion space.

Con-Con or Con-Ass. My stand on constitutional or government change remains. We can be a Communist or Socialist State for all I care. The key is the people. Communism and Socialism in theory i.e. in their pure states are commendable. It is people acting on real world challenges who gave these forms bad names. Likewise, the democracy that we have is tainted by human agency. I don’t think many Filipinos understand or enjoy the benefits of democracy. Ask the masses. We feel democracy has failed us when the truth is the people failed democracy. Then, ironically, the highest form of governance is when there is no government in which time the people have attained self regulation. That is true freedom. There is no more need to be governed. My point is, people with good hearts and minds make a good government whatever it’s form.

Supposing it’s con-ass? Who are the constituents we’re talking about? Turn toward the state of local governance. On paper, governance is decentralized. In reality, it is largely centrally controlled and planned. The economy is. Education. So are the arts. The LGU Code has come to naught. Con-ass or not the key is the people. Whatever is received is received according to the capacity/focus/bias of the receiver.

So instead of pushing what majority of Filipinos don’t understand yet let’s hunker down in order to do first things first. Amp up adult education. Stimulate the economy. Facilitate equitable access to quality basic goods and services. Etc. And then when the people are better educated, well fed, generally better off, ask them what form of government they need. That is the truer response. Asking them now when they are stressed, harrassed, hungry, dirty- I don’t think their reply made under present conditions is even accepted in court.

The people who are able to think clearly about con-con or con-ass at this time are those whose interests lie toward that. Presently they make up, what, ten percent of the nation? And suppose it’s con-con? Would that make any difference to the current setup of decisionmaking?

Let’s sleep on con-con and con-ass. If it ain’t broken best to leave it. Economic policies favoring growth and development can be made outside of the Constitution.

Geography forgotten, unconquered

Geography endowed this country with soil suitable for a wide array of high value crops, but as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, Philippine agriculture, in terms of outputs traded in regional and world markets, serves only a few. Moreover, agriculture continues to be valued below it’s true contribution to national wealth hence the lukewarm national and local government support for the sector.

Another of geography’s gift to the country, and which this article will explore, is location. “A state’s position on the map”, according to Robert Kaplan in his book Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, “is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophy even”.

Filipinos know, by rote, that the country is an island; the South China Sea is on it’s west which leads to the Indian Ocean further west; on the east, the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean further afield. What do these locational features tell us? The first thing many Filipinos would say is, we’re right in the center of an earthquake- and typhoon-prone oceanic belt and the volcanic ring of fire.

On the other hand, “a third of all seaborne commercial goods worldwide and half of all the energy requirements for Northeast Asia pass through here (South China Sea)… the gateway to the Indian Ocean—the world’s hydrocarbon interstate”. Furthermore, Kaplan quoted Alfred Thayer Mahan, a proponent of sea power, that “the Indian and Pacific Oceans are the geographical pivots of empires”.

This is the side of Philippine geography that Filipinos haven’t really understood and conquered. The Philippine Navy is an embarrassment given it’s responsibility to protect national shores and sea trade. All we hear about our ports is their inefficiency and pirate business i.e. smuggling. Our commercial ships…do we even have a competitive fleet? Young Filipinos take up maritime degrees in order to work for foreign employers whose ships are far worthy of their educational investments. Travelers’ lives have been unnecessarily snuffed out because of aging and poorly-maintained local ships. Our history books only made account of how the seas brought in invaders and colonizers, implying the seas as our enemy. To this day, that is how we look at this resource.

How do we explain this? Why is Britain another island-state cited as a sea power but the Philippines not? Kaplan says, the map is a beginning, not an end to interpreting the past and present. Further, the humanist Isaiah Berlin as quoted by Kaplan avers that “the (unilateral) belief that vast impersonal forces such as geography, the environment, and ethnic characteristics determine our lives and the direction of world politics is immoral and cowardly. The individual and his moral responsibility are paramount, and he or she cannot therefore blame his or her actions—or fate—altogether, or in great part, on such factors as landscape and culture”. In other words, human agency.

Filipinos stopped at fatalism. “Nothing can be done, we’re nothing compared to powerful forces” have become a self fulfilling prophecy. Believing it, Filipinos resort to hedonistic one-day millionaire lifestyles masked as joie de vivre. To further cater to this malady, malls impale themselves on urban and rural landscapes that for the better part lack sewerage, standard-compliant roads, schools, and classrooms. At a time of moral arrest in public institutions and poverty and ignorance among large swathes of the population, we elected to pursue all-out neoliberal policies. We have not grounded our economic development on what we already have.

Labor, although already outside the topic of geography, is also another strength that we haven’t positively exploited as means to national progress. I’m sure Filipinos are capable of conceptualizing and mass producing something of their own other than jeepneys. Manufacturing is key to a strong economy. And local manufacturing if the sector had been developed could have absorbed idle labor.

Beyond it’s borders, in the region, the Philippines has a significant role in maritime patrol and protection. It is inevitable especially after we moved to dismantle American imperialism hence the US bases in the country. Sadly the years in between only taught us that so-called US imperialism in this case is also in our and the region’s best interest. Regardless, the base sites left by the Americans remain the best location from which to protect the country. Unfortunately, these have been converted into residential and commercial estates. Now that the Hague Tribunal handed out it’s verdict on the South China Sea dispute, it should be clearer than before why this country needs a national security strategy encompassing the seas.

a 2009 RAND study…highlight a disturbing trend. China is just a hundred miles away, but the United States must project military power from half a world away in a Post Cold War environment in which it can less and less depend on the use of foreign bases. China’s anti-access naval strategy is not only designed to keep out U.S. forces in a general way, but to ease the conquest of Taiwan in a specific way. The Chinese military can focus more intensely on Taiwan than can America’s, given all of America’s global responsibilities.

Even as China envelops Taiwan militarily, it does so economically and socially. Taiwan does 30 percent of its trade with China, with 40 percent of its exports going to the mainland. There are 270 commercial flights per week between Taiwan and the mainland. Two-thirds of Taiwanese companies, some ten thousand, have made investments in China in the last five years. There are direct postal links and common crime fighting, with half a million mainland tourists coming to the island annually, and 750,000 Taiwanese residing in China for half the year. In all there are five million cross-straits visits each year. There will be less and less of a need for an invasion when subtle economic warfare will achieve the same result. Thus, we have seen the demise of the Taiwan secessionist movement.

Indeed, the South China Sea with the Strait of Malacca unlocks the Indian Ocean for China the same way control over the Caribbean unlocked the Pacific for America at the time of the building of the Panama Canal.

The current security situation in Asia is fundamentally more complicated and, therefore, more unstable than the one that existed in the decades after World War II. As American unipolarity ebbs, with the relative decline in size of the U.S. Navy, and with the concomitant rise of the Chinese economy and military (even at slower rates than before), multipolarity becomes increasingly a feature of Asian power relationships. The Chinese are building underground submarine pens on Hainan Island and developing antiship missiles. The Americans are providing Taiwan with 114 Patriot air defense missiles and dozens of advanced military communications systems. The Japanese and South Koreans are engaged in across-the-board modernization of their fleets—with a particular emphasis on submarines. And India is building a great navy. These are all crude forms of seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor. There is an arms race going on, and it is occurring in Asia… While no one state in Asia has any incentive to go to war, the risks of incidents at sea and fatal miscalculations about the balance of power—which everyone is seeking to constantly adjust—will have a tendency to increase with time and with the deepening complexity of the military standoff.

This is not to scare ourselves off our chairs but it always pays to be farsighted when it comes to national security and to do something about it already.

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quotes from Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography

On democratization of relations in the context of Philippine agriculture: the case of Negros

The Negros Island Region (NIR) has among the highest incidence of poverty in the country. Negros Oriental has the higher rate at 50.1% of it’s population. How is this?

Negros Island Region

Majority of the population rely on agricultural activities. Sugarcane, particularly. And therein lies the contrariness: while NIR is among the top exporters of sugarcane in South East Asia, the US market at the top of the demand list, the laborers in the plantations are among the worst paid, and as a result with less than decent lives.

What’s happening in the plantations is that: Through a system known locally as ‘pakyawan‘ (rough translation: contractualization), tenant-laborers agree to their landlord’s offer to, say, weed a given hectare for, say, a total of PHP1,500.00 a day. In turn, these laborers call on their neighbors who are also piece-meal workers to join them. With so many more persons working the field, the task is completed in a day. The landlord gives then PHP1,500.00 as agreed. This amount is distributed among, say, a total of 70 laborers. Each receives more or less PHP20.00 for the work.

Another: Tenants cannot use any part of the land e.g. to put up vegetable gardens on which they could grow food for their families without the consent of their landlords. This also applies to sanitation facilities such as toilets.

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), has awarded lands, ranging from 2 to 5 hectares, to families. Hooray, right? But, no. The first thing the families did with the properties dumped onto their hands was to pawn them. It’s common sense, really. How would families who have been living on PHP20.00/day make profitable use of 2 to 5 hectares of land? Without financial capital, ownership of land becomes an encumbrance.

The Reds i.e. New People’s Army (NPA) have significant presence in the region because of the situation. But, scaring people off has not also made significant change to the landscape. In fact, it has added to the stresses of living in that region. Locals may appear accepting and nonchalant about it but such is more a manifestation of helplessness, anger, and frustration imploding inside them which over time impacts on their psyches.

Depressing, not because of the poverty per se but rather (1) landlords (hacienderos since the Spanish time and newer owners, the corporations) have not progressed in the way they manage labor and capital, (2) other stakeholders e.g. civil society, the private sector, the Church especially the Catholic Church also appear to be accepting of the situation like it’s normal, and (3) macro and micro socioeconomic policies have not made significant dents in pulling peasant families out of poverty.

On (1), how do ISO-compliant corporations or a haciendero with an MBA from a prestigious university abroad manage labor like theyr’re dealing with a colony of rats? How do you reconcile this inconsistency?

On (2), the Catholic Church dedicated 2015 as the Year of the Poor. But, and I wonder, to what extent have prayers brought the poor out of poverty? I don’t pray for the poor i.e. kneeling in church asking God to have mercy on the poor. To ask God to have mercy on the poor is to be redundant. God has always been merciful especially to the poor. To ask that heaven does something for the poor is again tempting God to turn stone into bread. I don’t dare ask God ‘why’ there’s massive and continuing poverty. It leads to finger-pointing which leads to discouragement and then hatred which is where I don’t want to go. I’m not also sure of the reasoning behind dedicating the poor to God. This is like making fun of God. Every one is dedicated to God to begin with. Besides the answer is already a given.

We are the answer. What we need to do is do. Do the right thing. Do things right. Go the extra mile. Integrate the poor in our plans. Especially for the Church administrators, to be on fire for the poor. This is the effective prayer for the poor.

As to civil society, the challenge is similar. Organizations i.e. I/NGOs avoid rocking the boat (well, sometimes this is the best) because such will pose a bad image on their donors. Hence in the end organized civil society is not actually accountable to third world beneficiaries and their issues but rather to first world donors and their demands. Just recently, with a couple of colleagues we asked ourselves whether or not what we each personally give up and gain  individually are worth it- acquiring semi-permanent sunburn going around godforsaken places, getting more ill as a result of trying to make both worlds meet i.e. policies and processes of the organization vis-a-vis politics and needs in the communities, developing anxiety over personal security (e.g. a colleague told me about his staff being traumatized after he was literally caught in the crossfire between MNLF and the army and needed to be pulled out of the field for some time. To ease the tension surrounding the situation, the other staff humored him that he wouldn’t have died because he’s masamang damo (a badass)), etcetera.

Are development workers also making a dent somehow? This class of workers are among the most frustrated but are also the most adaptable and optimistic. There are more times when nothing turns out to expectation because many times communities act out of self interest (another lesson learned) which disrupts the collective or communal spirit of programs. We talked about self interest and one shared that this happens even between married couples who’ve professed eternal love and who are not poor. True. Poverty is just among the many struggles of humanity.

Still with civil society, local volunteerism is not that developed, both with the demand and supply side. In NIR, there are I/NGO programs to expand families’ incomes via livelihoods, savings programs, and of course basic education. CSR trend of late has been tree planting – those Instagrammable smiles after planting a seedling – but perhaps corporations could do more than that. The I/NGOs need all the hands they can get to keep programs going: teachers, trainers, animators, etc. Like with travel, a few days living and relating with their kababayan in “another world” will do Filipinos so much good. I/NGOs in turn need to step up their standards and policies in volunteer management.

Finally, on (3), the micro and macro socioeconomic policies. Among the 8-point economic agenda of President Duterte’s administration,

Provide support services to small farmers to increase productivity and improve market access. Provide irrigation and better support services to farmers. Promote tourism in the rural areas.

Accelerate spending on infrastructure by addressing major bottlenecks, and maintain the target of setting aside 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to infrastructure spending.

For so long, poverty reduction strategies have been targeting the poor directly e.g. skill training after skill training (soap making, candle making, jewelry making, sari-sari (neighborhood) store management, etcetera) in the belief that everyone who’s trained will make it. The lesson is, for significant change to happen rules need to be put in place to support capacity building. It is good that in the current national agenda, this is articulated: support to creation of/investors in new markets, integration of the poor into value chains which should include, among others, access of financial capital especially by the entrepreneurial poor, young and old alike, and infrastructure development.

Equally critical is the reform of policies in land and labor management especially that which impact on peasant farmers. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has plans to review and address unfair contractualization practices of corporations. This needs to include the agricultural sector which has long utilized the scheme. The younger hacienderos with MBAs abroad should introduce and employ management styles and practices worthy of their degrees.

Others: reforms to introduce competition in monopolistic markets; protection of local agriculture from corporations and the impact of international trade; regional investments in innovation, creativity and technology; adult education that deliver learning starting at where they are (versus taking them out of their farms into classrooms and there spew theories and such at them).

The goal is to re-configure relations within Philippine agriculture into a more democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive relationship between employer and worker, producer and consumer, donor and recipient, farmer and capitalist. Impossible one might argue. Therein lies the answer too. Poverty won’t go away as long as we continue to refuse a more democratic, equal, and inclusive relationship with the poor.

“Towards a new epistemology of the urban”

In what sense is the 21st century world urban?

(Neil) Brenner excavates Henri Lefebvre’s (1970) notion of generalized urbanization for conceptual and methodological insights into the 21st century planetary urban condition. He argues that the geographies of urbanization can no longer be conceptualized with reference to cities, metropolitan regions or even megalopolises, but today encompass diverse patterns and pathways across the planetary sociospatial landscape… This variegated urban fabric must become the focal point for new approaches to urban theory, strategies of collective intervention and imaginaries of built environments.

One place, two worlds

Tondo. The place is already an institution in the Philippines. The place has come to mean an island of abject poverty in the midst of surplus. The place has also come to symbolize the grit and fighter spirit of the modern Filipino native. An enviable virtue. On the other hand, a den of everything deplorable and illegal. A veritable hell. As the musician Lorde puts it in Royals, the address is not “postal envy”.

President Duterte’s uncommon visit to the place right after his inauguration for a Solidarity Dinner with the Poor directs the nation’s interest from the glitterati of Malacanan toward Tondo and all that it represents. For the endowed, privileged, and learned among us, the test for whether our minds and hearts are still connected to this part of the community is do we feel the teeniest flutter of shame in having allowed decay of the place?

Growth and development has been happening all around Tondo. Masterplanned communities, picture-perfect ideals of urban planning, are continually being built beyond it’s borders. Throughout these changes, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has been soundly asleep. Or should I say hijacked it’s own hands with traffic enforcement. Is not management of the metropolitan the role of MMDA? Is not Tondo part of Metropolitan Manila?

There has got to be a masterplan for Tondo too. This is not possible when authorities and citizens in the Metro continue to not communicate with one another. Possibilities start with a spark- it could be an idea, belief, aspiration, frustration over the status quo, a dream. But it has to blaze bright and hot enough to overcome fear, doubt, and differences and spur connection, action, and movement. Bright and hot has birthed the world with Google, Apple, Facebook, and such. Nothing great has ever come out of tepidity. And then for things to actually happen, persistence.

Incidentally, these innovators are young people. When young Filipinos underutilize their gifts and subsume their can-do attitude and naturally-curious and -innovative selves under the yoke of disillusioned folks’ can’t do attitude, tentativeness, and doubts, the result are places like Tondo.

Another glaring fact the President’s visit points to is productivity i.e. plenty of Filipinos are underemployed. Consider: a nursing graduate employed in a job which pays a quarter of what he is supposed to earn if he were a nurse in a top tier hospital. This means taxes he pays back to be utilized for reinvestment in growth and development are far below than what he is potentially capable to give. Multiply this situation by 2 million every year. A waste of capacities. In contrast, there are how many children being born in the country every minute?

Back to Tondo. The lack of productive opportunities that would over time raise their skills and knowledge hence their market value has caused the residents to revert into entrepreneurial activities of the illegal kind. In the real world, better that than starvation by saintly activity. When no employer in the Metro will hire from the “University of Tondo” human resource pool, not even bothering to hide disgust at their “smell” imagined as contaminating air in the interview room, going instead for traditional sources, what do we expect? Rejection bites and when this is a pervasive occurrence through no fault of yours it does something to you. It shrivels up your spirit, hardens your heart, and poisons your mind. Before you know it, in order to survive, you’ve joined the villainous ranks your place is famous for. And then nobody is really going to touch you with a ten-foot pole. A vicious cycle.

Economic growth and development is always a pro-poor strategy. But the problem is how. How to bring in those with less to play on a level field with the rest already in the economy. When we say inclusive economy it really means making rules more friendly to the poor as for instance the entrepreneurial poor for them to break into the economy. Yes there is microfinance. What else? And what else? It has to be a menu of choices. To put it simply, it is like choosing a budget-friendly call-and-text plan on your prepaid mobile. The lowest I believe is PHP5. The user chooses according to his or her available budget. Same with an economy that is inclusive.