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close this bookThe Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentNGOs
View the documentWhy does the European Community work with NGOs ?
View the documentOn the diversity and role of NGOs
View the documentThe experience and limitations of NGOs in West Africa
View the documentInstitutional support for NGOs in the South
View the document'The NGOs refuse to be mere onlookers' - Interview with Agostinho Jardim Gonçalves, President of the NGDO-EU Liaison Committee
View the documentBetween autonomy and identity: the financing dilemma of NGOs
View the documentChanging perspectives in the Philippines
View the documentThe dreaming dromedaries of the desert meet the bothered bureaucrats of Brussels
View the documentThe ethics of collecting money
View the documentNGOs torn between subordination and independence
View the documentNGOs - subcontractors or innovators in unstable situations
View the documentEmergencies and development

Changing perspectives in the Philippines

by Dr Joel Rocamora.

NGOs in the Philippines have among the most extensive and complex advocacy experience among NGOs in the developing world. International conferences dealing with NGO concerns, whether it is development, ecology, human rights, gender or some other issue, will, more likely than not, have Filipino NGO representatives present, actively participating and often leading discussions.

The ubiquitousness of Filipino NGO representatives in national and international fore does not necessarily mean that they have a coherent theoretical and political framework tying together the various advocacy positions. The Philippine NGO community's record of success in advocacy is at best patchy. But it is a wide-ranging, sophisticated and rapidly changing advocacy, nonetheless. In recent years, NGOs in the Philippines have been in the throes of what some have called a 'paradigm crisis'.

Grappling with reality

The 'Europe-Philippines in the 1990s' Project (EP-9Os), a joint programme of research and advocacy undertaken by the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and five major NGO and PO ('people's organisation) coalitions in the Philippines, provides a good example of new trends in Philippine NGO advocacy work. After over a year of research and consultations on various aspects of Europe-Philippines relations, the five coalitions produced a policy paper which was submitted to a conference in Amsterdam in March 1995. The conference included representatives of the European Commission, EU member country development ministries, European NGOs, Filipino migrant worker organisations and Philippine solidarity groups.

In contrast to similar documents in the past, which tended to be premised on unmitigated opposition to the Philippine government, and its foreign ODA donors, the EP-9Os policy paper posed a framework of development which challenged both the EU and Philippine government frameworks. Instead of dismissing these competing frameworks on ideological grounds, the policy paper engaged them on the basis of an analysis of the current Philippine political and economic situation and on mutually acceptable goals such as poverty alleviation.

The document is also one of the first NGO coalition statements to grapple with politically controversial economic issues such as the Philippine government's structural reform programme, in particular its stabilisation and liberalisation policies. While the carefully worded and nuanced position on this and similar economic policy issues cannot be easily summarised, it would not be inaccurate to characterise its stance as a call to work for 'pro-people' goals, with an eye to the opportunities and the limits imposed by national realities.

One aspect of the EP-9Os conference which drew the attention of European government officials was the presence of Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao. At the conference and in subsequent meetings, Garilao appealed for European support for NGOs and POs as necessary partners of government in the implementation of agrarian reform. While critical of the present agrarian reform law, NGO and PO representatives are willing to work with sympathetic and reform-oriented government officials such as Garilao to secure limited gains for their constituencies.

The changes in perspective reflected in the EP-9Os policy paper can also be seen in Philippine NGO participation in the various UN summits and other international fore, and most importantly in the documents, campaigns and multifaceted political activism of NGOs and POs in the Philippines. This sea-charige in perspective can only be understood, however, by placing it in historical context.

From dictatorship to 'elite' democracy

If we exclude church and other civic organisations which focus on various permutations of alms giving, NGOs in the Philippines can be said to have developed mainly during the period of the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986). Their political, goal - providing services to peopl's organisations fighting the dictatorship were clearcut and explicit. Their initial activities; awareness-raising, ('conscientisation'), training and organising, research and publications, and health and human rights work, can be understood within this context.

The political context determined the issues taken up by NGOs and their overall framework of political and economic analysis - in other words, their overall political stance. At this time, all progressive NGOs supported radical, structural change in Philippine society. Development work was seen as inextricably linked to political work. More often than not, NGOs were either organised by, or linked to, political groups. They were oriented mainly towards changes in the national government; towards variations of the 'seizure of state power' paradigm. Working for change within government was not seen as important, except in purely utilitarian and tactical terms.

Efforts at organisation were focused on the disadvantaged classes; the urban poor, unionised workers, the peasantry and indigenous communities. Urban middle class groups were only targeted as sources of activists, not as a sector to be organised in its own right. Mobilisation and mass protest were the preferred instruments. NGOs became involved in electoral politics, albeit with very few skills and resources. Awareness-raising, organising and human rights work came first and socio-economic activity would only develop later.

In many ways, the early years of the presidency of Corazon Aquino (19861992) represented the high water mark of NGO influence. During the first few years of the Aquino period, NGOs and POs exercised considerable influence in the shaping of national political discourse. President Aquino at first tried to coopt some of the NGO-PO issues-land reform, human rights and women's rights, among others. Even after she abandoned these issues to all intents and purposes, NGOs and POs continued to have influence in the media, the universities and the churches. They had become the shapers of ideological consensus in the society.

The NGOs' and POs' choice of political terrain was determined partly by available resources-in other words, by their strengths. They had considerable mobilisational capability and the institutional infrastructure for shaping political issues. During the first few years of the Aquino period, these resources made for significant influence. As the regime became consolidated, however, partly through concessions by the President to major power centres and partly through the institutionalisation of an 'elite' democracy, NGO-PO coalitions found themselves increasingly marginalised.

Towards the end of the Aquino period, NGOs began to adjust to changing conditions, but it has been a very slow process. Work on ecological and women's issues has expended rapidly. More recently, several NGOs have been trying to raise their capability to intervene in the area of credit provision using a range of techniques from small savings programmes to the building of rural banks. There is an increasing tendency to work with government units, to access their resources and even work with them in joint projects. There was a lot of excitement about the implementation of the Local Government Code passed in the last year of the Aquino period.

Pushing for change

A number of factors have pushed development NGOs and the progressive movement as a whole into a renewed process of strategic reorientation. One is the crisis in the national democratic (ND) movement, the largest and best-organised segment of the Left in the Philippines. Another factor is the worldwide crisis of socialism. The messy collapse of the whole socialist bloc and the 'market socialism' being espoused by China and Vietnam have thrown up a lot of questions about anti-or non-capitalist alternatives whether they be Stalinist or 'democratic socialist.'

Another factor pushing strategic reorientation is perceived change in the political economy of Philippine society. Many people in government and business circles believe that the decade-long economic crisis is over, and that the economy is entering a period of steady, if modest growth. The inflow of foreign investment and the return of capital, combined with large migrant worker remittances, has led to the perception that the 'boom and bust' cycles are now over. People in NGO circles remain sceptical, but economic developments have led them to re-examine their assumptions about the economy.

Another, more widespread perception is that the locus of economic and political change is shifting away from Manila to local areas. Despite the economic stagnation of the past decade, local industry and commerce have grown around key centres such as Cebu and Davao. Combined with the limited resources of the central government, and the simple fact that Manila cannot physically absorb more industry, it is generally accepted that the logic of development is, of necessity, going to follow political decentralisation.

Challenges to NGOs

The widespread perception of the increasing importance of local areas has also found its way into the NGO-PO community. While progressive groups continue to cling to their national agendas, more and more of them believe that structural change at the national level must be based on accumulation of power at the local level. To compete effectively with local centres of power, NGOs are scaling up the size and impact of their projects. This has led to movement away from small, village-based livelihood projects towards integrated area development.

These trends have fed into changing relations between NGOs and political groups. As the capability of NGOs developed, especially in socio-economic work, there was a stronger tendency to resist the 'guidance' of political groups. The formation of NGO coalitions added to this tendency as the coalitions became the locus of political discussion and advocacy across political blocs. One key outcome was a change in perspective on the relationship between development work and national political struggle. As one NGO study put it: 'NGOs of all stripes have begun to integrate political visions with development requirements in a manner which, perhaps for the first time, sacrifices neither'.

The biggest challenge comes from Philippines 2000, the Ramos regime's political project - its comprehensive economic and political strategy. Many progressives continue to be sceptical about Philippines 2000. Others oppose it outright. But the programme, especially its anti-monopoly thrust, has provoked many policy struggles among competing upper class factions and this has opened up new possibilities for multi-class fraction alliances. These developments have forced progressives to question their economic assumptions and at a minimum, to increase their capacity to handle macro-economic policy issues.

Elite political projects create problems for progressive groups. If President Ramos succeeds in projecting a reform agenda, he can mobilise and energise large segments of the upper classes. He can drain middle class support away from NGOs. More directly, Philippines 2000 challenges NGOs not only to criticise, but to devise an alternative project. To do this, NGOs have to move beyond finding fault with specific government programmes and projects, to appreciate issues from the vantage point of governance, and to learn to see the national interest 'forest'-not just the 'trees' that are the specific demands of NGO constituencies.