Philippine NGOs: Defusing Dissent, Spurring Change


Philippine NGOs: Defusing Dissent, Spurring Change

Sonny Africa

The Philippines has one of the longest-running, and what is reputedly among the largest and most active, civil society movements in the developing world.1 Millions of Filipinos now participate in, or are influenced by, citizen-based organizations amid the right to assembly, free speech, a lively press, open elections and a market economy. Mirroring global trends over the last three decades, Philippine non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in particular have multiplied and expanded the range of their development activities.

The supposedly transformative potential of NGOs and of civil society in general should presumably be evident in the Philippines, if anywhere. But there is instead a disturbing lack of progress: widespread poverty and severe inequality, entrenched vested interests in the economy, oligarchic and patronage politics, and tens of millions of Filipinos remaining disempowered with little real control over their economic and political lives. Underlying patterns of socioeconomic backwardness and elite rule persist even if increasingly overlaid with NGO pro-democracy and ‘civil society’ features.

The Philippine experience highlights the possibilities but also the practical limits of NGOs as opposition to prevailing hegemonies. In the country’s specific conditions and historical context the general tendency has been for NGOs to operate in accordance with prevailing political and economic arrangements rather than in sustained opposition to these. Whether consciously or inadvertently, they have aligned with the conservative political program of the established State rather than with that of progressive social movements challenging inequitable structures. This is notwithstanding a brief activist counter-current among NGOs mainly during the Martial Law interregnum.

The chapter begins by tracking Philippine NGO trends over the past decades against the overall backdrop of so-called civil society and the country’s major social forces. Of particular relevance is how NGOs increased in number, scope and participation in governance since the second half of the 1980s largely in line with the global neoliberal offensive instead of in resistance to this. This trend continues under the current Aquino government. This is followed by an overview of economic policies and poor development outcomes in the country to emphasize the persistent underdevelopment in the context of decades of NGOization. This discussion points to how NGOs helped create the political conditions for implementing neoliberal policies. Taking all these questions into consideration the chapter concludes by suggesting that NGOs as a whole can at most have only a subsidiary role in the struggle for fundamental social change.

Historical sketch of Philippine NGOs

The Philippines has a long history of civil society organizations (CSOs) dating back to at least nineteenth century Spanish colonial times and early twentieth century American colonization. These organizations include various church welfare groups, charities, cooperatives, anti-colonial/pro-independence resistance, peasant and labor groups, and other service groups (ADB, 2007). The years immediately after the Second World War saw more welfare and civic NGOs formed for post-war relief and rehabilitation for poor communities; many of these focused on children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. In the late 1940s and early 1950s some community develop­ment NGOs were set up in perceived Communist-influenced areas in the country’s Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and Bicol regions to provide health, education and cooperative services and undercut support for the armed struggle. Among the most prominent anti-Communist NGOs set up in this period were the Jesuit-organized Institute for Social Order (ISO) in 1947 and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) in 1952. The early 1960s saw the start of family, corporate, and scientific foundations in the country.2

However, the contemporary history of civil society and NGOs in the Philippines can be said to have begun during the Marcos regime from the late 1960s and especially upon Martial Law in the 1970s. While most NGOs remained characteristically welfare-oriented and non-activist social development organizations, a visible sub-section of progressive NGOs emerged in the 1970s and 1980s which did not just implement the usual socioeconomic and welfare projects but also widely propagandized and organized resistance to the regime in close coordination with People’s Organizations (POs). The external conditions were set by how revolutionary and anti-imperialist social movements were surging abroad and how the Catholic and Protestant churches adopted more socially progressive orientations after, respectively, Vatican II and exhortations by the World Council of Churches (WCC). Under this influence Filipino church-based NGOs became an important beachhead for the expansion of anti-dictatorship NGOs and POs.

Further momentum came from how the Filipino radical Left at the time did not just wage armed revolt but also underpinned legal aboveground opposition through civil society including NGOs. This period saw the mobilization of wide swathes of the population from the lower to the upper classes that combined with the Communist and Moro armed struggles to weaken and eventually overthrow the Marcos regime. Particularly notable and with implications until this day is how these Left-driven NGO and PO efforts were often expressly couched in terms of a larger struggle for systemic change which injected an activist dynamism and degree of counter-hegemonic ideology into generally conservative civil society and the public in general. For instance, the community-based health programs (CBHPs) set up by the religious Sisters of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) were explicit in their orientation: ‘The underlying causes of health problems in society are deeply embedded in the social, economic and political structures … The CBHP is [not] the answer to all health problems, but serves as a means to initiate social transformation’ (CHD, 1998). The important role that peasant- and trade-union-linked NGOs and POs played in expanding political opposition to the dictatorship and even in supporting the armed struggles exemplifies their mobilizing potential. The late 1970s also saw innovations towards environmental, Indigenous Peoples, women, and migrant workers’ issues and even cultural work.

But this was in the specific historical circumstances of Martial Law, an overt dictatorship and a single dominant channel – the radical Left which gave primacy to mass-based POs organized along class lines – to give vent to the impulse for change. The 1986 ‘People Power’ uprising was quickly hailed as some kind of model for a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It was also widely interpreted even in sections of radical Leftist circles as changing the nature of the Philippine state into one more pliable to social and economic reforms through the influence of NGOs, POs and civil society in general, for example. Indeed this was among the major orientational fault lines causing a split within the Communist Left between those who affirmed a ‘protracted people’s war’ strategy and those who entertained other paths to social and political change including, among others, more actively engaging the government to implement reforms in a process of gradually transforming the current elite democracy into a more participatory democracy (see for instance Santos, 2005).

That premise of a more pliable state dovetailed with the emerging neoliberal governance paradigm of civil society as remedying authoritarianism, improving transparency and accountability, and leading to equitable economic development. Together they impelled the emergence of a systematic framework in the Philippines for NGOs to engage and participate in, rather than contest, the state.

This governance concept advanced on two fronts since the mid-1980s. From the foreign side, the United Nations (UN), International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and virtually every major government with neoliberal foreign policy objectives started promoting this notion. NGOs were portrayed as more deeply embedded in communities, and more innovative, cost-effective and development-oriented than government agencies.

IFIs institutionalized mechanisms to engage CSOs and NGOs. The cases of the World Bank and ADB (Asian Development Bank), which are among the Philippines’ biggest sources of official development aid, are illustrative. The World Bank (2011a) reports that ‘active CSO involvement’ in its global operations has risen steadily ‘from 21 percent of the total number of projects in 1990 to 82 percent in 2009’ and that ‘civil society participation occurs throughout the project cycle from the design and planning stages, to implementation and monitoring’. It also reports ‘civil society engagement in 75 percent of its loans, 87 percent of country assistance strategies, and 100 percent of poverty reduction strategy papers in the period 2007–2009’ (World Bank, 2009). The ADB in turn recently reported that 81 percent of its approved loans, grants and related technical assistance included some form of CSO participation (ADB, 2011a). In 1990, only 5 percent of ADB loan approvals ‘involved NGOs directly in some manner’ (ADB, 2011b).

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw tens of millions of dollars in overseas funding going to NGOs through various windows. Among others, the World Bank gave a USD 20 million ‘biodiversity conservation grant’ for the NGOs for Integrated Protected Areas (NIPAS) programme and access to its Small Grants Fund. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had a USD 25 million debt-for-nature arrangement with the Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE) in 1993 in addition to over USD 30 million for co-financing NGOs in the period 1989-1996. The Canadian government gave USD 15.3 million for the Diwata project (a women’s NGO network) and the Philippine Development Assistance Programme (PDAP), the Swiss government gave USD 25 million for the Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc. (FSSI) and so on.

On the domestic front, consecutive post-Marcos administrations built up institutional mechanisms for working with NGOs that established a framework for their participation in governance. The Corazon Aquino government (1986–1992) enshrined the role of NGOs and POs in Philippine development in three articles of the 1987 Constitution. Civil society was also formally given a role in local governance through the Local Government Code of 1991 that created local development councils that must include NGOs and POs (composing a quarter of its members). NGOs were given positions in local school boards, health boards, peace and order councils, law enforcement boards, and procurement committees. NGO/PO liaison desks were also set up in government departments of agrarian reform, environment and natural resources and health.

The Ramos government (1992–1998) set up a National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) with formal NGO representation, organized a series of multi-sectoral summits on NGO issues such as the environment, poverty, food, water and peace, and drew up a Social Reform Agenda (SRA) comprehensively covering NGO concerns. CSOs were given spots in the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC), which was actively used to coordinate work between these two branches of government. The Estrada (1998–2001), Arroyo (2001–2010) and Benigno Aquino, III (2010) governments did not introduce anything substantially new relative to NGOs, but built on those previous efforts and further institutionalized them.

NGOs and civil society in the Philippines today

Today, NGOs are part of a broader ‘civil society’ in the Philippines that also includes POs, cooperatives, church groups, professional or business-related associations, academe and assorted other non-state and non-business organizations. From a social change perspective, NGOs and POs are particularly significant not just because development-oriented NGOs generally express links with POs in pursuit of their goals but because together they comprise the largest portion of politically active groups amongst this so-called civil society.

The term ‘NGO’ is interpreted in many ways from the sweeping ‘non-governmental organization’, understood literally to include everything outside of the official government machinery, to the more restricted and legalistic ‘non-stock, non-profit corporations’, to the most limited notion of only referring to expressly social development-oriented NGOs. For consistency this chapter uses ‘NGOs’ to refer to non-governmental and non-profit organizations – regardless of funding source, ideology (or lack thereof), values and orientation – that provide development-related services to other groups, communities or individuals. This definition covers the likes of charity or welfare groups, social foundations set up by private business groups, as well as more ideologically grounded activist NGOs. All these NGOs are generally staffed by more or less full-time ‘professional’ NGO workers (as opposed to unpaid volunteer or part-time workers).

NGOs combine to form different kinds of alliances, coalitions and networks. The Caucus of Development NGOs (CODE-NGO) is the Philippines’ largest network of NGOs with a membership of some 2,000 and illustrates these diverse combinations. Among others, CODE-NGO includes six national networks and six regional networks. The six national networks each have distinct identities: rural development (PHILDHRRA – Philippines Partnership for the Development of Human Resource), urban development (PHILSSA – Philippines Support Services Agencies), corporate members (PBSP – Philippines Business for Social Progress), services for children and youth (NCSD – National Council for Social Development), cooperatives (NATCCO – National Confederation of Cooperatives in the Philippines) and an association of foundations (AF).3 The regional networks in turn respect­ively cover the country’s Bicol, Cordillera, Eastern Visayas, Western Visayas, Central Visayas and Mindanao regions, which are among the poorest areas in the country. There are also other permutations in NGO groupings such as the Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG), a national network of NGOs and POs with programs on poverty alleviation, environmental protection, women, children, disaster risk reduction and aid effectiveness, and democratic governance.

POs, on the other hand, are membership-based organizations of citizens coming together to advance their common/collective interests and welfare and are sometimes referred to as grassroots organizations or community-based organizations. Politically active POs are generally organized along class/sectoral lines (e.g. peasant organizations, trade unions, Indigenous Peoples, youth, overseas Filipino workers), gender (e.g., women), geographical proximity (e.g., village, province), or some permutation or combination of these. Among the largest and most active Filipino POs are the peasant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), fisherfolk Pamalakaya, worker Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), and women’s group GABRIELA which are all national formations with local chapters. But there is also Migrante International, which has country chapters of overseas Filipino workers around the world. POs can also come together under a multi-PO multi-sectoral umbrella such as the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN).

Today, the Philippines has a reputation for having a ‘vibrant civil society’.4 Estimates of the number of civil society groups and NGOs vary widely due to the lack of generally accepted definitions, inadequate monitoring and the fluidity of their operations. An NGO literature review gives an estimate of ‘between 249,000–497,000 [non-profit] organizations (Songco, 2007). The Asian Development Bank (ADB, 2007) similarly acknowledges ‘up to 500,000’ civil society groups but specifies between 3,000–5,000 ‘development-oriented’ NGOs among these. The World Bank (World Bank, 2012) on the other hand cites ‘an estimated 18,000 registered NGOs’ in the country. The Philippine Council for NGO Certification (PCNC, 2011) mentions ‘as many as 60,000 non-profit, non-governmental organizations’. The most recent comprehensive study on the matter compiles figures from various sources and reports that the number of NGOs in the country is estimated to range from ‘between 15,000 and 30,000’ to ‘around 34,000 to 68,000’ (Tuaño, 2011).

Regardless of the exact numbers, the Philippine NGO sector is not insignificant – and apparently even relatively large compared to other countries – even as the biggest number of NGOs are apparently small with less than 25 staff and ones which often struggle financially (Tuaño, 2011). Rough estimates of the number of NGO staff in the Philippines place these at around 1 percent of the total 37.2 million employed in 2011 (for comparison, the public sector accounts for some 5 percent of total employment).5

There is no direct survey of the ideological tendencies underpinning the country’s numerous NGOs but indirect evidence supports the notion that only a minority are actively engaged in mass struggles with POs, national policy reforms, local government and related political activities. Indeed there is reason to suspect that their political views and levels of political engagement are so disparate that they have no qualitative impact as a whole beyond the mere sum of their incongruent parts.

Philippine NGOs chiefly implement projects and provide social development-related services to their chosen constituencies covering education, training and human resource development and community development (AF, 2001; Tuaño, 2011). Taking the CODE-NGO network as an example, a survey of its members found these concentrated in education/training/human resource development (77 percent of NGOs surveyed), health/nutrition (44 percent) and enterprise/livelihood development (43 percent) versus, at the other end of the scale, agrarian reform (18 percent), urban poor (12 percent) and labor organizing (3 percent) (AF, 2001). While such a profile of activities does not necessarily mean political passiveness, the bias towards welfare projects and income-generation is clear.

That result can also be read with how one of the few NGO surveys in the country found that ‘few NGO respondents implement asset reform programmes’ because they are ‘prone to conflict and therefore more difficult to implement’ which indicates a tendency to avoid addressing important structural inequities that requires political activism. NGOs’ choices of sectoral partners certainly lean towards non-controversial ones: children and youth (57 percent of respondents) and women (53 percent) rather than peasants (35 percent), urban poor (33 percent) and labor (13 percent) (AF, 2001). Taken together, these can be interpreted as indicating how Philippine NGOs are mainly concerned with immediate service delivery rather than long-term struggles mobilizing grassroots sectors against systemic inequities in resources and power.

This characterization is consistent with the results of a recent nationwide survey: while almost half of the population (46 percent) considered themselves active members of at least one civil society organization, only about a quarter (26 percent) considered themselves active members of at least one political organization and just 15 percent participated in political activities (understood merely as attending a demonstration, signing a petition or joining a boycott) (CIVICUS, 2011). The same survey also found that only 5 percent and 10 percent of the population considered themselves to be active members of an NGO and PO, respectively, by comparison with 34 percent for church or religious organizations, 10 percent for sports/recreational organizat­ions and 6 percent for art, music or education organizations.

It can be roughly estimated that there are perhaps only some hundreds or a few thousand NGOs that are more activist in the sense of operating with a more consciously political framework and a self-definition as actively working for more profound social change. Increasing the political power of erstwhile disempowered sectors always figures strongly with such NGOs whether in the sense of being accumulated from the ground up through ever-expanding grassroots organizations, by working within state structures, or via some combination of both. An example of this approach is the Council for Health and Development (CHD) which provides health services and sets up community-based health programs under a framework of the social determinants of health – or where ill-health is rooted in structural poverty and not just the absence of health services. CHD thus also works closely with the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) which is a PO describing itself as ‘composed of individuals from the health sector who adhere to the principles of the Filipino people’s struggle for sovereignty and democracy’.

The social development and service delivery orientation of NGOs results in a particularly significant characteristic with implications for how they operate as a sector: they are resource-intensive and dependent on external funding. They require continuous and sustained human, technical and financial resources to keep providing services to their chosen beneficiaries while, conversely, they are chronically unable to generate substantial incomes in the normal course of their operations because their beneficiaries are poor communities and sectors. This makes them reliant on external subsidies and correspondingly vulnerable to the priorities, values and orientation of these external subsidizers.

As it is, Philippine NGOs’ main funders are foreign (on which 48 percent of NGOs primarily rely), corporate (12 percent) and government (10 percent) sources (CIVICUS, 2011). The foreign sources could be Northern NGOs although a recent trend is for these donors to themselves be tapping official funding in their home countries and hence being drawn into the foreign policy frameworks of their own governments. The European Union (EU) and individual European governments for instance have so-called co-financing arrangements where they fund European NGOs who in turn provide grants to NGO partners in the South according to priorities set by the official agencies that are the primary sources of funds.6

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