No Free Lunch

The third pillar

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In any society, there is the state (visibly manifested by, but not equivalent to, the government) and there is business (the private enterprise sector). Both wield tremendous power, impacting directly on people’s lives and their environments, shaping their futures with what they do and how they do it. Often, both are accused of consolidating their power in an unholy alliance that corners society’s benefits for their leaders at the expense of the general public. For many, this view was reinforced by how western governments dealt with the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 (e.g., through massive bailouts of the very institutions whose misdeeds caused the crisis itself, using resources from the pockets of—who else?—citizen taxpayers, the primary victims of the crisis).

Harry Truman, later famously quoted by John F. Kennedy, once said that power resides in the people in the ideal democracy, and political leaders would wield the power of the people:  “There are 14 or 15 million Americans [with] the resources to have representatives in Washington to protect their interests… The interests of the great mass of the other people—the 150 or 160 million—is [thus] the responsibility of the president of the United States….” More often than not, however, this ideal is simply not realized, and perceptions of an unholy alliance persist, especially under electoral systems where political campaigns draw funding support from entrenched business interests. And such has been the case in the Philippines, whose political structure was largely patterned after that of the United States.

I had to contend directly with this viewpoint in the early 1990s as ex-officio chair of the then newly established Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), as head of the National Economic and Development Authority. President Fidel V. Ramos, in one of his earliest official directives, created the PCSD—the first national institutional mechanism ever to include representatives from nongovernment organizations as full members alongside members of his Cabinet. In one of the PCSD’s first meetings, the suggestion came up that the business sector be represented in the council, on the argument that it is this sector that is primarily responsible for environmental degradation and unsustainability. But the idea found strong opposition from the NGO representatives in the PCSD. They argued that the government members already represented the interests of private business as well—an accusation that was not without basis in past experience, admittedly. Hence, direct representatives from the latter would be unnecessary, they said. It took years for the government members of the council to convince their NGO counterparts that they were not mouthpieces for business interests, and consensus was finally reached that business must be directly represented in PCSD as well.

It was in the 1990s when the term “civil society” came in vogue internationally, to represent what may be considered the third pillar in society. The sector had been known through various types of organizations termed as NGOs, PVOs (private volunteer organizations), POs (people’s organizations), CBOs (community-based organizations), civic organizations, cooperatives and many others. To this date, most people are not entirely clear what the term “civil society” exactly means. I find Wikipedia’s description culled from various sources useful, defining civil society as “the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. [It has also been defined] as (1) the aggregate of nongovernmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or (2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.”

In the Philippines, modern civil society found its origins within the repressed years of the Marcos dictatorship, whose overthrow in 1986 and the consequent democratic space that was opened unleashed the energies of the sector. The administration of President Corazon Aquino provided a favorable legal environment and saw increased inflows of foreign assistance to the country, spurring the mushrooming of various types of civil society organizations (CSOs). But along with legitimate CSOs were born organizations of dubious integrity engaged in questionable practices.  This spurred 10 of the largest NGO networks to form the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO) in 1991 to promote a Code of Conduct and professionalism as well as to expand the reach and increase the effectiveness of CSOs.

Thus, when the PCSD came about, and subsequently President Ramos’ Social Reform Council that was later to become the National Anti-Poverty Commission, CODE-NGO was highly instrumental in helping organize civil society for representation in these important multi-stakeholder bodies.  Civil society is now much better organized and more effective in the Philippines, thanks in large measure to CODE-NGO. With some 1,600 NGOs, POs and cooperatives nationwide now under its wing, CODE-NGO has remained the largest grouping of CSOs in the country.

Starting today through the next three days, CODE-NGO holds its 5th National Congress at the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Quezon City, culminating the network’s celebration of 20 years of social development work in the Philippines. The congress theme, “Breaking Barriers in Civil Society’s Constructive Engagement for Development,” asserts the value of active and principled partnership among the three pillars of society in seeking the future that we Filipinos want.

E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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