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The NGO capital of the world

The Philippines, it’s said, is the “NGO capital of the world.” This refers not just to the dizzying alphabet soup of groups, organizations, alliances, coalitions that spring up every few months or so, or when a public interest issue hits public consciousness, but also to the great pioneering energy and enthusiasm with which these groups have engaged government and cleared paths for other countries to follow.

A book launched Thursday, titled “Civil Society Organizations in the Philippines: A Mapping and Strategic Assessment,” gives proof of the dynamism and variety of the groups that make up Philippine “civil society.” The last is a catch-all term that’s meant to embrace not just non-government organizations, but also POs or people’s organizations, socio-civic organizations, professional organizations, academe, media, churches, cooperatives and even “think tanks and research institutions.”

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In fact, just the listing of acronyms used in the book – most of them referring to various civil society organizations – takes up all of nine pages.

More technically, according to Carmel Veloso Abao who wrote the Introduction to the book (published by the Civil Society Resource Institute and edited by Lydia N. Yu Jose), civil society “is often broadly defined as the space or arena or sector that is between the state and the market.” CSOs (to use another acronym) are, according to Abao, “groups that are organized independently of and operate outside of but interact with the state and the market” (sometimes called the “private sector”—RJD).

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Adds Abao: “The most fundamental attributes of CSOs are, they are voluntary, non-governmental and non-profit. Their raison d’etre is to make claims and demands on government based on certain organizational principles and interests which are sometimes couched in ideological terms or sometimes framed as developmental-political objectives and humanitarian aims.”

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Fernando Aldaba, president of the CSRI and who at one time served as national coordinator of Code-NGO, the country’s biggest NGO coalition, said they hope the book “assists the civil society sector in the Philippines in helping build and develop the nation.” Sam Chittick, speaking in behalf of AusAid, the Australian agency for international development which gave funding support for the book’s publication, cited the “passion, energy and action” of civil society groups in the country, but cautioned that all these “need to be based on evidence” if these are to result in concrete programs that truly respond to the needs of people they purport to help.

Commenting on the book, Faina Lucero-Diola of UP’s National College of Public Administration and Governance, said that there is still a need these days to “enlarge the space for democracy,” adding that she hopes the CSO community works out “the mechanics for greater participation of the poor,” and the emergence of what she called “collaborative governance.” Instead of government or the state telling people what they should do, she said, people should in time “move from participation to negotiation,” dealing with government on an equal footing, drawing their own strengths and numbers.

Speaking in behalf of government, Oyen Dorotan, an undersecretary at the National Anti-Poverty Commission who is herself not that far-removed from CSOs, said that those in government “need to understand how CSOs think, feel and work.” She cited the flexibility of CSOs in carrying out development work and acknowledged that “government cannot do it alone.”

There is, in fact, more to the CSO engagement with government than just advocacy or heckling. People working with CSOs often migrate to government and vice-versa, since, as it was pointed out, both have a common end: to serve the people.

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One of the greatest challenges confronting CSOs today is the issue of financial resources, with external (mostly foreign) funding clearly on the decline. In fact, notes Abao, “funding agencies have been requiring partner CSOs to develop and institute sustainability measures.” But most directors or trustees of CSOs “have not been equipped toward this end and financial insecurity remains a central problem.”

By some fortunate coincidence, on the same day as the book launch, I had the chance to catch up on a meeting of some Inquirer editors and columnists with officials of Oxfam, an international aid and development organization established in Great Britain. The Oxfam group was led by its president, Dame Barbara Stocking, with officials from Oxfam Hong Kong and the local office.

Oxfam, which is non-government and non-profit, operates on a budget of about $1 billion across the globe, said Dame Stocking, with about half of their operating budget sourced from 850,000 donors among the British people and the profits made by “Oxfam shops” which sell second-hand goods sourced from donations. The other half of their funds comes from international organizations and funding institutions, although Dame Stocking was quick to add that they have a policy of not accepting more than 10 percent of their fund from any one donor.

Such a policy, they said, assures not only a flexible financial situation for Oxfam, but also autonomy for the group. “We treasure our independence,” said Dame Stocking.

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Oxfam’s policy brings to mind complaints made by many local CSOs about having to hew to “donor-driven” directives in the use of outside funding. Many times, programs and services are created not by internally driven policies or even the need voiced by potential partners, but by the perceptions and desires of donors, who use their money to pursue their own agenda.

Certainly an irony given the CSO community’s pride in its independence and uncompromising nature.

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TAGS: “Civil Society Organizations in the Philippines: A Mapping and Strategic Assessment”, Book, NGO, non-government Organization
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