Policy reform is a complex undertaking in our country. The weakness of our institutions and the bureaucracy’s vulnerability to political pressures often lead to constraints imposed on activists and reformers.
In recent years, circumstances surrounding reform have become more complicated. While President Rodrigo Duterte brands himself as a populist and, in the past, has supported bills enhancing social protection (universal health care and free tertiary education in state universities, for example), his authoritarian politics tells us a different story. Under his regime, there have been rampant human rights violations, attacks on truth and democracy, and an all-out war against the poor and vulnerable, to name a few.
Although many factors arising from Duterte’s presidency serve as opportunities and imperatives for reform, it can be challenging to push for transformative policy reform in the context of our struggling democracy and fragmented political arena.
It is within these political challenges that non-governmental organizations pursuing policy reform find themselves situated. In the book Thinking and Working Politically in Development: Coalitions for Change in the Philippines, Jaime Faustino and John T. Sidel narrate the story of The Asia Foundation’s Coalitions for Change (CfC) program from 2012-2018 and the political obstacles it faced in the long, winding, multiple paths to policy reform. CfC started in 2012 as a partnership with the Australian Embassy, in an effort to “do development differently” and “think and work politically.”
There is much insight to gain from the diverse policy reform initiatives, ranging from the sin tax reform campaign led by Action for Economic Reforms (AER), to pushing for education reform and classroom decongestion in partnership with the Department of Education, to electoral reform with Legal Network for Truthful Elections, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), and other civil society organizations.
While the book highlights the genuine transformations and policy gains brought about by CfC and its diverse, committed coalitions, it also doesn’t shy away from discussing its failures.
For example, in 2012, CfC provided support to the PPCRV in re-registering Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voters to reduce ghost voters and electoral fraud. They “cleansed” almost 600,000 fictitious or underage voters from ARMM. However, these gains were quickly reversed by 2016 when entrenched local political bosses were reelected, and suspiciously high voter turnouts prevailed in the region, implying that voters were still susceptible to vote buying and manipulation. Faustino and Sidel identify the problem with this engagement: CfC was responsive to the PPCRV initiative rather than proactive. They didn’t change the electoral process nor overcome the political obstacle of deeply entrenched warlordism. Thus, it was not as effective, sustainable, or impactful as their other projects.
Still, the bright spots in CfC outweigh the disappointments. It triumphed in reducing school congestion, releasing public school teachers from compulsory election day duties, enabling titling of land for public schools and government buildings, and creating new procedures for persons with disabilities in elections, among others.
What the CfC program shows us is that transformational change is rooted in politically contextualized, independent, iterative, adaptive policy advocacy work. Faustino and Sidel noted that when CfC worked autonomously, rather than supporting a predetermined agenda, it was more likely to produce a greater impact.
In the case of its informal settler family relocation program, for example, it was limited by its role within the parameters of the pre-existing government program. It was not able to adapt and overcome the tense political dynamics involving the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and local government units, and thus did not succeed.
Rather, CfC succeeded when it was able to innovate and work autonomously. When it did innovative and adaptive policy work by revising the rules of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management fund in Republic Act (RA) 10121, it successfully led to more proactive funding to support local government units.
Faustino and Sidel stressed that in “thinking and working politically,” there is no one cookie-cutter approach nor one-size-fits-all. There are many disappointments and delays in the process of pushing for policy reform. Thus, the need for flexibility, adaptation and iteration — the openness to test, re-test, learn and respond accordingly.
What does it mean to think and work politically in development? Perhaps the key insight I picked up from the book was the need for compromise. Most reforms will receive opposition, like AER’s push for higher sin taxes, which was highly contested by the powerful tobacco industry and the politicians from the Northern bloc of tobacco-growing provinces.
With so many conflicting interests and political constraints, locking in policy reform often entails being realistic and picking one’s battles, knowing when to toe the line and compromise. The lessons from CfC emphasize the need to pursue initiatives that are, in Faustino and Sidel’s words, “technically desirable and politically feasible.”
Pia Rodrigois the communication officer of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). The book Thinking and Working Politically in Development: Coalitions for Change in the Philippines can be downloaded here: https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Thinking-and-Working-Politically-in-Development_Coalitions-for-Change-in-the-Philippines_Faustino_Sidel.pdf.