Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Analysing Disaster Preparedness in Maribojoc

The destroyed Abatan Bridge that connects Maribojoc to Tagbilaran City
Maribojoc is a fourth class municipality in the province of Bohol. Located 30 kilometers southwest of Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, the municipality is composed of 22 barangays whose residents are primarily engaged in farming and fishing.  The municipality is home to one of the oldest watchtowers in the country and one of the oldest Spanish churches in the province.

Maribojoc has a total of 20,491 people with a population density of 2.6 persons per hectare as of 2010.  Urban population consists of 26.61% of the total town population.  The population is predominantly young, with 30% of the total population aged 0-14 years old.  The productive force of the municipality is 60%.

Land formation of the municipality ranges from sea-level to very steep slopes. The highest elevation of the municipality is 304 meters above sea level.  The municipality only has around 18.99% that do not experience erosion.  Moderate to severe erosions occur in the areas with very rolling to very steep slopes.  While the municipality does not have a sewerage system, water accumulated in the terrain drain towards Maribojoc Bay on its southwest side and the Abatan River on its southeastern boundary. 

A 7.2 MW magnitude earthquake struck the province of Bohol at 8:12 in the morning of 15 October 2013.  While the earthquake affected the whole Visayas region, more particularly the island provinces of Bohol and Cebu, the epicentre of the quake was located in Sagbayan town, 46.7 kilometers from Maribojoc. This was the deadliest earthquake that hit the Philippines in 23 years. In the case of Bohol, the last earthquake experienced by the province was in 1990.

The damage caused by the earthquake to the Bohol province was estimated at USD50 billion. A total of 809 people were confirmed dead, 877 people were injured and 8 people were reported missing.  In the case of Maribojoc, while a municipal-level damage calculation is not available, several key structures of the municipalities, including its municipal hall, public market, centuries-old church were all damaged.  Several houses were damaged, and the bridged that connected the town to Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, became unpassable that people had to take boats to cross to go to the City. This also affected significantly the provision of disaster assistance and the delivery of relief goods to affected families.  The municipality lost electricity and water provision for more than a week after the earthquake.

It was apparent that the municipal government of Maribojoc was unprepared for the earthquake, despite the fact that geological studies have already pointed out the high possibility of the island province of Bohol and the town of Maribojoc to earthquakes of this magnitude.  The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) has already identified the East Bohol Fault, the only known earthquake generator in the island and is located 40 kilometers southwest of Maribojoc. Bohol is also considered one of the seismologically active geographic areas in the country and the last earthquake that the province experienced was only in the 1990.

However, a review of the comprehensive development plan of the municipality indicates that this possibility is not factored in its planning processes.  In the preparation of the Maribojoc Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan of 2012, for example, topics discussed prior to the planning process were on typhoons, floods, and other water-related disasters and lesser on issues as earthquake and other related seismological hazards.  But hazards and risks related to earthquakes were not factored, in such a way that when the bridge connecting the municipality to Tagbilaran City collapsed, alternative transport systems were not in place and made available easily. This indicates weaknesses in planning for disaster risk reduction as also pointed in earlier study on subnational approaches on disaster management (Benson, 2009). 


The Need for an Integrated View of Disaster Preparedness

The case of Maribojoc resonate with arguments about the lack of capacity of local government units to prepare against disasters, as indicated in the researches mentioned above.  But the capacity of LGUs to plan for and address needs of communities when disaster occurs is also affected by a lot of factors. The results of this study point to the following factors below:
  •       Nature of the disaster – typhoons have early warning systems that can be disseminated widely prior to the occurrence of the disaster.  This is not something that is available to earthquakes and other related seismic events that can catch LGUs by surprise. 
  •       Certainty of occurrence - While in Bohol, the existence of a fault line already warns LGUs and communities that an earthquake can occur, and given the occurrence of earthquakes in its recent past, the certainty that an earthquake can occur cannot be predicted.  
  •          Adequacy of scientific infrastructure and systems – mapping disaster prone areas, identifying population at risk, locating safe locations for evacuation, and assessing earthquake resilient buildings, are capacities that require adequate infrastructure and system at the local level.
  •          Political will on the part of the leaders – Relocation of households at risk, or forcing them to evacuate to safer areas, require political leadership (see for example Ebay 2013). 
  •            Cooperation of local communities – disaster preparedness is not just about preparedness at the local government level.  Individuals and households should contribute into the process (see Luna 2007) by, for example, cooperating with the government in situations that call for forced evacuation.  Households, in order to cope with post-disaster resource scarcity, should prepare packed provisions that can withstand several days after the occurrence of the disaster so that they can be adequately nourished while awaiting relief operations.     
As such, apart from lack of technical and financial capacity, there is a need to look beyond the local government itself and consider several factors in disaster risk prevention and management. In a review of DRM practices across Asia and the Philippines, it has been found out that less emphasis has been made on disaster prevention as compared to disaster response. Further, it argues that even when natural disasters are seemingly caused by natural events, there is a human hand that influences the outcomes when disaster occurs (Thomas et al 2013).  Governments that do not strictly prohibit building of structures along risk areas, or households that insist on building their houses in areas that are considered flood-prone, for example, are variables that show the human hand as a cause of deaths during disasters. Thus, it is not just about nature, it is also about local actors, institutional arrangements, governance mechanisms and active citizenship that can exacerbate or reduce the impact of disaster to people and communities. Beyond distal causes, there are proximal causes of casualties in disasters that define the resiliency of communities and their capacity to bounce back after a great tragedy.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Earthquake, SMS, and Social Media

Image courtesy of http://www.sjp.com
A seminal work by Elder and others (2013) entitled “Information Lives of the Poor: Fighting Poverty with Technology” discusses in clear prose and through illustrative examples the promise of information and communication technology (ICT) in building the lives of the world’s poor.  It starts with a foreword by Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which highlights the Grameen Village Phone program that afforded poor people with access to telecommunication facilities while at the same time providing income for poor village women in Bangladesh.

It highlights, among other things, how technology has penetrated society and even poor households.  Use of mobile phones, for example, spiked beginning in 2002, surpassing all other forms of technologies like television, personal computer, and the internet, a fact also pointed out in the paper. Its attendant effects were also highlighted in several studies apart from those mentioned in the book - about how network coverage impacts positively on employment (Klonner et al 2008), how ICT helps in achieving economic growth (OECD 2005), and how mobile banking helped increase remittances (Mendes et al 2007). 

The power of ICT is argued to have more pervasive effects in information dissemination. For example, studies show that  mobile phones bring better prices for fish (Jensen, 2007) and social media is used to disseminate disaster warnings and post-disaster response (Shklovski et al 2008).  ICT, especially in the context of social networking, has significantly revolutionized how people access and consume news. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based in Oxford University in a study in 2011 (Newman) pointed out that in the UK, use of social media has become one of the rising sources of traffic for the websites of news organizations.  Facebook and Twitter have become a way to spread information from a news agency, by the power of the “share” and “like” buttons and the skilful use of the “hash tag”. 

I was in Manila when the earthquake struck Bohol in 15 October.  I got the news first hand through a text message from our companion in the house.  While my family was dealing with fear of a first-hand earthquake experience in the succeeding hours, I was in a meeting, browsing through FB posts to get a glimpse of what has happened after the quake.  Right after the earthquake, I called my wife to hear how things were. Without mobile phones and social media, I would not have had the information that would help me stay and feel calm despite the tragedy.

But not all is good news with phones and the internet.  Commentaries have pointed out how social media contributes to misreporting (see Washington Post, for example). An edited volume compiled by Anne Mintz entitled “Web of Deceit:  Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media” (2012), shows how social media can be used to intentionally misinform.  These realities bring in an important normative question – with information flooding through ICT channels every second of the day, whose story should we believe in? Whose version of the truth should we “share” and “like”?

It must be important to point out that even without social media, the internet, or mobile phones, misinformation and mis-education can still be widespread.  The question presented here does not absolve news agencies from pursuing a particular story with a biased frame or the spin doctors who creatively deceive the public through wilful machinations.  But the power of social media to spread wrong information exponentially is dangerous, especially in a context where a lot of people are connected through a mesh of networks using ICT.

I remember very well how text messages sent panic to people in Tagbilaran City in the recent 15 October earthquake. A text message warned people that water, presumably caused by an earthquake-induced tsunami, has already reached J.A. Clarin Street.  Two days after, a post in Facebook escalated the story that an 8.0 magnitude quake is expected to hit Cebu. A week after, somebody else made the claim that a new volcano was discovered in Bohol.  A ‘forward message’, ‘like’, or ‘share’ act of one person can send panic to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people who have already suffered enough.

Several people have called for greater responsibility in the use of social media.  For example, before posting and sharing, we must do some fact checking (see Jennifer Dunn) because the content that we link to our profiles is our responsibility.   Others suggest that we should respect social media and not treat it as a toy or a medium for our jokes (see Scott Kleinberg) – by using it we acknowledge our great responsibility.  Still others say that what we post builds our online personality (see Chris Syme), and thus, posting something that is a hoax, reflects our lack of time to read and check facts and our propensity to believe anything that comes our way.

It does seem then, that ethics is social media rests on the one that reads and shares, and much less on the one that creates content.  I remember for example the coverage of Maribojoc mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr.’s incident with the Philippine Red Cross coming from the country’s reputable news agencies.  Interaksyon’s story was entitled “Bohol mayor stopped relief distribution, wanted goods turned over to him”,  while that of the Philippine Star was “Bohol mayor to Red Cross: We don’t need you”.  The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a similar story line with a lead “Bohol mayor drives out Red Cross team”.   The news went viral in social media and nasty comments were made by several people who read the news and clicked “share”.  Stories and days later, we learned that such was not the real story and a certain degree of misunderstanding of language, context, and representation was apparent.  However, the mayor was already cursed, berated, humiliated for days.

If I follow Jennifer Dunn’s suggestion of fact checking, I might still, like the others, click “share”.  After all, the story was one of the banner stories of three of the country’s leading and supposedly credible news agencies.  The story is not something of a joke and if I believed that it was true then it is my greater responsibility, as what Scott Kleinberg would say, to share it.  And if I want to build my reputation as a concerned citizen and a compassionate other, then Chris Syme would probably approve if I flood all my accounts with that story. A story repeated several times by different people and sources creates that illusion of truth.

This is what social media does to a story.  The number of times a story gets liked, commented on, and shared, builds traction and credence.  In several instances, a falsity becomes truth, a half-truth a complete one, and a paid opinion the sentiment of the majority.  But how do we exempt ourselves from this viscous process when we are limited in our capacity to distinguish fact from fiction?

I take inspiration from a song I learned in Kindergarten.

“Peepep the small jeep is running down the street.
Stop, look and listen, stop, look and listen.”

Stop. No need to rush to click that button.  That somebody who said that he’d rather be first than right is no longer popular.

Look.....for other sources elsewhere. Verify as much as you can. If people are saying the same story at the same time, that does not mean they are right. So look and look. Be mindful of who is saying what.

Listen.....to yourself whether what was said there matches your philosophy of things and your outlook in life.  Ask yourself “what use will it be for me and for humanity if I comment on this one or share this in my page?”


If content creators are not responsible, we should at least be.  

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bohol Will Rise

Image courtesy of Bangon Bohol.
I was not in Bohol when the 7.2 earthquake hit the island in the morning of 15 October 2013.  Like most working weeks, and like several Boholanos unable to find job within the province, I was at the RCBC building along Ayala Avenue, preparing for a meeting with my contract manager at AusAID.  Like the Boholanos back home, that morning was the same as all other mornings – people woke up, took breakfast, did some household chores, read the papers, tended to farm animals, took a bath, went to church, reported for work. Then the ground shook.  That brief moment, that fearsome few seconds that has devastated centuries-old churches, destroyed many homes, traumatized children, damaged livelihood and business investments, and made useless several public infrastructure, can only be described by those who were there. While I was able to go home and experience the aftershocks days later, my own feeling of insecurity and fear is nothing compared to those who were there that very moment, those who ran for their lives, and those who watched as the world around them started to crumble.

Minutes and hours later, radio and TV were replete with reportage on the effects of the earthquake.  The quake did not only jolt Bohol but also the neighbouring island province of Cebu.  I watched as how reporters filmed destroyed churches, buildings, structures and interviewed local people.  Reports on isolated towns, number of deaths, and appeal for help came next.  The face and form of the tragedy is everywhere, the sense of desperation apparent in people’s faces.  Social media was flooded with status updates and tweets on the tragedy.  I was dumbfounded.  I was in a state of denial.  As I was far from home, I convinced myself that my family are okay, that the Boholanos are fine, that this event will just come to pass and people will recover.

They say that a crisis or tragedy can reveal the best and the worst in us.  I have seen many of my friends, despite fear of their safety and that of their family, rose to become bearers of hope.  People put up websites, coordinated relief operations, monitored events and did information dissemination. Others, even those living in other countries held charity events to raise funds.  Business groups joined in the relief operation, even airlines take in relief goods for free and courier companies accept money remittances to Bohol free of charge. Government and church groups, student associations, people and groups previously unaffiliated became bound by the same cause, to help Bohol and the Boholanos rise from the devastation. The Boholano ceased to be a victim and quickly became a survivor for others. 

Heart-warming stories of everyday heroism flooded news and social media – athletes ferrying people across a wide river, netizens posting information of those not yet reached by relief goods, companies distributing water and tents, professionals offering post-trauma counselling and therapy. Even victims, still needing help, refused relief goods so that others who had not received theirs can also benefit. They even managed to post thank you signs for the help they received.  While negative stories also circulated around – like how relief goods distribution became politicized or how victims hoarded goods, and people disagreed about how to best move forward, these never eclipsed the stories of how the Boholano started to hope and become a source of hope for others.

Two weeks had passed and in between aftershocks, planning sessions among those still willing to help were held.  One group is coordinating a medical mission. Another group plans a post-earthquake happy day for kids.  A classmate in college was talking about buying hollow-blocks making machines and extending credit to start-ups so the latter can have alternative livelihood after the quake and become sources of cheaper materials for construction. Inspection visits to churches were done so that restoration can be planned and started soon. The province was abuzz with efforts to build again what was lost; a new dawn is in the horizon.

Sadly, I failed to be part of all these.  

My guilt of not sharing that dreadful moment with my wife and kids and not being able to fly right after because of a workshop I was tasked to facilitate (that cannot be put off as hotels and flight tickets have already been booked), grounded me to home. To my wife and kids, this was my best apology – and my presence was needed by my family whose house has just been damaged, and badly in need of a temporary shelter.  I also cannot leave my son who turns pale every aftershock, as he was taking a bath when the earthquake shook the house, making him scamper for safety outside, naked and wet.   While my family’s experience is of no measure to the hundreds of others who lost a house or kin, I just thought that my place at that time, though how selfish it would sound, was to be with the people who relied on me for strength. 

So this piece is dedicated heartily, to the many souls I know from near or far – Gibo, Doris, Fr. Harold, Hedz, Nep, Liza, Reg, Fr. Roland, Nino, Fr. Warly, Maricel, Patpat, Cynthia, Charlie, Andy, Engr. Willy, Cheryl, Lut, Mitzi, Mae Anne, Sis. Joy, Edik, Julie Ann, Kit, Linda, Tia Flong, John, Sir Nes, Franco, Bagi, Melissa, Mae, and many more, who have risen above the tragedy to become sources of comfort in this time of need.  Your example shines; you remind us that in a situation of insecurity, we can offer others a sense of safety; that while hungry, we can still feed a multitude; that while in a state of devastation, we can still offer a hand to rebuild.


Bohol will rise. Because you, them, all of us, will work together to make Bohol well again.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Power and Danger of Discretion: PDAF in the Local Context

Image courtesy of Inquirer.
 http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/files/2013/07/cartoon_Jul19.jpg.

“One noticeable feature of modern legal systems is the extent to which power is conferred upon government officials and agencies to be exercised at their discretion, according to policy considerations, rather than according to precise legal standards.”  (Galligan, 1990)

The past month, after the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal surfaced in Philippine political debate, considerable media space has been allotted to discuss the value, or conversely and more strongly, the evil of the PDAF.  A congressional inquiry is currently being conducted, purportedly in aid of legislation that oftentimes seemed like some person’s show.  A whistleblower seemed to enjoy the media attention with a kind of sinister smile, sounding like saying “come on; do not act as if you do not know this.” A senator accused of plunder chastised himself by saying nothing else is good in this government and that should be enough evidence to not point fingers at them. The PDAF events, occurring at different locations – in court, in the legislative chambers, in the streets, in the minds of people – seem like a Shakespearian comedy, that watching, or living within the plot of misfortune, one cannot help but burst into a dry laugh.

Several of our top academics and intellectuals lend very insightful comments to this spectacle. A scholar I came to know at one point in one of my out-of-country conference trips, and one of those I consider very politically astute but pragmatically optimist at the same time, Ronald Mendoza, argued that PDAF kills our democracy.  He said that “Pork fuels our democracy’s vicious cycle—of poor people who depend on it for help, and politicians who ingratiate themselves to less informed voters and strengthen their stranglehold on power by disbursing it with little accountability.”  Randy David, on the other hand, said that “pork is never good in a political system dominated by insatiable swines”.  Solita Monsod analysing the statements of P-noy’s statements argued that  “ P-Noy actually starts by affirming that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy,” and that enabling our representatives to identify projects for their communities that otherwise were not affordable was a “worthy goal.”

In the background of these arguments is a word that is highly objectionable, not only in politics, but in business as well - DISCRETION.  Giving one person with a large responsibility too much discretion is giving him so much power.  In the literature on internal control, it is argued that you have to segregate duties in the use and administration of funds. When I was teaching auditing at Holy Name University, I used the mnemonic word CARE, to emphasize how CARE of business funds should be exercised, and this applies more importantly to public funds as well. In an ideal scenario, no one person or entity should be given the power to be the Custodian of resources, to Authorise its use, to Record the transactions involving its utilisation, and to Execute the utilisation of resources all at the same time (though later on, they removed Execution in the standards, I still argue for its inclusion as part of the four incompatible functions).  In the case of PDAF, a merger of around two incompatible functions became deadly – legislators Authorise the budget, and later has the authority to how to Execute it. When not scrutinize, and when hidden behind names of bogus projects and self-commissioned non-government organizations, he can spend public funds on himself.

The PDAF case is not only about a violation of internal control policies (or an override of it). It is also a classic case of what Galligan highlighted as a government where leaders exercise power at their discretion.  It is also a case of breach of legislative powers on executive functions, though how nicely its political language is framed to avoid this description.  One cannot argue that PDAF is consequentially good, because it is inherently wrong.

So while activists are barking at national legislators to give up their pork, I was pre-occupied with the question whether the same kind of discretion is given to local legislators.

In the last couple of months, I reviewed, as part of my research work, the municipal and provincial budgets of around 20 local government units across the country.  There are a few budget account titles that caught my attention and these were normally labelled with fancy names like the ones I enumerate below:

  • Assistance to barangays
  • Assistance to non-government organizations
  • Assistance to municipalities
  • Assistance to cooperatives
  • Donations


I looked at the process of how these were used. Apparently, this general-sounding budget figure is ‘allocated’ to provincial or municipal legislators, who request the amount in the same way that senators and congressmen do.  It is like your PDAF, in its more down-scaled version, and in the context of the local, but nevertheless advances the same clientelistic political effect of the national pork, and can also be a subject of abuse.

So I would like to call local activists to look at the local budgets.  Look for terms (a) to (e) above. Ask government officials how this is disbursed.  If you are concerned of issues in the national level, you should also be asking questions on issues closer to home.


Saturday, 31 August 2013

Strength in Numbers

26 August 2013.  Netizens called for a million march against the Priority Development Assistance Fund in Manila.  Commentaries on the Manila march said that the crowd gathered there was short of the million it promised. Elsewhere in the country, similar activities were also held.  Video footages of the activities happening elsewhere, in Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, and other major cities and even in Australia and in the US were shown.  Maybe I missed it, but I did not see Bohol there.

I was in the Bohol march, together with my family. Friends and acquaintances from different organizations, ideologies, profession were there - Marianito Luspo of HNU-CCAD, Jean Darunday of BONACONSO, Alvin Acuzar of BUSWACC, Emmie Roslinda of PROCESS, Engr. James Uy of HNU College of Engineering, artists like Ric Ramasola and Sandra dela Serna, women activists as Regina Estorba Macalandag and Doris Dinorog were among those gathered around 10 pm that day. Quite the usual suspects, I should say.

 Venue was plaza Rizal and we were there at the kiosk, several others scattered surrounding it.  If all of us went inside the kiosk, the place will not be full.  My best estimate was, only half of the place would be filled.  You can guess now why it’s not worth a video coverage in a major network’s primetime news.  We do not have that strength in numbers.

Both the Bohol march and the Manila gathering, suffers the same fate – underrepresentation.  If the population of Metro Manila is close to 12 million (NSO, 2010 estimates), then the crowd gathered there was only 3% .  And if the population of Bohol province is 1.2 million (NSO, 2010 estimates) then those of us who were there represented only 0.003% of the provincial population. This is beside the fact that those who were there did not represent the broad categories or classes of people in both the Metro Manila and the Boholano society. What makes the Bohol case interesting and uninteresting at the same time is that the people gathered that day were so few that it could not represent a serious threat to power.  Calls for accountability, for transparency, could easily fall on deaf ears.

I will not attempt to answer the question why a lot of people were not there in Plaza Rizal, as each of us has our own motivation in the kind of choices we make in life.  I will not also attempt to answer why the Catholic Church was not there, priests and nuns that you could see in the Manila gathering, because in the first place, I did not have high expectations that they would turn up at all.  I also do not want to speculate why you do not have local political leaders there, mayors and councillors for example, or why I miss the student movements and their numbers.  But what I would like to focus instead, is why I will probably become one of those who were not there that day, why I might not turn up in future rallies, why I will just let the people in government get away with what they are doing.

Firstly, a culture of impunity looms large. In a society where even courts are swayed by corporate interests (see Vitug’s Shadow of Doubt) and where government can rationalize everything it does, including giving an aircon cell to a fugitive (see the Napoles post-arrest interviews) , to express dissent becomes useless.  If reason always sides with the money-rich, and the power-clad people of Philippine society, why do you expect that a rally in the street can do anything?

Secondly, government has co-opted the term civil-society, and has even made it its own.  I am not saying that all civil society groups are nothing, but I have seen that those who were able to penetrate government are those with the blessings of the power holders, or those that later on became subservient to it.   Government, as the PDAF case suggests, even used non-government organizations as the safe excuse for their corrupt practices (see Sen. Estrada’s comments on the utilization of his PDAF).

Thirdly, when you see that rallies do not translate to better lives of the poor even when it resulted to change in leaders (not necessarily a change in government), frustration can easily breed and take root.  It’s worse than not being heard. It’s a feeling of being fooled, because you thought you were heard but the message the powerful got was not the ones you fought for. 

There is strength in numbers, yes. But how will we ensure that the citizen participates?  And if he or she does, how do we ensure that he or she does not lose belief in its power?

In a context as the Philippines, where collective action may not necessarily bring better results, the route to individualism may be easier and more rewarding.  In game theory fashion, we can say, that given the above context, participation is a kind of prisoner’s dilemma (see Poundstone 1992). If we know that the end of all our struggles is not predictable and a gain is not in sight, then cooperating or betraying the other is not important. We just go on and live each day oblivious of everything that happens around us.  As what my father would say, “die today, die tomorrow, the same die.”

Noam Chomsky in his 1993 classic “The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many” wrote that “It’s only if we all do something in a different way that we’ll all benefit a lot more.” Collective action can only bring fruit if “lots of people begin to do it, and do it seriously".  But then again, he said that our society is very much structured to drive all of us to choose the individualistic alternative.

It is to the benefit of the powerful of this country to see that we get tired of going to rallies, that our efforts do not bear fruit.  It will push us all the more to focus on our own families, our own individualistic future, because the costs of creating a better world are so severe. Attending meetings, attending rallies, will not bring food to the table, will not repair our houses, will not pay our bills, because after all the things we give up, we do not see any tangible result.  The promise of change remains a promise for eternity.

Blessed are those who have the strength to carry on. God bless this country. Mabuhi ang Pilipino!

  

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

I am an Election Watcher

Image courtesy of www.ifes.org
For the longest time now, I am an election watcher. No, not that one who volunteers to ensure that there is free, clean, and honest elections in the country.  I am an election watcher – and I watch elections come and go from the sidelines.

My friends say that I am a sour contradiction and a bad example for the young.  As one of the believers that change is necessary in this world so that people can have better lives, I should also be one of those who believe that elections are opportunities of turning the tables upside down.  As one of those who believe that governance is important in achieving political, economic, and social gains, I should at least be interested in ensuring that people elect the kind of leaders that we need.  And as one of those who think that almost all things are political, I should have been engaged in a political exercise characteristic of modern-day democracies.  But here I am, watching elections come and go, but not really participating in it – maybe because I no longer believe that elections can turn tables upside down, or that leaders matter, or that elections are concrete manifestations of democracy.

My failure to vote and participate meaningfully in elections was first circumstancial before it became a conscious rational choice.  Back in 1996 when the time came for me to qualify as a voter, I was in Manila with hardly a cent to spare to go home to register.  Then for the many times that registration was done, I was somewhere else working, studying, or doing something else, that to be at the place where I could qualify for registration was virtually impossible.  But something happened along the way, I did a study on local elections that made me realize that elections, at least in our country, and in the local context, need not necessarily embody the ideals of democracy.

Manin, Przeworski and Stokes (1999) wrote that “The claim connecting democracy and representation is that under democracy, governments are representative because they are elected: if elections are freely contested, if participation is widespread, and if citizens enjoy political liberties, then governments will act in the best interest of the people”.  The elements they mention here, however, is absent in our current local political system – elections are the contests of the privileged, participation while widespread is conditioned by votes sold, and our political liberties are constrained by our own helplessness.  The recent elections, and the ones before them, are just mere reiterations of the same situation, sometimes even getting worse. My frustration with elections is essentially not so much about politicians than it is about voters.  It is not so much about individual actions, but on how systemically dirty, irrationally corrupt, and utterly hopeless the exercise has become.  Let me tell you of concrete reasons.

Reason 1:  Education does not have a bearing on how voters behave during elections.  Soledad Fuertes (not her real name), a teacher in a municipality for more than 40 years, opined that the voters never lacked awareness, especially in identifying who among the candidates in the local elections are most qualified to run the local government. However, while people may be educated, it does not necessarily follow that their education will have a bearing on the choice of local candidates to vote for in the elections, and whether or not they will be swayed by the lure of money come election time.

Tomas (not his real name), a church leader in a parish said there were persons he knew, his immediate family members who are teachers in the barangay elementary school whose votes were determined by the highest bidder.  In a survey of voters in 2004 in one municipality in Bohol, voters who had completed college, were asked whether or not the money they received from the candidate for mayor influenced their vote during the election in 2004. Thirty three percent (33%) of them said “yes”.

Reason 2:  It is not true that only the poor gets bought on election day.  In Tagbilaran City, 72%  of the population of working age are considered economically active (employed or either engaged in business).  Correspondingly, approximately 12% of the people are earning more than Php30,000 a month.  Senda, a vegetable seller at the public market said that vote buying during election time only sells well with poor people like her, and not with those who belong to the middle or upper class.  She believed that rich people would take it an insult if they received ballots stapled with crisp bills during election day since they will not need it anyway. 

I conducted a quick survey with twenty of my friends in May 2013, right after elections, all of them earning more than Php30,000 a month. The questions I asked were very simple – (1) Did they receive money from candidates?; (2) What did they do with it?;  and (3) Did it affect their votes during elections.  The informal survey revealed interesting results. First, all of them received money.  Second, all of them kept it.  Third, only 40% of them said that it affected their choices, while the remaining 60% had some other answers that are not at all inspiring.  Of the 60%, some said that the money they received did not influence them as they were going to vote for the candidate anyway (60%), others said that they did not remember (20%), while the remaining 20% said that it influenced them a bit.  Much more depressing is, all of them were educated in good schools and are holding positions of influence in the places where they work.

Reason 3: We cannot count on the young to change the way this political system looks like.  In 2011, in the height of the debates whether to keep or abolish the Sangguniang Kabataan, I conducted a classroom opinionnaire among my 100+ students, aged 18-19, at Holy Name University to know if for them, votebuying during the SK elections was alright.  To my horror, I found out 36% of them said that it is alright, as it was customary while 42% said that while not necessarily correct, one cannot really do away with it.  It does seem, that the older generation have taught the younger the wrong lesson well.  There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence to this, like say, for example, how mayors spend for vacations of SK barangay chairpersons so that they can ensure that they vote for their preferred candidate during SK municipal federation elections. 

If you have read this far, then you will now be asking me whether my choice to be an “election watcher” is something I can be proud of, and whether I will argue that it is the most rational choice.  Of course, I am not proud of my decision. Of course, it is also irrational.  My growing cynicism is accentuated by the fact that I have also become powerless in this context.  I used to believe that one voice, though how small, starts a revolution.  Every time I listen to Barry Manilow sing....

“Just One Voice,
Singing in the darkness,
All it takes is One Voice,
Singing so they hear what's on your mind,
And when you look around you'll find
There's more than
One Voice,

Singing in the darkness,
Joining with your One Voice,
Each and every note another octave,
Hands are joined and fears unlocked,
If only
One Voice
Would start it on its own
We need just One Voice
Facing the unknown,
And that One Voice
Would never be alone
It takes that One Voice.”

 ....sadness overwhelms me as it brings up the question - "where is that idealist of long ago who believed that better things will come?"

But then, I must say, I am just an “election watcher”, but I do not remain to be a “watcher” for eternity.  I participate in local governance activities. I help people engage in local governance better. I research on topics to improve local governance processes.  I advocate for participatory planning and budgeting, I advocate for public disclosure of government data.  I do all these sorts of things because I believe that elections are just one part of this democracy. We may not be able to change the way we elect our leaders, because movie stars and boxing champs can still become president, but we can possibly influence the way we are governed.   


However, at the end of the day, I still wished that schools and universities do more than just token voters' education.  I still pray that the Catholic Church spend more on social action activities than build expensive convents. I still envision a future where local politics is characterized by issues and platforms than favours and threats. I still dream of the time and day that votes are not sold on a daily basis and on election day. I hope, in the next few days, my aspirations will bring back my optimism again.   

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Civil Resistance and our History as a Country

Photo credit http://goturboegon.deviantart.com
Today marks the close of what seemed to be a whirlwind week of learning at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict at Fletcher School in Tufts University, Massachusetts.  Together with more than 50 participants and speakers – journalists, academics, and activists – various examples of non-violent resistance were discussed and analysed in a course designed and funded by the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict.  The event also afforded me the opportunity to reminisce the activism of my heyday – the activist’s theatre I was a part of when I was 10, the street protests against tuition fee increases, and the tactical planning sessions for farmer’s rights to name a few.  The activist sessions, with the likes of Mkhuseli Jack, Oscar Olivera, and Jenni Williams, made me ask questions again, whether I have done enough, whether how I view my arena of struggle these days is justified, and whether there are still opportunities to do more. 

I firmly believe that one does not stop being an activist. Though my friends would say, that as you grow older, you lose your idealism and start to become real, I disagree with them. I believe that the enemies we face, those that trample on our rights and personhood, just change face as we grow, brought about by the changes in our state of life, in our beings, and in the environment. From oppressive tuition fees in my college days, it has now mutated into structurally violent systems of political, economic, and social governance that rip the people of their rights.  Maybe they have not changed at all; it is my consciousness of how they look, exist, or operate, that has deepened.

Jack duVall, one of the founders of the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict, defines civil resistance as an “emerging force for rights and justice.”  In our history as a country, we are not strangers to this form of struggle, as it was through nonviolent resistance that we were able to oust the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled this country in fear for more than 20 years.  In their book “Why Civil Resistance Works”, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan showcased that part of our history, long forgotten by this generation maybe. In the same book, they argued, using data for violent and nonviolent resistance across the world from 1900 to 2006, that nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more effective in achieving their goals than those that primarily relied on violence. The argument finds strong proof in our history since in this country, all violent forms of resistance since 1901 have failed, while EDSA 1 and EDSA 2 showed the strength of the Filipino people against oppressive and unjust adversaries.

However, what concerns me is how little we remember of our recent history.  EDSA 1, for example, was fought against Ferdinand Marcos, but her widow Imelda is currently a member of the House of Representatives while his son Bongbong is still in the Senate. EDSA 2 ousted Joseph Estrada, but he is now mayor of the City of Manila while his son Jinggoy, like Bongbong Marcos, is a senator aiming to run for Vice President in the next national elections. This, needless to say, excludes the many cronies of Ferdinand Marcos and the many confreres of Joseph Estrada who remain unscathed until now.   I wonder whether this means that our country conferred legitimacy again on the very people against whom we expressed our dissent.  I wonder too whether we will need again another civil resistance at EDSA if this collective amnesia persists.

Maybe it’s not that people forget.  Maybe it’s a case that people have not experienced both events in our history at all, that is why there is nothing to remember.  These historical events, happened and are accounted in its detail in the capital city of Manila, but nothing much has been said of the effect or even the participation or people elsewhere in the country – the northernmost tip of Batanes, the summer capital of Baguio, the whole Bikolandia, the islands of Visayas, and the conflict-ridden south of Mindanao. It does seem, that EDSA 1 and 2 were not expressions of civil resistance of other people who lived outside Manila, in the more than 7,000 other islands who could not be physically present at EDSA.

I remember the time that I participated in a rally in Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s capital, (1.5 hours by plane from the capital of Manila) at the same time that the bigger rally was held in EDSA to demand for President Estrada's resignation in 2001. We were only very few, compared to the total population of Bohol, and what made the crowd were students from schools whose teachers were asked to help in the cause. That time, I skipped my classes and invited my students to come.  But I only saw them watching from the sidelines along CPG Avenue when the march started.  I know that there were rallies also held in Davao, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, among others, but then again, the number of attendees in these gatherings was only a small fraction of the total population.  For the people who attended these rallies, there could be an “EDSA experience”, but for those in their homes or doing things elsewhere, that shared experience could be fictional, if not inexistent.

This is probably one of the reasons why descendants of our once oppressors are occupying seats in our democratic government.  For the most part, we do not have that shared memory.  For example, in the May 2010 elections that put both sons of Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada to the senate, a total of 38 million Filipinos casted their votes, representing 75% of the total number of registered Filipinos. Of this number, 80% reside outside Metro Manila.  Further, fifty percent of those who voted in the May 2010 elections were aged 18-33, according to the Commission on Elections.  This means that half of the voting population were not yet born when people marched in protest at EDSA in 1986 or were too young to remember.  This means too that in May 2010, 80% of those who voted did not have that kind of an experience protesting against Joseph Estrada.  This, besides the fact, that there is still an argument made by others that EDSA 2 was a civil resistance of the elite than a revolution of the poor who still believes that Joseph Estrada was unjustly removed from power.

In one of the dinners at Fletcher Summer Institute, I had the privilege to sit beside the inspiring Rev. James Lawson, one of the wise strategists of the civil rights movement in the United States.  I asked him a rather naive question – “How do we make sure that we all remember our history so that we do not commit the same mistake of letting the same breed of leaders occupy top positions in our government?”


Rev. Lawson looked at me and asked, “Is it important that all of us have the same memory?”  I was taken aback because I did not expect a question as an answer, and more so because the question he raised was so profound that it needed time for introspection.  After a long pause, he said, “I do not think so.  All of us, distinct as we are, will always have different views and recollection of things and events. But as activists, our role never changes.  We have to make sure that we resist oppressive leaders, structures and systems, those that trample on our rights and our dignity as a people. Whether that is done by a descendant of an autocrat, or by a new leader we have previously conferred legitimacy on, it does not matter.  What matters is that we resist when the time calls for it.”

Very well said.  As I leave Fletcher School today, I bring Rev. Lawson's words with me. I also bring with me the many words, feelings, thoughts, ideas, experiences shared during the week.  The journey home will be long and tiresome, but like all good journeys, they will always lead to somewhere we call home.  Thanks ICNC.  Thanks FSI.  Till we meet again.