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Nov 03

The Long View: Four points for discussion

Four points for discussion

November 03, 2006

RECENTLY I’ve been engaged in friendly discussions with businessmen, civil servants, civil society and mass movement representatives, and youth groups. Our objective: to go beyond the partisan, political blame-game and identify the concrete things that must be done to improve our national situation. I identified four points for discussion.

1. Generational transitions. 1969 to 1973 were watershed years, when the generation that reached maturity under the Japanese occupation was due to bow out. There should have been further transitions in 1973 and in 1977 (exemplified by rivals Gerry Roxas, born in the 1920s and Ninoy Aquino, born in the 1930s), 1981 and 1985 (conceivably, leaders born in the 1940s and the 1950s could have taken charge). But the transition was postponed from 1972 to 1986.

Since then, we have been 20 years behind in terms of leadership. Put another way: Fidel Ramos was at his prime for the presidency in 1973-77, not in 1992; Joseph Estrada, in 1977-81; President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would have been more idealistic and more vigorous had she been active in government in the ’70s and climbed to national office in the mid- to late-1980s instead of 20 years later. Notice, for example, how much more elderly — and thus cynical, jaded, and ruthless — our political leadership is, as compared to private sector, or some local government leaders.

A frustrated generation went abroad, depriving the country of an entire generation of intellectuals; those who stayed retreated to academe and engaged in an embittered effort to discredit everything that came before them, the result being a complete breakdown in a sense of identity and idealism.

But for two generations now, Filipinos who would never have broken into the ranks of either the middle or upper classes have gained the fundamental requirements of middle-class status: an entrepreneurial spirit, a can-do attitude, a little bit of land and prospects for the education of their children, who are the most reliable means for accomplishing change without burning everything down.

2. Patriotic problem-solving. Exposure to how things are done abroad under different circumstances — particularly, when done with a view to providing services — serves as a practical reminder of the benefits of a collective approach to society’s problem. At the same time, the degradations that often accompany working and living abroad condition Filipinos into appreciating the freedoms they enjoy and the limitations of those, and any other, freedoms.

Ferdinand Marcos was so successful and then so discredited, that he in turn discredited the idea of national planning under a national vision, with national goals in mind. He bankrupted the idea of political will as a positive force for a generation.

By force of necessity, different sectors are recognizing the need for national goals, according to a checklist of national priorities. But our institutions are so vulnerable that this realization is dawning so slowly and independently in various quarters: with no one, and no group, as yet, prepared to cobble together the coordination and consensus-building necessary for implementation.

3. Positive regionalism. Because major reforms begin to have an impact only within a generation, the success of the Local Government Code has not been remarked upon nationally. Local governments are, in general, awash with cash and have run out of ideas to spend excess funds. But they would rather spend them on extravagances and politically self-indulgent projects than share them with an increasingly exhausted national leadership. Left to themselves, local governments would simply substitute the irresponsibility of national officials with their own; what’s needed, and lacking, is the next step.

Flush with cash, local governments should invest their surpluses in their neighbors, to build up strong regional economies. This ensures growth for wealthier provinces and a higher standard of living, as well as stronger economies for their poorer neighbors; and eventually such investment will set up an integrated, regional grouping prepared to compete nationally and globally. Ideally, the national government would be best positioned to provide this regional coordination, but it is so nationally minded it can’t cope with the subtleties of a regional approach — which local governments aren’t able to see.

The national government still sees regional growth as pork barrel writ large: naturally the President will propose an international airport in Poro Point that the bureaucrats, who know better, are aware isn’t needed, and that no province is happy about, except the particular political ally the President is trying to flatter.

4. Mentorship and excellence. This is the emerging solution. It is being done all over. It’s being done politically, in local governments, within the bureaucracy, in businesses, in schools. But it’s not being done in terms of national and regional politics. Successes have been achieved at local government level. But the biggest obstacle to transforming a local success into an enduring one, that in turn fosters national renewal, is the as-yet-underdeveloped realization that what people do to improve schools, build housing for the poor, and deliver government services in a modern and service-oriented manner has to be integrated into a regional approach. This is the only way to bridge the gap between local dynamism and national exhaustion and mistrust.

The best analogy I can point to is how the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution turned China into an intellectual, managerial, economic — even political — desert. It took them 30 years to recover from those projects; and 20 years from the Tiananmen Square massacres. It will take us 30 years to recover from Edsa People Power II, Edsa III, 2004 and 2005.

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