Cautious optimism and the engagement of civil society

Prof. Louie Montemar, Fellow for Education at ADR Institute and Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines

Cautious optimism is the phrase that came to mind as I listened to an online public forum that evaluated the first 100 days of the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Organized by think-tank Stratbase ADR Institute, together with advocacy group Democracy Watch Philippines which opened with its president Prof. Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit aptly setting the context and the people’s expectations of the Marcos’ administration’s daunting challenge of addressing social inequality, poverty, unemployment, inflation, corruption, digital gap, climate change, to traditional security risks.

The forum featured top analysts from the academe, civil society and the private sector. Their optimism regarding the new administration’s initial performance was palpable, given several observations about the national leadership.

Dr. Ronald Holmes, president of Pulse Asia Research, noted how Marcos constituted the Cabinet and had regular meetings with them. There were reportedly at least 11 Cabinet meetings or Cabinet cluster meetings in the past three months.

He also credited Marcos to have worked on the proposed national budget; the Executive branch submitted the proposed budget for deliberations within the prescribed period, which is a month after delivering the State of the Nation Address.

Foundation for Economic Freedom president Calixto Chikiamco went on to say that Marcos has been able to correct some of the Duterte administration’s mistakes like the shift away from public-private partnerships in realizing development projects. The new administration is amending the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Build-Operate-Transfer scheme. It’s not perfect, but it should be good enough to attract investments in the PPP projects.
In terms of foreign policy, Marcos was observed to be not as pro-China as the previous administration nor as pro-America as under former President Benigno Aquino Jr. This has very real positive implications that strengthens the president’s “friend to all” foreign policy and boosting alliances with likeminded states to uphold the rule of law and maintain regional stability.

Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (iLEAD) Executive Director  Zy-Za Nadine Suzara said the president secured investment pledges amounting to US$ 4 billion from the United States for IT, BPO, and manufacturing, USD8.5 billion from Indonesia for PPP infrastructure projects, renewable energy, garments and others, and US$6.5 billion from Singapore for e-trikes and solar energy.

Makati Business Club Executive Director Coco Alcuaz said there is now a shift in how the government regards the private sector as compared especially with the previous government. The signal from the government is that Marcos sees the private sector as a partner. This is very much welcome because more business creates more jobs.

On the other hand, certain cautions were raised.

For one, Chikiamco noted that the presidency had no clear economic legislative agenda to address the food shortages and drive long-term sustainable growth. There remains no clear roadmap for boosting the various industries.

This is truly unfortunate because from my perspective as a consumer rights advocate, the primary issue that should be immediately addressed by the national administration is the increasing prices of goods and services or inflation.

Indeed, Holmes said: “When we asked [in their survey] the question if Filipinos experienced paying for goods and services that they normally procure in the past 3 months whether there was an increase. Everyone basically said that there was an increase in terms of cost, and the primary increase was found in terms of food items.”

I wish to underscore Alcuaz’s observation that “While it is really welcome that the government has made this effort to bring the private sector in, one would wish that there was a similar effort … to reach out, for example to labor groups and other groups, not just the private sector.”

This is telling, especially coupled with this related point from Suzara in the forum who said, “I think with respect to consultation with civil society organizations, it might not be as positive as it is with the business sector… Maybe we’ll be able to see there would be developments on that front next year. Although we’re hearing feedback that some of the sectors do have a difficult time getting in touch with some of the departments, especially those stakeholders and beneficiaries of the DSWD and the DA, which include both farmers and fisher folks. So, let’s see.”

Indeed, let us see.

As an active volunteer of a number of civil society organizations (CSOs) myself, I am witness to the potential of CSOs. I serve in the governing board of two CSOs which are more popularly referred to as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“Civil society” as defined by Global Economy and Development, Center for Sustainable Development of The Brookings Institution, senior fellow, George Ingram, “comprises organizations that are not associated with government—including schools and universities, advocacy groups, professional associations, churches, and cultural institutions (business sometimes is covered by the term civil society and sometimes not). Civil society organizations play multiple roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and the government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold the government accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions. They deliver services, especially to the poor and underserved. They defend citizen rights and work to change and uphold social norms and behaviors.”

The new administration is just 4% (100/2190 days) along the way in its six-year term. If it wants to succeed, it cannot ignore the actual power and potential of civil society or the Philippines’ over 60,000 nongovernmental organizations.

We have seen this potential come to life in the nation’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember those community pantries that sprouted like mushrooms across the country at the height of the lockdowns? That is just one sample of civil society in action.

Marcos should do well in recognizing and respecting the power of volunteerism and social responsibility embodied and embedded in civil society. 

This article was originally published in philstar Global.

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