Notes from the Field

A Step Back for a Closer Look at the Philippines and Development

January 25, 2012

Steven RoodIt would be a gross exaggeration to say that panic swept the development community in Manila when word spread that after 12 years on the scene as country representative of The Asia Foundation I was disappearing into a 4-month teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. But some folks – donors, academics, and civil society types – did take notice, occasionally flatteringly making sure I would only be gone a short time.

Truth be told, this absence from the Philippines will be my longest since a 1989 stint at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, and my stay in the States will be my longest since departing for the Philippines in 1981. I’m looking forward to stepping off the treadmill of heading a dynamic office full of energetic, brilliant staff and devoting some deeper thinking time to a wide range of issues.

I’ll be team-teaching “Domestic Politics of Southeast Asia” with Karl Jackson, who directs the SAIS Asian and Southeast Asia Studies programs. I get to talk about the Philippines, a subject which I find endlessly fascinating. (That I have opted to spend my life in the country makes this quite obvious.) The immediate audience will be SAIS graduate students, but I’ll also be engaging in discussions with policy-makers in D.C. and beyond. I’m also looking forward to blogging here weekly during my sabbatical.

As I embark on this time, there is much talk of a “pivot to Asia” in U.S. foreign policy. As a result, there is also a danger that U.S.-Philippine relations will be viewed entirely through the lens of “the rise of China.”  In fact, just as I arrive in D.C., the Philippines and the United States will be holding another of their semi-annual Strategic Dialogues, which a Philippine newspaper characterized as taking “added significance in the light of competing claims for specks of land in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) between China and several littoral states including the Philippines.”  But there is so much more to the bilateral relationship than any shared concern for China. For years the Philippines has been interacting with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, leading to a $434 million compact. More recently, the Philippines is one of four countries in the world entering into a “Partnership for Growth” with the United States, where multiple government agencies in both countries work together to try and improve development. Last year, the Philippines signed on to the Open Government Partnership (co-chaired by the United States and Brazil), a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote more transparent, accountable, and participatory governance. This action dovetails nicely into the Aquino administration’s own domestic anti-corruption agenda.

But, there’s so much more than current events that can be covered when discussing the Philippines. There are deep forces such as religious belief, as manifested in millions of Catholic devotees of “The Black Nazarene” thronging the streets of Manila, or Muslims in Tawi-Tawi quietly visiting the graves of revered holy men. Another would be the role of the Chinese business community or civil society organizations in the overall development of the country.

There are also questions about general political development. One attempt to predict democratic transitions worldwide in 2012 startled me by saying that the Philippines has about a 15 percent chance of transitioning to democracy this year. As immersed in the Philippines as I am, with its boisterous press and flamboyant, surprising elections, it is easy to lose sight of broader questions such as whether democracy is truly flourishing. More fundamentally, are country experts any better at making predictions than analysts armed with wide-ranging international statistical data?  This is not the kind of question a development worker often gets to ask – as Senior Visiting Professor at a school of advanced international studies, it seems like an interesting question to pursue.

I cannot promise to reach substantive conclusions on these – or any other – issues that come up over the next four months of weekly blogging. I can promise to try to display a range of interesting material that arises inside the classroom, in other reading, policy dialogs around town, or from thoughts on events in the Philippines and elsewhere. I may even blog about the Cherry Blossom Festival, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

This is the first posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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