In The News

Partnering for Growth in the Philippines

March 28, 2012

Today, March 28, the Center for Global Development hosted an event exploring the Partnership for Growth (PFG), which is an initiative by the United States government to try new strategies to work with select countries for broad-based economic growth. The Philippines is the only country in Asia selected (the others are El Salvador, Ghana, and Tanzania). An agreement, including a Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP), between the two governments was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Manila last November.

Considerable attention has been paid to the PFG as one example of how the U.S. policy community’s increased interest in the Philippines (as I have certainly experienced here in Washington) is about more than China and the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. A roundtable, jointly hosted by the Philippine Embassy and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last Friday, March 23, strove to further inform the JCAP on improving regulatory quality, strengthening the rule of law and anti-corruption measures, and improving fiscal performance.

In the Philippines, the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce offered up a roadmap for economic growth, and, partnering with experts, produced an assessment of how far the current Aquino administration has progressed on their recommendations (full disclosure:  I was one of the experts assessing progress on security issues).

I’m focusing this week on the notion of “partnership” to begin to explore changing dynamics in the Philippines. Given some of the descriptions, for instance, of the limits to reform in the Philippines that have been put forth in academia and the literature, an obvious question would be: why is reform at all possible in the country?  One answer would be to bring another entity into the mix. So, partnering with an external power such as the United States might help reformers overcome limitations of a clientelistic domestic political situation; partnering with the international private sector might help the government escape the confines of the domestic business sector; and partnering with experts in charting recommendations might help the private sector avoid suspicions of being merely a special interest (illustrated in the misquote, “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country”).

Of course, if  “one of the central challenges in developing states is getting the government to direct public resources toward public goods rather than toward special interests,” as Timothy Besley recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, it may not be enough to partner with the United States or the private sector (even if the latter is leavened by experts). To put it mildly, there is not a consensus that the best way to benefit the citizenry is to help business and investment. Often this is characterized as elitist and prone to abuses such as corruption. In the past decades, donors have added to the partnership mix the role civil society organizations of various stripes, from those that provide services to local communities to advocacy organizations that try to fight corruption, for example. The notion here is that such organizations respond to different incentives than do the business sector or government, and can thus provide a useful counter-balance.

While the Philippines has been long known for its lively civil society, one of the most robust in Asia, whether this has helped in reforms has been called into question. In recent years, there have been a number of instances of prominent civil society leaders working with government trying to influence policy, even by directly joining government, that have not worked out well. In 1998, the chair of the Caucus of Development NGOs (CODE-NGO), Karina Constanino-David, joined the administration of President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, only to resign after a year when anomalies became too obvious to ignore. CODE-NGO then played a convening role in the People Power 2 movement that ousted Estrada in January 2001, after which David’s successor at CODE-NGO, Corazon Juliano Soliman, joined the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, only to join a mass resignation in 2005 after evidence of election fraud by President Arroyo in the 2004 election surfaced. Undaunted, Soliman once again rejoined government under Arroyo’s successor, Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III, in the same position, as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

I have blogged before that the current administration is attempting bureaucratic reform in the context of the country’s fragmented politics, so the optimism of Secretary Soliman certainly has a basis. But Nathan Quimpo, as I wrote last week, said that such reforms, even coupled with increased civil society partnership with the current government, does not tackle the central problem of clientelistic patronage. Analyst Eva-Lotta Hedman would agree that the fundamental problem is not being solved since she writes of a “dominant bloc of social forces – the capitalist class, the Catholic Church, and the U.S. government.”  For instance, some of the most prominent pro-democracy civil society movements – the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) – are linked to the private sector (the Makati Business Club) and the bishops of the Catholic Church, respectively.

The arguments of Quimpo and Hedman are different, of course, but both do challenge an optimistic analyst such as myself to specify how positive sustainable change might occur in the Philippines. If I project my thinking process into the future correctly, we first need to look into the relation between national and local power and what lessons can be learned from successful reforms in the Philippines.

This is the tenth 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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