Notes from the Field

How Politics Can Outmaneuver Reform in the Philippines

March 12, 2014

Over the past two years, the Philippines has achieved the distinction of being the fastest growing of the ASEAN-6 economies with growth rates of 6.8 percent in 2012 and 7.2 percent in 2013. The official poverty rate in the Philippines was 27.9 percent in 2012 and 28.8 percent in 2006; levels which were interpreted this way by the Philippines Statistics Authority: “Poverty remained unchanged as the computed differences are not statistically significant.” Clearly, some are being left behind despite all the growth.

Manila Street Scene

Over the past two years, the Philippines has achieved the distinction of being the fastest growing of the ASEAN-6 economies with growth rates of 6.8 percent in 2012 and 7.2 percent in 2013. Photo/Karl Grobl

The country faces serious institutional and systemic governance issues, and recent events, such as the pork barrel scandal that exposed lawmakers’ misuse of public funds, underscore how weak institutions can hamper growth and development, and how politics can outmaneuver efforts for reform.

There is increasing recognition by the international development community that politics, power, coalitions, collective action, and leadership are central elements of development. But navigating the transition from policies and programming practice that were originally designed to deliver technical assistance to those that explicitly incorporate the political dimensions of development is the current challenge confronting development professionals and agencies.

The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the Australian Aid and the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP), just released a new book, Room for Maneuver: Social Sector Policy Reform in the Philippines, that examines the inherently political nature of reforms in development and the intricacies of social sector policy reform and the “maneuvers” undertaken to achieve genuine reform in the Philippines.

This new book, a follow on to case studies featured in an earlier book published by the Foundation about the politics of economic policy reform in the Philippines, highlights four case studies:

  1. The successful passage of the Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act in 2004 that criminalizes all forms of violence against women in intimate relationships;
  2. The successful passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act in 2012 that seeks to ensure universal access to information on family planning and maternal care;
  3. The politics of introducing and passing the Governance of Basic Education Act in 2001 that altered the organizational structure of the national educational system; and
  4. The thus far unsuccessful effort to introduce a Freedom of Information Act that establishes legal procedures for obtaining government-held information.

From these, the editors and writers draw a series of lessons to help inform programs and strategies, including:

  1. Effective coalitions and networks are essential to reform. In each of the successful reform cases studied, there were strong bonds between civil society reformers and groups within government that were critical for success. Reformers had to develop good relationships with key internal players in the executive and legislative branches. There is a growing literature of the importance of coalitions and networks in achieving reform.
  2. Passionate, well-connected leaders drive change. While networks and coalitions provide credibility and support for the reform initiatives, they are driven and sustained by key individuals whose ideologies, history, personal networks, and important positions in society and government enable them to be effective leaders. Many of the leaders toiled and struggled for years to achieve their goals. In a number of cases, there was no donor support but they persevered.
  3. The role of values and motivations in reform coalitions can vary. The importance of having shared values and motivations among all reform coalition members is unclear. Some advocates believe that successful reform is achieved by establishing a shared set of clearly articulated values that can serve as a basis for coalition unity and longevity. To others, the importance of building a formal coalition based on a consensus of core values is unnecessary. The key is the willingness of coalition members to use their political capital toward the same reform regardless of their motivation or values.
  4. Reform strategies require flexibility. While policy reform needs to be well planned, advocates should also be able to quickly adjust to shifting political realities and change tactics as needed on the fly. Changing realities may call for compromises, and advocates need to be ready to compromise, keeping in mind their critical set of technically sound non-negotiable provisions. Since some reforms challenge current deeply embedded beliefs in the existing political culture, advocates should be willing to experiment with different political strategy mixes.
  5. External technical and financial support can be helpful. Policy advocacy can be an expensive battle and reform advocates often work with very limited funds. Support from donors can make a great difference. By the same token, donors need to be sensitive to the needs and preferences of the reformers and not to impose overly onerous conditions on them. An effective understanding of local political economy considerations will help donors make better, more informed choices.
  6. Align the stars and connect the dots. Successful social sector reform requires interlinked political, public, and advocacy constituencies to come together. A president is unlikely to spend his or her political capital on a bill that does not have clear public support or a high probability of passing both Houses of Congress. Leaders and advocacy groups that are unable to spark the public interest, line up political reform champions, and stay united behind a core common platform, often over many years, are almost certain to fail.

It is our hope that development agencies and practitioners draw on these cases so that they are more effectively able to contribute to genuine reform in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Contributors to Room for Maneuver include Adrian Leftwich, Raul Fabella, Jaime Faustino, Andrew Parker, Abigail de la Cruz, Michelle Domingo, Jerryll Reyes, Purple Romero, Jamir Ocampo, and Riza Halili. The book is in memory of Adrian Leftwich.

Jaime Faustino manages The Asia Foundation’s Economic Reform and Development Entrepreneurship Program in the Philippines. He can be reached at Jaime.faustino@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. noli m. abijay:

    I am so sad that politics in our country(philippines) is so bad that even we keep on changing for a better leaders, and despite their effort to serve honestly, it’s the peoples mind set is i think we must focus on…leaders should approach to them with genuine heart to heart talk about their needs,loyalty to their country(not to a person like politicians with money to give,about their childrens future,honesty,and that previous events we have been. we must learn from mistakes from the past about how we survive it and must learn again to love our country more than our selves (like heroes).

    so sad to admit that politics in our country is so dirty that it needs to be overhauled to its smallest detail. many have tried to fix it,but sorry to say mostly have dirtier agenda behind…i my self have lost interest listening to their promises and things they say they did for this country but,on the other side of mine,,,we cannot just give-up on something we think its impossible (our country situation)…..our leaders or i may say new leaders should go outside his/her offices to mingle and talk to our common people,listen to their stories…or make a heart to heart conversation to win their trust and trust you should guarantee them. i say this because,most of our people have twisted and misdirect mind on what is right against wrong…we can also remind them on our struggle how we survive and win against wrong doings of our previous politician

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