Heeding well-intentioned advice

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Mike Wootton

Mike Wootton

Objectivity by which I mean “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts” is often in short supply in the Philippines; too much time is spent on the “blame game,” most notably now in connection with the handling of the Super Typhoon Yolanda disaster but also in reports of the state of the economy and to a lesser but important degree, in some reader comments on an article reporting a letter purported to have been signed by 99 US congressmen asking President Barrack Obama to have a talk with President Benigno Aquino 3rd on the state of the Philippines nation, in particular with reference to corruption and the rule of law.

It has been said before that when foreigners start criticizing the Philippines, there is a great outpouring of national pride to defend the Philippines no matter how objective or well justified such criticism may be. China does the same sort of thing; for evidence of that, just look the great sea of strident and negative comments from “the people” against the possibility of the Chinese government helping the Philippines deal with the Yolanda aftermath. It is easy to write off the Chinese stridency by saying that as a nation, they are new to modern international relations and diplomacy. That cannot be said about the Philippines with its history of internationalism and with 25 percent of its workforce working and living abroad. It’s okay for Filipinos to criticize what goes on in the Philippines, but for many it’s not okay for foreigners to do so, particularly when there is a suggestion that the United States for example might be trying to meddle in the internal affairs of the country and its government.

The Philippines government asked the international community, in particular the US, for help in dealing with the Yolanda crisis and it is right that they should have done so. The international community has responded wonderfully to the plea for help, and so it should have done, regardless of what the cynics may say are the geopolitical motives behind such help. And if the community of nations gives its help unconditionally at some cost and inconvenience to itself and without question, then they have a right to comment objectively and constructively on what they find and this right extends to informing the citizens of the donor countries (who after all are the source of the govern¬ment’s aid money) in their own terms via their own media as to what is going on.

While I do not suggest that there is necessarily any connection between the letter from the US congressmen and the provision of aid following Yolanda, there are undoubtedly links between corruption, the lack of a rule of law, and the effects of the typhoon. If there were a functioning rule of law and less corruption and it were easier to do things, people would live in more robust houses, there would be better infrastructure (including disaster mitigation measures), society would be more egalitarian and government would work in the interests of the people rather than in the interests of the powerful and the politicians. It would also help if people were more ready to admit their own shortcomings rather than trying to find somebody else to blame; it is not a sin to make an honest mistake.

It would seem to me that no stone should be left unturned in reducing the awful level of corruption, nepotism and inequality that is the root of so many of the ills of the Philippines. A corrupt and unequal society in which “might is always right, in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and 25 percent of the workforce have to go abroad to earn a living is not one to defend, is it? It is one that needs help. Obviously, it is right to object to foreigners meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But when there are questions over the state’s ability to sort out its own endemic problems, constructive advice and help from other nations should not just be rejected out of hand. The conventional “meddler” in the affairs of sovereign states is the United Nations, but looking at some of the other UN interventions like Sierra Leone, Somalia and Iraq do make the track record of the UN in peacekeeping and transitional governance look fairly spotty, to say the least.

Perhaps, now the realization may occur that among the many other things the nation needs as a top priority is a bit of honest and wholly objective planning. Planning in the Philippines is too often not honest or objective; it is done to give a patina of substance to political promises or to gain budget which in the event is rarely used to satisfy the stated objectives of the plan, or to portray a scenario which is known to be wrong but which will justify some possibly nefarious objective (power planning in Palawan for example). Not only this, but it also suffers from an unusually high degree of inaccuracy brought about by the ability of corruption to stall things until enough of a bribe is paid, and due simply to a system which in the words of Jaime Licauco, a columnist from the Inquirer, in 2001 reflects; “A nation whose policies and rules are based on the assumption that everybody is a cheat and liar . . . . Take a close look at [the]bureaucracy and its rules. It is burdened by elaborate and often unnecessary checks and balances so that nothing ever gets done in the process”—alas the same policies and rules endure, and have done so for far too long.

That the United Nations would instruct that typhoon aid is specifically not to fall into the hands of government officials and politicians, and that there are nearly 100 congressmen in the US concerned about the way things are in the Philippines must surely be if nothing more a “wake-up call” (if one is actually needed) that things are not as good as they could or should be here in the Philippines. Effective change is needed as so many of the things that hamper development are so deeply ingrained, that real fundamental change is required if the lives of Filipinos are to improve to the level that ordinary Filipinos are entitled to. There have been suggestions of introducing direct democracy (which would be a bit difficult to operate in practice) or changing to a parliamentary system, but such changes are cataclysmic and could not be done internally, because they would be resisted by the existing power structure.

There is always room for improvement everywhere and in everything and while the Philippines is no exception to this, there are some unique problems that can be solved on a step by step basis, so it may be useful to listen carefully to some of the advice and take up some of the constructive and well-intentioned offers of help that come from elsewhere in the wake of Yolanda and not let “Pinoy Pride” stand in the way too much.

It’s good to see that there are suggestions that the Philippines may request up to $1 billion in aid-related loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, there can be little doubt that such loans would have conditions attached for improved national governance, so it may be good for everybody, to take them up—provided that the use of the money is closely monitored by the lenders!

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com

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