THE first three years of the Duterte administration saw an aggressive, nationwide campaign for a federal Philippines. Now, we see an aggressive, nationwide campaign for clearing of roads and sidewalks. This is a campaign of the central government, with local government units (LGUs) compelled — some would say bullied — into complying.
There is nothing bad or wrong about reclaiming public space. The problem lies in the national government’s imposing its priorities on LGUs. LGUs are expected to prioritize depending on their own specific needs, circumstances and available resources at any given time. Local officials are elected based on their platforms of governance and not for their ability or willingness to follow national directives.
Indeed, we can all name local government officials, including mayors and governors, who are lousy, incompetent, lazy and corrupt, but we can also name officials who are committed, hardworking, visionary and dedicated to uplifting the plight of their constituents. While they may not approve of vendors’ or business and building owners’ encroaching on sidewalks, roads or other public spaces, they might not also see it as something that needs urgent attention, in the hierarchy of concerns. Rather, creation of income opportunities and jobs, improvement of delivery of basic services such as health care, making access to water, sanitation and decent housing available to all, bringing new technologies and infrastructure to rural areas to improve agricultural productivity, and responding to emergencies should occupy more prominent positions in the hierarchy of concerns of government than road clearing.
Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, in complying with the order from the central government, had more than 1,000 vendors removed from the places where they would usually sell their goods or services. So now sidewalks have been cleared and 1,000 families have lost their source of income. Minimum wage earners who used to patronize the affected sidewalk eateries have to venture further from their place of work to find affordable meals. While the law is the law, sidewalk vendors don’t choose “sidewalk vending” out of sense of rebellion or boredom. Since neither market forces nor government is capable of providing jobs and income opportunities to make sidewalk vending obsolete, thousands of Filipinos are forced by necessity to expose themselves to the elements and air pollution on a daily basis to earn a living. They may be “obstacles” occupying sidewalks but aside from supporting themselves and their families, they cater to the needs of pedestrians, commuters, low-paid workers, public utility jeepney drivers and students.
Ironically, placing road and sidewalk clearing above the welfare of poor Filipinos contradicts the national government’s policy to address the root causes of local communist insurgency.
The Constitution states that the president “shall exercise general supervision over local government.” Supervision not control. But the line is not clear, one mayor told me. “The atmosphere of centralism is in the air once again,” another source commented. LGUs are afraid of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and many have reportedly stopped initiating their own programs unless the DILG has given its go-signal. Even the purchase of a dump truck now requires the approval of the DILG.
One local government official; who will not be told, is Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia. Not only did she criticize the assessment of the DILG of the LGUs’ compliance or lack of same with the directive to remove obstacles from roads and sidewalks. She also criticized the agency for requiring LGU officials to attend numerous seminars and submit lots of reports. “Instead of being of assistance, you [DILG] are a nuisance to the LGUs,” Garcia was quoted as saying (CDN Digital, Oct.15, 2019).
My small-town mayor friend found some of the seminars useful but suggested that national government agencies coordinate their actions and conduct one seminar together rather than many separate ones to maximize the time of the participants. As for the many reports, requested at any time, the mayor said that it makes the LGUs look like mere branches of the DILG.
“DILG’s action could be positively interpreted as a way to put the LGUs in the right direction. But it should be with legal basis, and policies should be at least permanent in nature and more of empowerment and always anchored on decentralization and local autonomy,” the mayor explained. He noted that rules have changed substantially within the past three years. When there are many rules, local officials tend to become helpless and confused, and will keep on studying rules. They become dependent on what the DILG says, my source added, speaking from personal experience.
But local government officials should be accountable to the people, not the central government. The DILG could redirect some of its efforts towards empowering civil society organizations through training and meaningful participation. A vigilant and informed local constituency is a better guarantee for good governance than power re-concentrated in the central government.