02 May 2007

NPM reflections 2: On populism

HAVING laid down the predicate, in a manner of speaking, let me now address Cris Jugo's questions, which I think boils down to the following: Is NPM incompatible with populism?

For starter, "populism" is defined as 1. politics unfavorable to elite: politics or political ideology based on the perceived interests of ordinary people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite; and 2. focus on ordinary people: focus or emphasis on the lives of ordinary people, e.g. in the arts and in politics.

From the way it was described by Luis Leonardo, among the Latin American participants, populism is being automatically equated with the left-leaning regimes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia who use state resources in pandering to ordinary people's needs to strengthen their hold to power.

One concrete example he gave was Fome Zero, a new all-purpose poverty program that Lula launched in Brazil which can provide food subsidy to all citizens. It created a negative effect on overall productivity as ordinary workers found it better to drop out of work and qualify under the program -- which effectively guarantees their daily survival -- than continue working.

If that indeed were the case, then there is basis for questioning such approach, particularly on the basis of sustainability. There is now way Brazil, its rich natural resources and economic growth notwithstanding, will be able to support what amounts to a welfare state for the long term.

From our discussion, even advanced economies like Germany are finding it difficult to finance their welfare systems. Dr. Monika Ballin, our facilitator, pointed out that their country today is highly indebted precisely because it has been spending more than it earns since the '90s, incurring deficits in the process. The possibility of a systemic collapse, above anything else, in fact made NPM-oriented reforms centered on a "lean state" highly attractive.

But our experience in Naga however negates the assumption that NPM is incompatible with populism. Again, as I previously pointed out, we did not realize that we had actually been practising NPM principles in managing the city for close to two decades now.

When I was given the chance to present our experience, using Mayor Robredo's presentation material before a seminar organized by Friedrich Naumann Foundation-Philippines last year, the group were surprised that our city has gone great lengths in actual practice and not just in theory, effectively belying the assertion that NPM is dead.

Is the Robredo administration populist? It will depend on which meaning of populism one uses: it definitely is not if the label carries the first meaning, which essentially demonizes the elite. In this case, such a divisive rhetoric is actually an exercise in hypocrisy as the entire leadership, comprised mostly of specialists with high degree of education, in fact belong to the elite.

But if populism were to take the second meaning, then the administration is certainly populist -- by virtue of creating innovative mechanims through which ordinary people's social, political and economic needs are addressed more effectively.

If there is one lesson to be learned here, it is I think the danger of using conventional labels to advance a preset agenda that actually devalues reality and misses out on the rich diversity of experiences on the ground.


UpN said...

Populism is an effective technique by which leaders and parties co-opt the radical ideas of the masses so as to redirect them.