06 November 2010

Peripheral yet Central: Notes from a 20-Year and Going Urban Democracy Project in the Philippines

Presented on October 5, 2010 during the Second General Assembly of the IFP Philippines Alumni Association (IFPPAA) at the MMLDC, Antipolo City.

WHEN we were about to get our degree from the Department of Land Economy in Cambridge in 2004, a Cypriot classmate, who is an expert in real estate finance, asked me what my plans are after graduation.

I asked: How about you?

He said he will probably work for one of the leading London-based property conglomerates. At that time, I really had no doubt he will succeed. An indication that it came to pass is the fact that he used to sponsor one of the annual student awards at the Department in honor of her grandparents.

For my part, I said then I will go back to my native city, where I think I stand a better chance of making a difference.

Looking back at that brief conversation, I think that on the whole, my decision to go back to the city government of Naga after completing my IFP fellowship turned out to be a good decision. But to say that the outcomes of that decision was a clear example of an either-or proposition – economists like Assad Baunto would love to call it a zero-sum game
totally misses the point. Which should nicely lead me to a discussion on the dilemmas we face as IFP alumni.

A Good Decision
But before I do so, allow me to explain why I believe it was a good decision. I will highlight three points:

1. Professionally, going back to Naga enabled me to make good use of my schooling. My graduate work at the Department of Land Economy focused on planning, growth and regeneration. Today, my work as head of the city’s planning and development unit enables me to apply the theories and principles on urban planning to Naga’s development.

For instance, the way Philippine local governments today conduct their planning has been revolutionized and rationalized, aided by a study conducted by UP SURP and enshrined in a joint memorandum circular issued by the DILG, DBM, NEDA and DOF issued in 2007. While we are taking measured steps towards delivering these documents, I can fairly say that we have a better handle of the process, thanks to stuff I learned from my Cambridge professors and the English experience with the so-called “urban planning machinery” that drives housing and urban development.

Almost a month ago, I was gratified to hear a high-ranking functionary of the DILG speak about the need for greater civil society participation in generating baseline LGU performance indicators in its flagship Local Governance Performance Management System (LGPMS).

This was precisely our experience and realization several weeks back during our planning workshop in crafting Naga’s comprehensive development plan that used LGPMS data. Essentially, it boils down to the fundamental weakness of the system – which has to do with its self-rating nature. Without outsiders actively engaged in the process, there is that temptation to window-dress data driven by the urge to make one’s locality look good. But this of course comes at the expense of truth telling, which is a basic requirement of good planning.

2. Personally, going back to Naga enabled me to raise my family, and see my children grow before my very eyes in the same city where I work. This was the single biggest problem I faced when doing graduate work in Cambridge: a Ph.D title appended to my name would have sounded fine, but the best university in the world (according to the 2010 QS World University rankings) was simply not the best place for a homesick father of five (at the time) and faithful husband to his wife.

As an IFP fellow exposed to the comforts and opportunities of a First World society, I must admit staying put in the UK – regardless of what the PSSC and the Ford Foundation will say – crossed my mind. I am sure all of us, one way or another, had to face this temptation. But every time, the family card would trump all possible permutations where benefits outweigh the cost of leaving them behind.

So for me, it matters less that I am earning Philippine pesos and not British pounds; what matters more is that when I rise every morning, I get to wake up beside my best friend of 18 years, cook for and eat breakfast with my children, and drive them to school before I go to work. Yes, it is definitely a challenge to make the most out of a government worker’s salary, which often requires foregoing many comforts and luxuries that come quite easy for OFW families in our neighborhood; but these are tradeoffs I have learned to accept in exchange for the sheer pleasure of growing up with my children.

3. Psychologically, staying in the City Government of Naga actually brought me immense self-satisfaction. In my own little ways, I am making a difference.

For instance, the quality of local decision-making has improved because of my department’s newly acquired capability to do evidence-based policy analysis. Take for instance the currently raging issue of whether City Hall should raise rental rates at our newly rehabilitated public market. The study we did, in response to a directive from the Sangguniang Panglungsod committee on market affairs, has crystallized the available policy options to both the executive and the legislative. And to a great extent, the numbers behind those options have shaped the ongoing debate, in the process tamping down heated passion that used to carry the day.

Then, there’s also our enhanced capability to come up with trailblazing local initiatives. Just two days ago, we formally launched the Naga River Revitalization Project, a multisectoral effort that seeks to finally reverse the decline and degration of the city’s major waterway. In May, when I submitted it to a pioneering training program for local governments jointly sponsored by the World Bank and the Singaporean government, even my city hall colleagues were not convinced, thinking there were other more urgent matters that the city government should respond to.

But after a highly successful 10-day stint at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore last July, where we developed an action plan to implement the Naga River project under the supervision of WBI and LKY faculty, the World Bank has apparently decided to adopt riverfront development as the overarching theme for its second round of training. If things hold up, we will most probably be invited back to share our experience to the next batch of Asian cities chosen to participate in that event in July 2011.

There’s also that ongoing effort the come up with a new joint memorandum circular to govern the use of the Special Education Fund (SEF) by Philippine local governments, which is central to my work on and abiding interest in Local School Boards. Of course, it helps that my former mayor is now the acting secretary of the DILG (for how long, I don’t know). But I find it truly fulfilling to have been invited to actively comment on the several drafts of the JMC, and with some of my recommendations actually being adopted – at least in the most recent version I saw. With all the mishaps and missteps attending P-Noy’s young administration, I am not sure whether that JMC will actually see the light of day – and I really pray that it does. But whatever happens, my experience shows that it is entirely possible to do good work in the periphery sufficient enough to impact central policymaking.

Finally, there’s of course the 2009 Presidential Lingkod Bayan Award accorded to our Public Service Excellence Program (PSEP) Team, of which I am the deputy team leader, at the Naga City government. Our team is primarily responsible for bringing about three editions of the Naga City Citizen’s Charter, the pioneering effort of the Naga City Government to empower its citizenry by promoting transparency and accountability in service delivery. England, by the way, has a long tradition of promoting services charters.

Naga’s Citizen’s Charter, the first of its kind in the country, predates by seven years Republic Act No. 9485, more popularly known as the Anti-Red Tape Act (ARTA) of 2007” that requires all national and local government agencies to come up with their own service charters. RA 9485 only came into effect when it was signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on June 2, 2007.

In recognition of this, the Civil Service Commission accorded to us that award, the highest recognition “conferred on an individual or group of individuals for exceptional or extraordinary contributions resulting from an idea or performance that had nationwide impact on public interest, security and patrimony.”

But coming home to one’s country armed with a degree made possible by our fellowship, which should make Mareng Winnie Monsod proud even if we are not her students at the UP School of Economics, is not all bed of roses. Truth of the matter is, we are faced with two formidable dilemmas:

One, was it worth my while? Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I sense from our Yahoo e-group, a good number are having difficulty finding jobs that pay well, not so much psychologically but financially. This, to me, is a gut issue, and we don’t have to invoke Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to make it so.

Compounding the problem are the raised expectations that come with completing that fellowship, both from our end and from others. From our end, the fellowship is the nearest thing to being an OFW: in my case, I am able to set aside some money that I regularly send home to support my family. But it was only as good as it lasted; homecoming meant going back to the real world, warts and all. And then there’s the unwarranted expectation from others, especially from relatives, that having a degree from a university abroad is the “Open Sesame” that automatically unlocks the door to fabulous riches described in the stories of the Arabian nights.

Secondly, with the uncertainties of the future, did I really do the right thing? Doubts about the wisdom of coming back to the country starts to creep in when our current realities – that is, the opportunities supposed to come with our schooling – do not match up with expectations. This is exacerbated when one begins to compare himself with better-off OFWs who are actually doing well financially, and they did not have to go through the rigors of what we went through, starting from the pre-academic trainings mandated by PSSC down to the thesis and dissertations we had to submit as requirements of the our degree!

A Way Forward
While these dilemmas can be very unsettling at times, I never fail to derive inspiration from one movie I recently saw and enjoyed with my family, so much so that my children would watch it over and over again.

I am referring to the 2009 Bollywood hit entitled “3 Idiots,” a highly engaging 2-hour 44-minute comedy – which incidentally illustrates the huge gulf separating Indian and Philippine cinema.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website describes the movie’s storyline as follows: “Two friends embark on a quest for a lost buddy. On this journey, they encounter a long forgotten bet, a wedding they must crash, and a funeral that goes impossibly out of control.” This, of course, does no justice at all to that movie, so I suggest that you take time downloading a copy on your favorite bittorrent application and watch it yourself.

There are, however, two memorable quotes from IMDb that I would want to share:

“Today my respect for that idiot shot up. Most of us went to college just for a degree. No degree meant no plum job, no pretty wife, no credit card, no social status. But none of this mattered to him, he was in college for the joy of learning, he never cared if he was first or last.” – Farhan Qureshi

This, I think, goes at the very heart of our motivation for pursuing higher education. The typical perspective, represented by Farhan’s, is that getting a degree is merely a means to achieving higher ends – a good job, financial security, a happy family, a higher standing in society.

But there is that other perspective represented by Rancchoddas Shyamaldas Chanchad aka “Rancho” – the joy of learning is by itself a worthy end, and everything else is secondary: the icing on our cake, the gravy to our chicken.

“Pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down.” – Rancho

This second quote, I think, is the movie’s central message. To me, this is a powerful response to problems created by the two dilemmas I outlined above. Its effectiveness in resolving these issues in our own individuals lives will pretty much depend on ourselves.

And my little experience of staying put in Naga shows that one can choose to wage his battle even in the periphery, outside of the power center that is Imperial Manila; yet by pursuing excellence with passion, he can do enough good work as to impact society at various levels, from the grassroots to a town or city, from a province to a region and even the nation itself – and make a difference.