Dispatches from the Field

On a contentious referendum, birth rates, and Indian bureaucracy: Notes from fieldwork in the Philippines.

(Header: Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. The municipal hall in the background. Photo by Swetha.)

MIT GOV/LAB Senior Research Associate, Swetha, was in the Philippines to coordinate research activities for research examining the effect of civic education for citizens and local officials on accountability. Reflecting back, here are various excerpts from her field diary in the last year.

1. Ilocos Norte, November 2016.

Amid all the gloom on my social media feeds since the US Presidential elections last week, I want to record a note of cheer - from the Philippines, no less. The vibrant civil society I’ve encountered here has taken me by pleasant surprise. Earlier this week, I was in the province of Abra, once notorious for its underdevelopment, corruption and trigger-happy private armies, where my colleagues and I met with 75-year-old Manang Pura (Sister Pura). Beginning her work as a government watchdog towards the end of the Marcos dictatorship, over the last 30 years, she and her team have successfully challenged the prevailing deep-rooted governmental corruption, instituting community-led audits of government programs.

Manang Pura’s work is but one example. Consider the citizen evaluations of a village health center I witnessed last week. A local civil society organization had convened a meeting of the poorest 25% of villagers with the local public health clinic doctor and his staff. The citizens presented to the clinicians a community scorecard evaluating their services, even discussing critical comments such as doctor absence and patient discrimination. Such a thing would be unthinkable in a village in my home state of Tamil Nadu in India (which is considered one of the more progressive Indian states, with some social development indicators comparable to those of the OECD countries).

And it would be even more unthinkable that the citizens would interact on near-equal terms, without deference to the clinicians. Some of this may certainly be attributable to the social dynamics of class/caste, and traditional notions of authority in India. But it also seemed this set of citizens, had had some sort of awakening -- they seemed to recognize that it is public officials who are, by duty, accountable to the citizens they serve, and not the other way around. Citizen demands were not favors sought from the officials, but were exercises of their rights.

I tend to think of most governance challenges as intractable and institutional, to be tackled at the policy level. But these last few days have made me appreciate how at the micro level, a small body of engaged citizens working within the prevailing institutional setup, can still have their voices heard in their communities. To my despondent social media friends, I want to say, there is light.

2. Pangasinan, November, 2016.

I am taken aback by a question from someone I have just been introduced to. We have barely met for a few minutes, when he asks, “Are both your parents still alive?” Between contemplating the mortality of my parents, which only makes salient my own muffled march to the grave, and wondering if I should be offended that he thought I was so old, I mutter a puzzled “Yes”. Reflecting on it later that day, I could see how it was a perfectly reasonable question from his perspective. In the communities I’ve encountered here, among those of my generation, I see high fertility rates and a fair amount of birth spacing between children in their families. Were I one of them, depending on my birth order, there is reasonable chance of not having one or both living parents. It is a sobering thought.

3. Ilocos Sur, November 2016.

A good part of the last week was spent in government offices, where signs announcing ‘No Noon Break’ are unmissable. In 2011, the Civil Services Commission mandated that government offices across the country do not close for lunch breaks, to ensure uninterrupted public service delivery. I cannot help but wonder how such a policy might function in the Indian context infamous for the several chai breaks and long lunch breaks.

‘No Noon Break’ says a sign at a municipal office in the Ilocos Sur province. Photo by Swetha.

I think of Akhil Gupta (2012) describing the case of a low-level bureaucrat in rural India, and how he is more likely to be found engaging with citizens at a roadside tea stall or at home, than at his office. Gupta argues against interpreting this as institutional failure; rather, it points to the inadequacy of the Western-centric distinction of state and civil society.

The officer’s private citizen sphere collides with his public servant sphere, and his lived reality cannot be boxed into these two categories. The state need not place him in a designated site of activity, with a specified style of operation, to mark his functioning as a member of its bureaucratic apparatus. Instead of space being the container of the state’s activities, the activities themselves can generate ideas of space, and create and reinforce state legitimacy.

4. Manila, April 2017.

I find myself in an absorbing conversation with a local, who participated in the 1986 People Power Revolution, which saw millions of Filipinos take to the streets to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship. As she narrates story after story, recounting the atmosphere of the time, I begin to see unfolding before me the motivations that shaped her activism, and political affiliations. I hear of her days as a college student in the early ‘70s, at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, a hotbed of student activism: of she and her fellow students protesting fuel price hikes, the increasing military presence and the creeping authoritarianism; of students barricading the campus, refusing to let government forces in; of her rushing off to class from the protests one afternoon, only for the Professor not to turn up: he had just opened fire at the protesters, shooting dead her fellow student, Pastor (“the baby of the group”, she remembers).

In the midst of her linear narrative, she suddenly recalls my earlier mention of barangay assemblies, and excitedly wants to share a story of how they came about. She goes on to narrate how with his second and final term in office due to end in 1973, President Marcos wanted to amend the Constitution to allow for another term. The amendment was to be ratified through a referendum. In place of the existing administrative structure of barrios, Marcos created barangays, as the lowest administrative unit, as part of a village-based local government.

She tells me how in January 1973, the Constitutional amendment was declared as ratified through referenda held at the country’s first ever barangay assemblies (semi-annual, open-forum public assemblies held in barangays across the country, a system that exists to this day.) A student of hers once narrated how his grandmother, present at one of these assemblies, had described how citizens were tricked into raising their hands and photographed as evidence of public support for the amendment. What they were actually responding to was, “How many of you would like a bag of rice?

Assuming this narrative to be true, it leaves me wondering why a soon-to-be dictator, otherwise open to the unscrupulous use of power, would seek legitimacy (or the semblance of it) through legal, democratic means?

5. Manila, February 2017

It has been a weekend of protests and celebrations here in Manila, marking the thirty-first anniversary of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which saw millions of Filipinos take to the streets to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship the country. I can sense divided feelings today on the relevance and future of the EDSA movement. Fatigue has stalled the spirit of some EDSA-ers ("It is tiring to fight a cause for 31 years.") There is a sense of the movement failing to deliver on its promise. President Duterte's style of governance has left the country politically polarized. On Saturday, at the People Power Monument, was a rally to commemorate the anniversary, which I witnessed as a curious bystander.

November 2016 demonstrations at the People Power Monument against the proposed burial of former President Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes. Photo by Swetha.

The mood at the People Power Monument felt markedly sombre. I had last happened to be here in November 2016, observing from the sidelines, the demonstrations against the proposed burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes. This time, the turnout seemed at most one-third of November’s. The anger had subsided. The sense of urgency, so palpable last time, missing.

What is it that makes people want to protest, or not to protest? As efficacy theories might suggest, participants’ low expectation of their demonstration altering the prevailing condition, meant lower turnout. This demonstration did not have a specific ask, unlike the last. But what, in fact, led those who turned up, to do so? Speaking to some demonstrators, asking them what brought there, I seemed to be hearing a kind of politicized identity theory in their own words. There were many organized groups of students, entire families, some of whom were present in 1986. But there were also people outside of conventional in-groups, differing in power and status, where ideology seemed to have trumped social embeddedness.

I thought it was interesting that the raised consciousness that led them to protest wasn’t necessarily within their conventional social networks. I ran into someone I met at the November protest. A staffer at a local hospital, there at the protest on his own, he described how his political views contrasted with those of his friends and family. In fact, he maintained two Facebook identities, separating his politically active account from his personal network. Being at the protest gave him a sense of solidarity, an affirmation of his own political views. He knew nothing would come of it, but it was personally important for him to be here.

In the Philippine demonstrations, I see an interesting contrast and parallel to the protests in my home city of Chennai last month, against a court order imposing a ban on a traditional bull-taming sport. Unlike the polarized air around Manila, the week-long uprising of tens of thousands in Chennai was almost unanimous. The protest merely served the trigger for other simmering practical and ideological frustrations of a people who have in recent times felt a denial of their Tamil identity, have felt overlooked in the national discourse, and who found themselves without strong political leadership in the state. It is a politicized collective identity that was a key driver of participation.

6. Laoag City, April 2017.

At the Laoag Airport, in the pre-boarding area, alongside a life-size cutout of a smiling President Duterte, is a rack of pamphlets. Amidst colorful informational pamphlets on health and insurance, a promotional government pamphlet proclaiming #PilipinasTayo (Filipino for “We are the Philippines”), catches my eye and provokes thought.

Pages 4 and 1 of the pamphlet.
“A government for every Filipino”, says the first page, alongside an image of a clenched fist, Duterte’s signature salute, and slogans of the government’s vision:

“Real change. This is the direction of our government!
Real change. That is the goal of our government!”
- Chief Duterte

Uplifting the life of every citizen,
effective and clean government service,
true and lasting peace,
and social order.

Pages 2 and 3 state the government’s achievements and its roadmap towards ‘Ambition 2040’. (Among others, it mentions PHP 8 billion worth of drugs confiscated; a reduction in the crime rate; PHP 400 million offered in assistance to Overseas Foreign Workers in the Middle East; extended Driver’s License validity to 5 years; ceasefire between the government and communist rebel forces.)

It strikes me how the government has managed to concertedly project an aura of good governance and efficiency in the country. This pamphlet is but one example of that.

It also brings me to think about an oft-used term in the context of the Duterte administration, with its vigilante war on drugs and the authoritarian “Davao model” -- populism. The year has been rife with discussions about the rise of populist leaders world over, across the political spectrum. Closer to home, the various government schemes in my home state, Tamil Nadu -- be it free bicycles for girl students, highly subsidized public meal canteens, or free kitchen appliances to every household -- have, over the years, usually been labelled populist in the popular press.

The word seems to take a pejorative connotation, as if entertaining a ‘populist’ idea can only be a reactionary, temperamental response, requiring the suspension of logic. But examining the decision-making of the supporters of populism, I can’t help thinking one is likely to find rationale. The preferences of populist supporters may be different (e.g. valuing the practicalities of public order over law, as in the Philippine case), but their decision-making is likely internally consistent. And to a people faced with inefficient public institutions, the practical appeal of a president perceived as a doer, overriding other considerations, cannot be dismissed.

Work Cited

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Duke University Press.