When Newly Empowered Leaders of the Poor Run in Local Elections

Following up on our Making All Voices Count research, a look at how a newly-trained community leader engaged in recent local elections in the Philippines.

(Header: Inside a barangay hall, the seat of the lowest administrative unit in the Philippines. The country elected barangay (village) officials after five years and multiple postponements. Credit: Selva Swetha A.R.).

After two years of postponements and uncertainty, local elections were finally held in the Philippines last week. Amidst violence and high emotions, Filipinos cast their votes on May 14th to elect local officials in the country’s approximately 42,000 villages (barangays). Each barangay is governed by a ten-member council, consisting of seven elected councillors (the kagawad), an appointed secretary and treasurer, and an elected chief executive (kapitan/captain). Although supposedly non-partisan, village-level elections in the Philippines are important for grassroots political organization, especially with midterm elections set for 2019.

As results were declared midweek, “Grace” (pseudonym) found out she had fallen short of becoming a barangay councillor by a mere four votes. Grace is among the ‘poorest of the poor’ in the Philippines, representing the bottom 20% of households by income, and is a beneficiary of the national government’s conditional cash transfer program. She is also a ‘Parent Leader’, elected by her fellow cash transfer beneficiaries to serve as a liaison between the community and the implementing government agency.

As a Parent Leader, Grace was part of a civic leadership training program in her municipality implemented by a coalition of local civil society organizations led by the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG), Responsible Citizens, Empowered Communities in Solidarity for Social Change (RECITE, Inc.), and Partnership for Transparency Fund. MIT GOV/LAB collaborated with this project consortium to undertake research, including a field experiment. Through the eleven-month program, Grace and many of her fellow Parent Leaders honed and practiced their skills in grassroots mobilization, public speaking, organizing, and enhanced their knowledge of civic rights and duties.

From civic training to real-world engagement

After the start of the program, Grace began to speak up in the barangay assemblies (semi-annual village town hall meetings). In 2016, she expressed the need for the construction of a road in her flood-prone barangay, where landslides were recurrent during the rainy season. In 2017, the barangay captain invited her to join the Barangay Development Council, a 15-member group of barangay officials and representatives of citizen groups, to provide input on budgetary project priorities. This was significant, as the captain recognized the cash transfer beneficiaries as an organized citizen group, and Grace as their leader.

Grace’s initiative and persistence resulted in the approval of her proposed road project. Road construction began in July 2017, under the close monitoring of Grace and a small group of her fellow beneficiaries. In a more recent Barangay Development Council meeting, Grace raised the issue of the community not having a Barangay Health Station, which was affecting compliance with a requirement of the cash transfer program: that beneficiary households bring pregnant women and children for regular check-ups. Currently, travel to the municipal headquarters for the mandated monthly health check-up cost 140-200 pesos (USD $7-10), a princely 28-40% of their monthly cash grant.

In January 2018, the barangay captain appointed her Barangay Human Resource Officer, in which capacity, she would, among other tasks, report on and endorse affected parties in barangay disputes. The captain then invited her to run under his slate for the barangay council (kagawad) in the May 2018 barangay elections.

Initially, Grace declined the suggestion, “I said, we are not allowed, as a [cash transfer] beneficiary.” She later learned there was no such restriction, but remained hesitant, “I prefer supporting the chairman [captain] instead of running. It is difficult to deal with people here.” But she expected there would eventually be some pressure to get involved, “They know the 30 [cash transfer beneficiary] members in my group can be influenced by my vote.” Eventually the captain convinced Grace to run in the election.

Navigating systems of patronage

Local elections and Grace’s experience are occurring as MIT GOV/LAB is working on the final leg of analysis of data from the project. The civic leadership training program in which Grace participated was designed to build the capacity of poor community leaders as ‘facilitators for change’ who can better represent the interests of the poor in barangay governance. But in a context where patronage and clientelism are pervasive, one question was whether as an unintended consequence, newly trained community leaders may become attractive for co-option by local politicians, who seek to use them for their own political gain.

Grace's story suggests the training program may have raised her profile to local politicians, who saw her as a potential mobilizer of votes. On the other hand, so far, she has used her position of influence to successfully advocate for the concerns of her fellow beneficiaries. Our research collaboration with the program's implementers explores the extent to which it may have resulted in both of these phenomena - co-option and representation.

We don’t yet know how widespread Grace’s experience is, or what the implications of electoral mobilization are for representation. While we did some research on the program, because the elections were repeatedly postponed we were unable to investigate the question of electoral co-option directly. Instead we focused on the program’s effects on non-electoral political participation and government responsiveness. These initial results were presented to and discussed with partners and stakeholders at a results workshop we convened.

Collaborating with partners

Following the publication of high-level results with Making All Voices Count, we convened a two-day workshop of project partners in Baguio City, Philippines. Our lead collaborators CCAGG, RECITE, PTF, and their implementing local civil society partners (see complete partner list below), training facilitators, and some local researchers working in the civic engagement space participated. As we presented results, and began to unpack the measurement of and implications of each outcome, our partners shared how the results agreed (or, at times, disagreed) with their experiences from the ground.

The team of partners at the research results workshop in Baguio City, Philippines. Partners include Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG), Responsible Citizens, Empowered Communities in Solidarity for Social Change (RECITE, Inc.), and Partnership for Transparency Fund (Asia); and their local civil society partners, Caritas Nueva Segovia; Diocese of Urdaneta, Kataguwan Center, Inc., North Luzon Pastors and Baptist Pastors and Preachers Fellowship; Molte Aires International Foundation, Inc.; and Project 101 Incorporated.

Our high-level results indicated the program succeeded in increasing political engagement and knowledge of the newly trained leaders. Though we found no evidence of attempted co-option, the postponement of local elections (originally scheduled to take place during the study period) made this difficult to assess.

At the workshop, insights from our partners helped give life to the data, painting a fuller picture of why we might be observing such an outcome, enriching our understanding of the results, and contributing deeper insight into the causal mechanisms underpinning them. The partners welcomed the opportunity to work through and discuss the results reported. We also had an opportunity to present results to the project’s stakeholders at the end-of-project meeting convened in Manila by the lead partners, where the audience included officials from national government agencies. Stakeholders appreciated the value of independent academic research on their civic leadership program, and expected the evidence to be valuable starting points of conversation towards its scale-up.

Cover of our Making All Voices Count Research Report.

Now we have an opportunity study the program’s effects on electoral co-option more directly. It will be interesting to follow the political engagement of "Grace" and others like her who ran (and also won) in these barangay elections. Was their engagement in the elections attempted co-option by barangay officials? To what extent was their candidature personally motivated, versus due to the insistence of barangay officials who recognized their potential for garnering votes among their cash transfer beneficiary groups? Among those who succeeded in being elected, to what extent will they continue to advocate for the interests of their fellow citizens, and hold higher barangay officials accountable? Do they become less critical of barangay government? These are a few questions to cast more light on.

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Featured research project: http://www.mitgovlab.org/projects/better-together-examining-the-effect-of-civic-education-for-local-officials-citizens-in-the-philippines/

Featured results: Lily L. Tsai, Nina McMurry and Swetha Rajeswaran (2018). The effect of civic leadership training on citizen engagement and government responsiveness: experimental evidence from the Philippines. Making All Voices Count Research Report, Brighton: IDS. Available online.