Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's.
Cebu (CNN Philippines Life) — In a hotel at the heart of Cebu City sit 30 or so individuals from all over the Philippines — advocates, government officials, rights workers — discussing how best to unify efforts against what they see as a collective stampdown on transparency, accountability, and participation in the Philippines.
It’s a heavy topic to discuss in the heat of the tropical summer, but there is fire in the way the participants discuss the topic at hand. The context, after all, is an administration pillaged with accusations of extrajudicial killings as it conducts its bloody drug war. It is the same administration that saw dictator Ferdinand Marcos buried in, quite literally, the graveyard for heroes, and one where the public saw the president declare the Supreme Court Chief Justice his enemy, leading to a chain of events that unseated her from the highest court of the land.
It is an administration led by Rodrigo Duterte, labeled a strongman by Time magazine for his brand of authoritarian governance.
What can we do amidst these concerted efforts to strike down accountability? The people in the roundtable ask. What can we do against the overwhelming arrogance of power?
The suggestion, coming from Government Watch — an action-research organization embedded in various civic groups all over the Philippines — is to revive the power of social movements. Or more specifically: revive the movement-building approach, especially in light of a society that feels more divided and fragmented than ever.
“There is a desire to think through what we are doing,” says Joy Aceron, national convenor of Government Watch (or G-Watch). “Corruption and abuse of power are still rampant, if not worse, what with the extrajudicial killings, the question of effectivity of institutions.”
“Gumagana pa ba ang mekanismo ng accountability ng gobyerno o natatalo na ba ng partisan interest?” she asks. “We spend most of time doing work we love, but after so many years of doing it, with problems getting worse, there is a desire to revisit. Can this be through the movement approach? How do we transform and evolve ourselves so we can do more effective work?”
What do we talk about when we talk about accountability?
There is a lot to unpack when one attempts to discuss the Philippine transparency, participation, and accountability agenda (“TPA” in academic circles). The word ‘accountability’ — which means an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s action — does not lend itself to immediate understanding.
The definition might be simple, but the concept is not one easily grasped by Filipinos. The closest translation in Tagalog would be “pananagutan” but in the context of the popular Church hymn: “Walang sinuman ang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang / Walang sinuman ang namamatay para sa sarili lamang,” it goes.
In the roundtable at Cebu, there’s a vibrant discussion of accountability in various contexts. Is there such a concept embedded in local cultures? Or is it at times imagined?
“There is no direct translation of that word,” says Beverly Besmanos, Mindanao coordinator of Bantay Kita, a coalition of civil society organizations advocating for transparency and accountability in the extractive industry. Drawing from her experience with IP groups and mining, she says the concept might need further study and poses a challenge in her work. “Baka pilit, hindi part sa kultura, konsepto nila.”
“Baka anu-anong konsepto na ‘yung ginagawa natin, baka nakadadagdag lamang ng conflict,” she adds, playing devil’s advocate. “Meron ba talagang gustong maging transparent ang mining? Baka NGOs lang ‘yan.”
But accountability exists even in indigenous contexts; one just needs to find the local practice that corresponds to it, says Aceron. “Ang problema kasi is if you introduce language and insist that it is the solution, when engagement is the proper tool to use,” she says. “Not one solution or method can work all the time in all contexts.”
Aceron has been active in social accountability work for years. G-Watch was formerly housed in the Ateneo School of Government and established in 2000 “to respond to a plethora of corruption scandals involving government officials in the Philippines,” undertaking citizen monitoring initiatives in partnership with local civic- and advocacy-oriented groups in Bohol, Southern Leyte, Palawan, Negros Oriental, Quezon City, Agusan del Sur, Naga, and Davao, among many others.
Its network of allied groups now includes local organizations in Cebu, Tacloban, and Negros Occidental, plus national groups such as the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services (RIGHTS Network).
For many years, G-Watch has worked for the anti-corruption and accountability agenda by tracking and monitoring local service delivery, public expenditure, and procurement of public projects. It has helped monitor agricultural projects (San Miguel, Bohol), drug procurement (Dumaguete, Negros Oriental), and infrastructure projects (Maasin, Southern Leyte), among many others. On the national level, it has conducted Textbook Count, a successful initiative to curb corruption in textbook procurement via a comprehensive monitoring process from bidding to delivery.
But the group now sees the need to approach their work differently considering the times. There’s confusion, says Cindy Uy of the local G-Watch core group in Dumaguete, over what their roles are as citizens pushing for these monitoring efforts. Are they civil society organizations? Are they non-government organizations? Or are they merely part of a larger group altogether? They also need to overcome challenges what with the waning public participation in anti-corruption projects and strategic anti-accountability efforts at play.
Hence the approach to revive movement-building. Hence the need to remind people what a movement means. Hence the need to emphasize, says Francis Isaac, G-Watch knowledge and research development head, that not all social movements are progressive. “The social movement has been hijacked by non-progressive actors,” he says.
Hence the need to ask: “Para kanino tayo kumikilos? Sino ang pinaglalaban natin and para kanino tayo lumalaban?”
Movement-building for accountability
The plan is to take the elements of movement building — the variety of actions, the collective action for a common cause, the wide base of actors, among others — and use them to plot and inform future activities consistent with the anti-corruption agenda. Aceron and Isaac presented a tool called the ‘strategic accountability mapping matrix’ that exemplifies this approach, taking their cue from Jonathan Fox of the Accountability Research Center in Washington, D.C., who for years had studied something called ‘vertical integration.’
Vertical integration, according to Fox, “tries to address power imbalances by emphasizing the coordinated independent public oversight of public sector actors at local, subnational, national, and transnational levels.” Its aim is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, he adds, pointing to the need for civil society to monitor every stage and level of public sector decision-making, “to reveal more precisely not only where the main causes of accountability failures are located, but also their interconnected nature.”
Fox and Aceron’s matrix measures the methods and levels of constituency building needed in the barangay, municipal, provincial, national, and international levels. The same goes for actions that interface with the State. “It’s a good exercise to locate nasaan ang pwersa natin,” says Isaac, “at anong gawain ang ginagawa natin.”
Isaac and RIGHTS national coordinator Danny Carranza, in a 2017 study on multi-level accountability politics in land reform in the Bondoc peninsula, added a third dimension to the matrix: the need to map out the tactics of anti-accountability actors.
In the Bondoc Peninsula, “while the rural poor undertake various measures to pursue agrarian reform, their opponents are also involved in multiple-level actions to thwart land redistribution,” according to Isaac and Carranza. Since reform-seeking actors are likely to face opposition, “mapping anti-accountability forces … allows for a richer and deeper appreciation of the difficult power dynamics that play out in all citizen-led initiatives.”
All this point to the key for a successful accountability movement in the Philippines: the need for strategic thinking and wide discourse among those groups that essentially fight for the same rights and push for the same reforms. There’s a need to unite around the root cause, and not merely produce ripples of action around symptoms. It’s a tall order given the multitude of conflicts that have seemingly divided Filipinos, for one, and the inhospitable political regime, on another, that would rather have critics gathered in one boat to ‘attack China.’ (And that’s just the presidential spokesperson speaking.)
In the G-Watch national meeting, however, there is an effort to revive this strategic thinking and integrate it within the local core groups’ monitoring and coalition-building initiatives. The group includes a barangay kagawad from Quezon City and a Sangguniang Kabataan officer from Samal, Davao, both fresh from victory in the recent elections; a long-standing advocate for clean elections in Abra; the head of an anti-corruption group in North Cotabato; a worker for transparent business practices in mining based in Mindanao; a land rights advocate working across the country; and various advocates from Cebu, Tacloban, Metro Manila, Agusan del Sur, Southern Leyte, Palawan, among many others.
There isn’t a credible mass movement — yet — that presents itself as formidable force that can take the current government to account and push it to answer for its list of wrongs. That will take years of ground-up work and revisiting ties with allies, redefining constituencies and advocacies. Strategic movement-building is long, slow, and radical work.
A participant in the G-Watch national meeting summarizes it well. “Dapat malaman mo kung ano ang pinaglalaban at alam mo para kanino ka lumalaban. Dapat may sarili kang language. We will gather ulit ‘yung mga kasama namin dahil madaming inspirational na kwento na pwede i-share sa kanila,” says George Vasquez of the G-Watch Puerto Princesa core group. “May mga grupo na walang resources pero nakakagawa ng impact at nag-succeed. Kailangan din naming maghanap ng bagong rallying point.”
For now the seeds are planted and are given time to grow and bloom, as they should. “Inspirasyon [ito] sa isang panahon ng hiwalayan, tunggalian, away, at pananahimik ng karamihan,” says Renne Gumba of the Jesse M. Robredo Center for Good Governance in Naga.
Gumba sees the approach with hope. “Sabay din nito ‘yung hamon na madaming kailangang gawin. ‘Yung patuloy na pagsulong ng pangarap, sana bago tayo matapos sa henerasyong ito, maisulong ‘yung pangarap pa rin na magkaroon ng pamahalaan na may pananagutan sa mamamayan, at ‘yung mga mamamayan na may alam at kakahayahan makipagtrabaho sa pamahalaang iniupo nito.”
The new G-Watch has recently launched its first book, titled “Going Vertical: Citizen-Led Reform Campaigns in the Philippines.” Physical copies of the book will be available by July 2018, but an online copy is available through the G-Watch website.