The Role of NGOs in Strengthening Democracy
Cape Town, South Africa
May 29, 1996
Last February, the Filipino nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of the EDSA People Power revolution. It seems like only yesterday when throngs of Filipinos nationwide trooped to the streets to demand for the return of what was rightfully theirs: freedom.
The snap presidential elections that preceded the 1986 EDSA revolution showed us in so many ways how unfree, how oppressed we were as a people. We did not even have the freedom to choose our leaders, to vote in clean elections, and to have our votes counted fairly.
But if we were oppressed, we would not be repressed. Throughout the Marcos regime, the flame of liberty burned in the hearts of our people. When the occasion called for us to scatter some sparks, we did, and this way, the fire spread throughout the land.
In February 1986, when our people rose as one in protest over the dictator's attempt to steal the elections from us, we were ready to spark a conflagration. But, something happened that we did not expect. Instead of harsh words produced by frayed nerves, we were soothed by the power of prayer. And although there was much military hardware and firepower displayed, no guns or cannons were fired. And the expected holocaust turned instead into a tableau of love and peace.
This was the way we ended 20 years of tyranny in my country, the last 14 years of which were years of absolute autocracy under Martial Law. The world stopped to applaud our unique revolution, our generosity as a people, to have caused such a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
There were those who said we had it too easy. Other peoples who have fought similar struggles for freedom paid for it with a much higher price. They endured long civil wars, deep cleavages in society, lives lost, and families and their economy shattered by a state of continuing strife. We, on the other hand, had what the foreign media called a party, a fiesta, a miracle.
Very soon after, we realized that the people power revolution at EDSA was only the beginning of painful years ahead when we would have to rebuild our democracy from the ravages of the dictatorship. We experienced the trauma of seven coup attempts by some ambitious and self-serving members of our armed forces. We saw our efforts at rebuilding our economy set back by this adventurism, shattering our people's hopes for an early recovery from poverty and want.
We also saw how, after the unity we achieved at EDSA, we Filipinos remained divided as a people in our vision of peace and freedom. How we wrangled over the definitions of terms such as democracy, human rights, social justice, peace negotiations, agrarian reform, debt service, sovereignty!
We learned the hard way that it was not enough to have fought for our freedoms during the dictatorship and at EDSA. We have had to nurture these freedoms, and protect them from those who would misuse and abuse them, and extend them to every Filipino. And we had to convert this freedom into concrete gains for our people such as political stability and economic development. Luckily, in these tasks, we had a lot of help.
The flowering of NGOs
One of the healthy developments in my country after EDSA was the flowering of civil society through non-governmental organizations and people's organizations. NGOs and POs lost no time getting organized and organizing the people for political and economic empowerment. Using the new democratic space, they strengthened political awareness, pushed government to be more pro-people, and presented us with their agenda for development.
After the revolution, NGOs sprouted in the Philippines like mushrooms in the thunderstorm. From the social and political movements which operated often clandestinely during the dictatorship, we saw the blossoming of NGOs of every stripe and color and for every issue under the sun.
We did not always agree with their world view but we welcomed the fact that many of the more prominent NGOs were actually peaceful initiatives of groups which once advocated and worked for an armed overthrow of the government. In effect, by working in the open, they converted their guns into plowshares. They were willing to give our government a chance to prove that it was up to the job of delivering on the needed democratic reforms.
Government itself acknowledged the role of NGOs in organizing and mobilizing the popular forces during the struggle against the dictatorship and was open and receptive to them. Our Constitution reflected this acceptance by defining the relationship between government to NGOs in its State Policies:
"The State shall encourage non-governmental, community-based, or sectoral organizations that promote the welfare of the people.”
In another key provision, on Social Justice and Human Rights, the Charter defined people's organizations and spelled out their role and rights in a democratic society:
"Sec. 15. The State shall respect the role of independent people's organizations to enable the people to pursue and protect, within the democratic framework, their legitimate and collective interests through peaceful and lawful means.
"People's organizations are bona fide associations of citizens with demonstrated capacity to promote the public interest and with identifiable leadership, membership and structure.
"Sec. 16. The right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political, and economic decision-making shall not be abridged. The State shall, by law, facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms."
Thus were the doors opened for dialogues and cooperation between government and NGO. As President, I initiated consultations with NGOs, regarding them as our partners in the restoration of democracy, and directed other agencies of government to do the same. The Departments of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources established a working relationship with their counterparts in the NGO community. The Departments of Health and Social Welfare and Development forged programs of cooperation with health NGOs. The Department of Education went into partnership with NGO's in their school-building program. The military opened up dialogues with NGOs on festering issues like human rights violations and the conduct of our counter-insurgency operations.
We formalized the people's participation in governance through administrative orders and other issuances inviting NGOs to sit in various councils and committees created by the Executive branch. We created liaison offices in government agencies for NGO matters.
In the legislature, mainly through the lobbying of NGOs and their constituents, laws were enacted institutionalizing the role of NGOs in governance in accordance with the Constitution, such as the Local Government Code, the Urban Development and Housing Act, and the Women in Development and Nation Building Act.
The Kabisig Movement
As President, I pondered on how to strengthen our democracy by using the means we had on hand. Economic progress would depend on external factors, such as foreign investments and foreign credit. But there was a way to strengthen our democracy that was within our reach – through people empowerment. As my government came into power, on the shoulders of the people, so would my government function, shoulder-to-shoulder with the people.
I wanted to give the people more than periodic elections to be able to exercise their power. I wanted the people to be active stakeholders in government, helping refine government policies with their insights, and acting as partners in reaching economic development.
Moreover, the organized participation of the people in daily governance would provide government the stabilizing element that it needs. The active involvement of people in government could lend the proper direction and continuity to government policies as administrations change, and different political parties take power. The NGOs and the people's organizations would be key players, in this vision.
These ideas of people empowerment through partnership between government and NGOs and POs were embodied in the Kabisig movement, which I launched during my presidency. "Kabisig" is the Filipino word for arm-in-arm, which is how our people, during the dark days of martial law, faced the truncheons, water cannons, even the automatic gunfire of the dictator. Through Kabisig, government and NGOs found common cause, especially in helping the poorest of the poor rise from their poverty through livelihood projects, cooperative savings funds, and scholarships for bright and deserving youth. Sometimes, government linked NGOs and POs to get a job done. But always we worked in tandem or in groups, to find a creative way to solve a problem, arm-in-arm, the Kabisig way.
I am happy to report that my successor, President Ramos, has kept faith with the spirit of Kabisig. His is a government of constant consultation with the NGOs and their constituents, on every issue from the peace process to criminality, from agrarian reform to the rise in oil prices, from the role of women in society to urban land reform. With the NGOs, his government has fashioned a Social Reform Agenda, which is his blueprint for a lasting peace in the land through an integrated program of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.
The Benigno S. Aquino Foundation
After I left the Presidency in 1992, it was inevitable that I too would get into the NGO world. The Benigno S. Aquino Foundation (BSAF) which we established in 1983 after the assassination of my husband, went into full swing as an NGO. In the Kabisig mode, we chose to work first with the women of my home province of Tarlac who needed away to economic empowerment. We also worked with the victims of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in resettlement areas in these provinces, helping them dig deep wells for their water supply. We worked with deserving high school students, providing them with scholarships to pursue further studies in good colleges and universities around the country.
Our main involvement, however, has been in cooperatives development. When I was President, I realized the potential of cooperatives as a way toward hastening improvements in the quality of people's lives. I was excited by the idea of communities working in partnership by pooling their resources and talents toward shared prosperity. This was people power in action and I wanted to be a part of it.
So the BSAF, through its Institute for People Power and Development (IPPD), began looking into cooperative movements around the country. Over the past three, years, we have documented the successes and failures of these movements in different parts of the country. The lessons learned by thriving cooperatives are made available by the IPPD to other coops and groups setting up similar initiatives.
Besides the valuable information we are making available, we also extend financial and technical assistance to co-ops. We have organized a strategic planning and research center which documents and shares information, processes and technologies to help develop people's enterprises according to the principles of cooperativism. The center assists cooperatives in implementing their plans and projects, and convenes local NGOs, people's organizations, the private and government sectors and international institutions to participate in the delivery of coordinated support services.
The growth of NGOs is one of the safeguards of a democracy. The better empowered the people are, the safer is the democracy that they helped re-establish, the more difficult it will be for any would-be despot to succeed in grabbing power and establishing another dictatorship.
We in the Philippines learned from the lessons of martial law that we cannot dissociate political issues from other social and economic concerns. We know that a people who are afraid cannot develop to their fullest potential. Only in the full light of democracy and freedom can we hope to develop a society that is just and fair. And only if every member of society is empowered can this be ensured.