Philippine NGOs: Defusing Dissent, Spurring ChangeBy Sonny Africa
The Philippines has one of the longest-running and reputedly among the largest and most active civil society movements in the developing world 1. Millions of Filipinos now participate in or are influenced by citizen-based organizations amid the right to assembly, free speech, a lively press, open elections and a market economy. Mirroring global trends over the last three decades, Philippine non-government organizations (NGOs) in particular have multiplied and expanded the range of their development activities.
The supposedly transformative potential of NGOs and of civil society in general should presumably be evident in the Philippines, if anywhere, but there is instead a disturbing lack of progress: still widespread poverty and severe inequality, entrenched vested interests in the economy, oligarchic and patronage politics, and tens of millions of Filipinos remaining disempowered with little real control over their economic and political lives. Underlying patterns of socioeconomic backwardness and elite rule persist even if increasingly overlaid with pro-people NGO and pro-democracy “civil society” features.
The Philippine experience highlights the possibilities but also the practical limits of NGOs as opposition to prevailing hegemonies. In the country's specific conditions and historical context the general tendency has been for NGOs to operate in accordance with prevailing political and economic arrangements rather than in sustained opposition to these. Whether consciously or inadvertently, they have aligned with the conservative political program of the established State rather than of progressive social movements challenging inequitable structures. This is notwithstanding a brief activist counter-current among NGOs mainly during the Martial Law interregnum.
The chapter begins by clarifying its notion of “NGOs” and tracking Philippine NGO trends over the last decades against the overall backdrop of so-called civil society and the country's major social forces. Particularly relevant is how NGOs increased in number, scope and participation in governance since the second half of the 1980s largely in line with the global neoliberal offensive instead of in resistance to this; this trend continues under the current Aquino government. This is followed by an overview of economic policies and poor development outcomes in the country to emphasize the persistent underdevelopment amid decades of NGOization. This discussion points to how NGOs helped create the political conditions for implementing neoliberal policies. Taking all these into consideration the chapter concludes with how NGOs as a whole can at most have only a subsidiary role in the struggle for fundamental social change.
NGOs and civil society in the Philippines
NGOs are part of a broader “civil society” in the Philippines that also includes people's organizations (POs), cooperatives, church groups, professional or business-related associations, academe and assorted other non-state and non-business organizations. From a social change perspective, NGOs and POs are particularly significant not just because development-oriented NGOs generally express links with POs in pursuit of their goals but because together they comprise the largest portion of politically active groups amongst this so-called civil society.
The term “NGO” is interpreted in many ways from the sweeping “non-government” understood literally to include everything outside of the official government machinery, to the more restricted and legalistic “non-stock, non-profit corporations,” to the most limited notion of only referring to expressly social development-oriented NGOs. For consistency this chapter uses “NGOs” to refer to non-government and non-profit organizations – regardless of funding source, ideology (or lack thereof), values and orientation – that provide development-related services to other groups, communities or individuals. This definition covers the likes of charity or welfare groups, social foundations set up by private business groups, as well as more ideologically-grounded activist NGOs. All these NGOs are generally staffed by more or less full-time “professional” NGO workers (as opposed to unpaid volunteer or part-time workers).
NGOs combine into different kinds of alliances, coalitions and networks. The Caucus of Development NGOs (CODE-NGO) is the Philippines' largest network of NGOs with a membership of some 2,000 and illustrates these diverse combinations. Among others CODE-NGO includes six national networks and six regional networks. The six national networks each have distinct identities: rural development (PHILDHRRA), urban development (PHILSSA), corporate members (PBSP), services for children and youth (NCSD), cooperatives (NATCCO) and an association of foundations (AF).2 The regional networks in turn respectively cover the country's Bicol, Cordillera, Eastern Visayas, Western Visayas, Central Visayas and Mindanao regions which are among the poorest areas in the country. There are also other permutations in NGO groupings such as the Council for People's Development and Governance (CPDG) which is a national network of NGOs and POs with programs on poverty alleviation, environmental protection, women, children, disaster risk reduction and aid effectiveness and democratic governance.
POs on the other hand are membership-based organizations of citizens coming together to advance their common/collective interests and welfare and are sometimes referred to as grassroots organizations or community-based organizations. Politically active POs are generally organized along class/sectoral lines (e.g. peasant organizations, trade unions, indigenous peoples, youth, overseas Filipino workers), gender (e.g. women), geographical proximity (e.g.. village, province) or some permutation or combination of these. Among the largest and most active Filipino POs are the peasant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), fisherfolk Pamalakaya, worker Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and women's group GABRIELA which are all national formations with local chapters. But there is also Migrante International which has country chapters of overseas Filipino workers around the world. POs can also come together under a multi-PO multi-sectoral umbrella such as the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN).
The Philippines has a reputation for having a “vibrant civil society”.3 Estimates of the number of civil society groups and of NGOs varies widely due to the lack of generally accepted definitions, inadequate monitoring and the fluidity of their operations. An NGO literature review gives an estimate of “between 249,000-497,000 [non-profit] organizations.4 The Asian Development Bank (ADB) similarly acknowledges “up to 500,000” civil society groups but specifies between 3,000-5,000 “development-oriented” NGOs among these.5 The World Bank (WB) on the other hand cites “an estimated 18,000 registered NGOs” in the country.6 The Philippine Council for NGO Certification (PCNC) mentions “as many as 60,000 non-profit, non-governmental organizations”. The most recent comprehensive study on the matter compiles figures from various sources and reports that the number of NGOs in the country is estimated to range from “between 15,000 and 30,000” to “around 34,000 to 68,000”.8
Regardless of the exact numbers the Philippine NGO sector is not insignificant – and apparently even relatively large compared to other countries – even as the biggest number of NGOs are apparently small with less than 25 staff and often struggle financially.9 Rough estimates of the number of NGO staff in the Philippines place these at around one percent (1%) of the total 37.2 million employed in 2011 (for comparison the public sector accounts for some 5% of total employment).10
There is no direct survey of the ideological tendencies underpinning the country's numerous NGOs but various indirect evidence supports the notion that only a minority are actively engaged in mass struggles with POs, national policy reforms, local government and related political activities. Indeed there is reason to suspect that their political views and levels of political engagement are so disparate that they have no qualitative impact as a whole beyond the mere sum of their incongruent parts.
Philippine NGOs chiefly implement projects and provide social development-related services to their chosen constituencies covering education, training and human resource development and community development.11 Taking the CODE-NGO network as an example, a survey of its members found these concentrated in education/training/human resource development (77% of NGOs surveyed), health/nutrition (44%) and enterprise/livelihood development (43%) versus, at the other end of the scale, agrarian reform (18%), urban poor (12%) and labor organizing (3%).12 While such a profile of activities does not necessarily mean political passiveness the bias towards welfare projects and income-generation is clear.
That result can also be read with how one of the few NGO surveys in the country found that “few NGO respondents implement asset reform programs” because they are “prone to conflict and therefore more difficult to implement” which indicates a tendency to avoid addressing important structural inequities that requires political activism.13 NGOs' choice of sectoral partners certainly leans towards non-controversial ones: children and youth (57% of respondents) and women (53%) versus peasants (35%), urban poor (33%) and labor (13%).14 Taken together these can be interpreted as indicating how Philippine NGOs are mainly about immediate service delivery rather than about long-term struggles mobilizing grassroots sectors against systemic inequities in resources and power.
This characterization is consistent with the results of a recent nationwide survey: while almost half of the population (46%) considered themselves active members of at least one civil society organization, only about a quarter (26%) considered themselves active members of at least one political organization and just 15% participated in political activities (understood merely as attending a demonstration, signing a petition or joining a boycott).15 The same survey also found that just some 5% and 10% of the population considered themselves active members of an NGO and PO, respectively, versus 34% for church or religious organizations, 10% for sports/recreational organizations and 6% for art, music or education organizations.16
It can be roughly estimated that there are perhaps only some hundreds or few thousand NGOs that are more activist in the sense of operating with a more consciously political framework and a self-definition as actively working for more profound social change. Increasing the political power of erstwhile disempowered sectors always figures strongly with such NGOs whether in the sense of being accumulated from the ground up through ever-expanding grassroots organizations or by working within state structures or via some combination of both. An example of this approach is the Council for Health and Development (CHD) which provides health services and sets up community-based health programs under a framework of the social determinants of health – or where ill health is rooted in structural poverty and not just the absence of health services. CHD thus also works closely with the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) which is a PO describing itself as “composed of individuals from the health sector who adhere to the principles of the Filipino people's struggle for sovereignty and democracy”.
The social development and service delivery orientation of NGOs results in a particularly significant characteristic with implications for how they operate as a sector: they are resource-intensive and dependent on external funding. They require continuous and sustained human, technical and financial resources to keep providing services to their chosen beneficiaries while, conversely, are chronically unable to generate substantial incomes in the normal course of their operations because their beneficiaries are poor communities and sectors. This makes them reliant on external subsidies and correspondingly vulnerable to the priorities, values and orientation of these external subsidizers.
As it is, Philippine NGOs' main sources of funding are foreign (on which 48% of NGOs primarily rely), corporate (12%) and government (10%) sources.17 The foreign sources could be Northern NGOs although a recent trend is for these Northern donors to themselves be tapping official funding in their home countries and hence being drawn into the foreign policy frameworks of their own governments. The European Union (EU) and individual European governments for instance have so-called co-financing arrangements where they fund European NGOs who in turn provide grants to NGO partners in the South according to priorities set by the official agencies which are the primary source of funds.18
Business groups have also become increasingly active in the NGO sector which further blurs the supposed civil society-market distinction. The Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) was set up in 1970 and describes itself as a corporate-led foundation of more than 240 member-companies pledging one percent (1%) of their companies' net income before taxes for poverty reduction and committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR); it reports having supported 6,200 projects with 3,300 organizations and 4.5 million beneficiaries in 65 provinces.19 Since 2000, PBSP has been the most organized expression of the business sector's support for the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There is also the League of Corporate Foundations which has been growing in number from around 60 members in 2005 to over 80 in 2010 which reflects both their access to corporate financial resources as well as the CSR trend.20
The nature of NGO funding sources and the corresponding process of fund-raising is potentially problematic where NGOs will be predisposed, consciously or unconsciously, to functioning within the political and economic spaces acceptable to the State and private enterprises that sponsor them – else these discretionary funds would just go to other NGOs who share the development paradigm espoused by government and big business. The reality is that organizations with the financial resources to spare for NGOs will generally be conservative and will not be inclined to be counter-hegemonic. Diverse funding sources with respective priorities and requirements will also tend to aggravate the fragmentation of NGOs who are already extremely diverse as it is in terms of lines of work and political orientation.
The chronic backwardness and underdevelopment in the country are conditions for the rise of radical alternatives outside the more accustomed forms of civil society and NGO social action. The mainstream Left in the Philippines – referring to the “national democrats” which still compose the largest and most organized Left formation in the country – is meaningful for remaining resilient in the face of “end of history” triumphalism. This bloc continues to work on the basis of an understanding of the structural problems of the country and the crisis of capitalism. It correspondingly still gives primacy to working class politics as the building blocks for wider social change which means a much greater emphasis on ideological work and organizing peasants, workers, national minorities and other oppressed groups into POs towards claiming political power rather than on service NGOs.
It is also important to emphasize that the conventional categorization of social forces being split into State, market and civil society is particularly inappropriate in the Philippine context which has armed revolutionary movements going back for at least four decades. The influence of these movements includes parallel governance structures in large portions of the country's territory.21 The biggest and most important are the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP) that operates in 70 of 79 provinces across the country, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (MILF-BIAF) which is active in 14 provinces in the southern Philippines.22 These radical alternatives are objectively the strongest counterpoint to neocolonialism and capitalism in the country.
The CPP decries the “semicolonial and semifeudal” character of present-day Philippine society in which the Filipino people suffer from “foreign and feudal domination”.23 It declares that it is waging a “national democratic revolution” which, upon victory, will proceed to the “socialist revolution”. The integral components of its “protracted people's war” are explicit: “revolutionary armed struggle, land reform and mass-base building”. The CPP categorically opposes neoliberalism as imperialist globalization. The MILF's struggle on the other hand asserts political and military control over territories in Mindanao based on a legacy of protecting the ancestral domains of Moro sultanates there. The Moro struggle espouses the right to self-determination and the creation of an independent Bangsamoro homeland.
Historical sketch of Philippine NGOs
The Philippines has a long history of civil society organizations dating back to at least 19 century Spanish colonial times and early 20th century American colonization covering various church welfare groups, charities, cooperatives, anti-colonial/pro-independence resistance, peasant and labor groups, and other service groups.24 In terms of NGOs, the years immediately after the Second World War saw more welfare and civic organizations formed for post-war relief and rehabilitation for poor communities; many of these focused on children, the elderly and persons with disabilities. In the late 1940s and early 1950s some community development NGOs were set up in perceived Communist-influenced areas in the country's Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and Bicol regions to provide health, education and cooperative services and undercut support for the armed struggle.25 Among the most prominent anti-Communist NGOs set up in this period were the Jesuit-organized Institute for Social Order (ISO) in 1947 and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) in 1952. The early 1960s saw the start of family, corporate, and scientific foundations in the country.26
The contemporary history of civil society and NGOs in the Philippines however can be said to have begun during the Marcos regime from the late 1960s and especially upon Martial Law in the 1970s. While most NGOs remained characteristically welfare-oriented and non-activist social development organizations, a visible sub-section of progressive NGOs emerged in the 1970s and 1980s which did not just implement the usual socioeconomic and welfare projects but also widely propagandized and organized resistance to the regime in close coordination with POs. The external conditions were set by how revolutionary and anti-imperialist social movements were surging abroad and how the Catholic and Protestant churches adopted more socially progressive orientations after, respectively, Vatican II and exhortations by the World Council of Churches (WCC). Under this influence Filipino church-based NGOs became an important beachhead for the expansion of anti-dictatorship NGOs and POs.
Further momentum came from how the Filipino radical Left at the time did not just wage armed revolt but also underpinned legal aboveground opposition through civil society including NGOs. This period saw the mobilization of wide swathes of the population from the lower to the upper classes which combined with the Communist and Moro armed struggles to weaken and eventually overthrow the Marcos regime. Particularly notable and with implications until this day is how these Left-driven NGO and PO efforts were often expressly couched in terms of a larger struggle for systemic change which injected an activist dynamism and degree of counter-hegemonic ideology in generally conservative civil society and the public in general. For instance, the community-based health programs (CBHPs) set up by the religious Sisters of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) were explicit in their orientation: “The underlying causes of health problems in society are deeply embedded in the social, economic and political structures… The CBHP is [not] the answer to all health problems, but serves as a means to initiate social transformation.”27 The important role peasant- and trade union-linked NGOs and POs played in expanding political opposition to the dictatorship and even in supporting the armed struggles exemplifies their mobilizing potential. The late 1970s also saw innovations towards environmental, indigenous peoples, women, and migrant workers' issues and even cultural work.
But this was in the specific historical circumstances of Martial Law, an overt dictatorship and a single dominant channel – the radical Left which gave primacy to mass-based POs organized along class lines – to give vent to the impulse for change. The 1986 “People Power” uprising was quickly hailed as some kind of model for a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It was also widely interpreted even in sections of radical Leftist circles as changing the nature of the Philippine state into one more pliable to social and economic reforms such as upon the influence of NGOs, POs and civil society in general. Indeed this was among the major orientational fault lines causing a split within the Communist Left between those who affirmed a “protracted people's war” strategy and those who entertained other paths to social and political change including, among others, more actively engaging the government to implement reforms in a process of gradual transforming the current elite democracy into a more participatory democracy.28
That premise of a more pliable State dovetailed with the emerging neoliberal governance paradigm of civil society as remedying authoritarianism, improving transparency and accountability, and leading to equitable economic development. Together they impelled the emergence of a systematic framework in the Philippines for NGOs to engage and participate in, rather than contest, the state.
This governance concept advanced on two fronts since the mid-1980s. From the foreign side, the United Nations (UN), international financial institutions (IFIs) and virtually every major government with neoliberal foreign policy objectives started promoting this notion. NGOs were portrayed as more deeply embedded in communities, innovative, cost effective and development-oriented than government agencies.
IFIs institutionalized mechanisms to engage civil society organizations (CSO) and NGOs. The case of the World Bank (WB) and ADB which are among the Philippines' biggest sources of official development aid is illustrative. The WB reports that “active CSO involvement” in its global operations has risen steadily “from 21% of the total number of projects in 1990 to 82% in 2009” and that “civil society participation occurs throughout the project cycle from the design and planning stages, to implementation and monitoring.”29 It also reports “civil society engagement in 75% of its loans, 87% of country assistance strategies, and 100% of poverty reduction strategy papers in the period 2007-2009”.30 The ADB in turn reports that 81% of its approved loans, grants and related technical assistance today included some form of CSO participation31; in 1990, only 5% of ADB loan approvals “involved NGOs directly in some manner”.32
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw tens of millions of dollars in overseas funding going to NGOs through various windows. Among others the WB gave a US$20 million “biodiversity conservation grant” for the NGOs for Integrated Protected Areas (NIPAS) program and access to its Small Grants Fund. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had a US$25 million debt-for-nature arrangement with the Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE) in 1993 aside from over US$30 million for co-financing NGOs in the period 1989-1996. The Canadian government gave US$15.3 million for the Diwata project and the Philippine Development Assistance Program (PDAP), the Swiss government gave US$25 million for the Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc. (FSSI) and so on.
On the domestic front, consecutive post-Marcos administrations built up institutional mechanisms for working with NGOs that established a framework for their participation in governance. The Corazon Aquino government (1986-1992) enshrined the role of NGOs and POs in Philippine development in three articles of the 1987 Constitution. Civil society was also formally given a role in local governance through the Local Government Code of 1991 which created local development councils that must include NGOs and POs (composing a quarter of its members) and gave NGOs positions in local school boards, health boards, peace and order councils, law enforcement boards, and procurement committees. NGO/PO liaison desks were also set up in the government's departments of agrarian reform, environment and natural resources and health.
The Ramos government (1992-1998) set up a National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) with formal NGO representation, organized a series of multisectoral summits on NGO issues such as the environment, poverty, food, water and peace, and drew up a Social Reform Agenda (SRA) comprehensively covering NGO concerns. CSOs were given spots in the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) which was actively used to coordinate work between these two branches of government. The Estrada (1998-2001), Arroyo (2001-2010) and Benigno Aquino, III (2010- ) governments did not introduce anything substantially new relative to NGOs but built on those previous efforts and further institutionalized them.
It is also notable that this series of administrations gave rising numbers of government positions to NGO leaders with long histories of political activism.33 These included Cabinet-rank positions in agrarian reform, social welfare, education, health, housing, peace and others aside from various national and regional posts.34 These NGO leaders kept their ties with NGOs and POs which served as important means by which to bring civil society on board in official programs and projects and hence give substance to the NGO/PO-related institutional mechanisms being put in place. NGOs were particularly visible in the implementation of agrarian reform communities, health service devolution, housing projects, environmental projects and indigenous people's programs.
NGOs apparently also financially benefited from such ties. A prominent controversy in this regard was in 2001 when CODE-NGO was accused of using its influence to make a government flotation of Treasury bonds more profitable in favour of a specific purchaser for which it received a large Php1.5 billion (US$29 million at prevailing exchange rates) commission for zero cash outlay. This was around the time that key CODE-NGO leaders held the top positions in the government's social welfare department, anti-poverty commission, urban poor commission, civil service commission and presidential management staff (aside from the CODE-NGO chair being the sister of the finance secretary).
The neoliberal governance paradigm, Philippine government civil society mechanisms, and greater NGO openness to work with government were conditions for the proliferation of NGOs in the post-Marcos dictatorship era and by one estimate the number of NGOs increased from an estimated 5,000 in 1986 to over 15,000 by the end of the decade.35
But it was not only that new NGOs were being formed – even erstwhile protest or activist NGOs were shifting towards socioeconomic programs and participating in government or official aid programs. There was a financial dynamic underpinning this. During the Marcos regime anti-dictatorship NGOs were able to access foreign funding from politically-sympathetic international NGOs, church-based funding agencies, solidarity groups and even political parties. This type of funding dried up upon the “democratic space” of the Corazon Aquino government – often replaced by official government sources – and the demand was increasingly for so-called concrete or tangible gains that were not always compatible with the priorities of NGOs seeking structural change.
Indeed there was also an ideological dynamic. Left-leaning groups that eschewed armed struggle replaced this with, in effect, an approach of seeking an accumulation of social, political and economic changes through alliances with perceived reformist wings of the local bourgeoisie and landlords as well as through electoral victories.36 Mass-based organizations are still invoked as the axis of struggles but these are not developed as units of democratic political power for eventually replacing the State but rather as vital points of leverage with which to modify the functioning of the existing elite-dominated State. This trend arguably also reduced the activism and militancy of the portion of the country's social movement that relied on these NGOs for intellectual direction and that correspondingly also bought into the poverty alleviation, sustainable development, participatory democracy and good governance agenda.
In any case it is clear that NGOization in the Philippines was mainly upon the initiative and according to the terms set by the government and international agencies which goes far in explaining the inherently conservative tendencies of NGOs as a whole. It can also be put forward that the way NGOization has developed has created tendencies toward political demobilization and atomistic communities. First is how accepting domestic or foreign official funding could, even inadvertently, diminish NGO independence and their taking up systemic concerns. Second is how NGOs may find themselves entangled in the intrinsic bureaucracies of government or official agencies which further strains their already scarce resources and attention. Third is how the communities the NGOs service may themselves get caught up in a reactionary fund-driven dynamic where they become preoccupied with short-term material benefits and disinclined towards the painstaking efforts needed for structural change and longer-lasting gains; the bias moreover is for self-help rather than farther-reaching collective efforts. This is reinforced by how the immediate gains from externally-funded NGO projects and mechanisms will often surpass those from merely internally-financed but collective efforts. And fourth is how competition for finite funding even means that NGOs, and communities, are in effect competing with each other for this.
Developments during the current administration of Pres. Benigno Aquino III which came to power in mid-2010 affirm the continuation of decades-long trends. Among the high-level positions going to NGO leaders are the social welfare department, national anti-poverty commission, human rights commission and presidential adviser for political affairs. The Akbayan Party which was formed by various NGO leaders – some of whom now hold Cabinet-level positions – is also in coalition with Pres. Aquino's traditional political party the Liberal Party.
The current government also shows how NGOs and community projects are used against challenges to the State. This phenomenon takes sharpest form in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) latest internal security plan for 2011-2016 Bayanihan.37 The plan declares taking a “Whole of Nation Approach [and] People-Centered Security/Human Security Approach” with “community-based peace and development efforts” as one of its four strategic concepts (the others being military operations, peace processes, and internal AFP reforms). “NGOs, POs and CSOs” are explicitly defined as responders astride the government's military and civilian agencies and are declared “indispensable [in filling the gaps] in the dispensation of tasks and functions of national government agencies and local government units.”38
The result is that NGOs are partners in the implementation of the PAMANA (Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan, or Peaceful and Prosperous Community) and KALAHI-CIDSS (Kapitbisig Laban sa Kahirapan [or Linking Arms Against Poverty]-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services) community development components of the AFP's counterinsurgency program. PAMANA is a tentatively Php90 billion (US$2.1 billion at current exchange rates) four-year program of cash transfers, livelihood projects, post-harvest facilities and road works in armed conflict areas; the WB-supported KALAHI-CIDSS is a smaller Php9.3 billion (US$216 million) program of community education, health, water, farming, access, electrification and environmental infrastructure projects.
On the face of it the projects are not undesirable and do meet real local needs. The overall motive becomes suspect though inasmuch as they are implemented selectively in armed conflict areas and in the absence of more far-reaching structural changes with longer-lasting benefits. At the local level, such changes could include speedy and free distribution of land to decisively break rural monopolies; at the national level there could be the reversal of destructive neoliberal policies implemented over decades.
The record of the military itself that NGOs are now working with remains questionable: the human rights group Karapatan reports that violations have continued with 64 extrajudicial killings and nine enforced disappearances so far under the new Aquino administration; the number of political prisoners continues to rise to 356 already. Rural communities continue to suffer forced evacuation due to combat operations with many thousands of families recently displaced from villages in Surigao del Sur, Negros Oriental, Davao Oriental, Agusan del Norte and North Cotabato. These give rise to criticisms that these projects with NGOs merely seek to undermine community support for the rebel groups and cover up for continuing rights abuses by the military.
The Aquino administration's flagship anti-poverty program also shows how NGOs can be used to make neoliberal policies more acceptable. Some 370 accredited NGOs are participating in a multi-year Php307 billion (US$7.1 billion at current exchange rates) WB- and ADB-supported Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme. Beneficiary families will receive cash grants of up Php15,000 (US$349) per year upon compliance with certain education and health conditions. However this relief for poor families is in the context of unreformed neoliberal economic policies that cause the poverty to begin with so the net effect is a temporary dole-out to mitigate the adverse social consequences of these policies and rationalize their continued implementation.
The affinity of CCTs to neoliberalism is evident. They are justified as 'efficient' in focusing on 'deserving poor', children are 'human capital' to be invested in for their future income-generating capacity, and the role of 'individual responsibility' in social poverty is overstressed – while the government is excused for privatizing essential social services because the welfare intervention has shifted to selective cash transfers.
It is worth mentioning that the protracted global crisis may have implications for civil society in general and NGOs in particular. There are two contradictory tendencies. On one hand, the crisis will strain the government funding and private resources that have so far been directed to NGOs in support of state-civil society interaction and “participatory democracy”.
NGOs as a whole have already been facing an increasingly difficult funding environment since the start of the 2000s. For instance, net official development assistance (ODA) loan commitments to the Philippines which has been a major source of funding for NGOs, directly and indirectly, has fallen by 24% between 2001 (US$13.2 billion) and 2010 (US$10.1 billion).39 There are no similarly precise figures for grant funding from Northern NGO donors to Philippine NGOs although the general consensus is that the global funding slump is well-reflected in the country which has driven many NGOs to seek alternative sources and even compete with other NGOs.40 NGO activities are unfortunately not self-sustaining and dependent on what is essentially discretionary funding and so could be among the first to suffer cutbacks in public and private sector budgets.
On the other hand, civil society and at least some NGOs may yet be encouraged as a countervailing force or social escape valve to undercut the further development of radical alternatives upon worsening social and economic conditions. It is also possible for government-aligned NGOs and POs to be used to justify the imposition of further neoliberal policy measures such as higher taxes ostensibly for state-provided social services and even outright austerity on public education, health and housing services.
Philippine neocolonialism and underdevelopment
NGOs and civil society are frequently construed as institutional mechanisms by which the poor, vulnerable and marginalized can empower themselves, improve their conditions and even challenge structural inequities and exploitation. An accounting of NGO projects, civil society efforts and community beneficiaries would doubtless show quantitative increases over the past decades. But notwithstanding such an aggregation, overall socioeconomic and political outcomes in the Philippines are consistent with just narrow and localized NGO gains amid more generalized social, economic and political disempowerment.
Civil society and NGOs have been absorbed into the margins of policy-making and implementation, especially their social welfare and social mobilization components, but the fundamental policies that truly define the economy and its arc remain in the hands of accustomed domestic and foreign power elites. The direction of development policy has not changed hence the persistence of poverty and backwardness.
NGOs have been increasingly involved in the formulation of the country's periodic medium-term development plans. Former president Ferdinand Marcos' 1978-1982 and 1983-1987 plans at most mentioned “participatory schemes for the broader base of society will be developed, principally through the rural cooperatives, barangay, and youth mobilization programs”.41 While NGOs rapidly grew under Pres. Corazon Aquino her 1987-1992 plan still only had a generic “All sectors of society, public or private, shall be consulted to the fullest extent to obtain their opinions and positions on matters related hereto”.42
By Pres. Fidel Ramos' 1993-1998 plan however the government declared: “The plan shall be formulated in close collaboration with other agencies of the executive branch, the legislative branch and private/non-government sectors.”43 Pres. Joseph Estrada's 1999-2004 plan went even further and said “Civil society will complement and possibly substitute for the efforts of government in areas where it is deemed more effective and efficient.”44 Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's 2004-2010 plan mentioned civil society and NGOs prominently in its chapters on environment and natural resources, housing, labor, anti-poverty, elections, peace process, national reconciliation, rule of law, science and technology, culture, anti-corruption, national security and constitutional reforms.45
Current Pres. Benigno Aquino, III came to power on a platform of “good governance” which is reflected in the overall thrust of its 2011-2016 plan.46 His plan declares: “A big part of the solution to the governance problem however lies outside government itself and involves the active participation of private business, civil society and the media… This gives “voice” to people, enables civil society and the media to become partners of government, and makes the government more responsive to the needs of citizens.” The plan was drawn up in close consultation with civil society and NGOs but remains thoroughgoingly neoliberal and proposes even more free market policies for the country.47
Economic outcomes have remained poor despite greater civil society and NGO participation and engagement in socioeconomic policy-making – in the periodic medium-term plans, in program and project implementation, in assorted consultative summits, in local government bodies, and actually holding high Cabinet positions.
The Philippines is the twelfth largest country in the world with its population of some 94 million. Though classified by the WB as a lower middle-income country it still ranks among the world's poorest by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at 131st out of 190 countries.48 In 2009, some 65 million or 70% of Filipinos lived off Php104 (US$2.20) or even much less per day.49 Inequality remains as bad as in the mid-1980s notwithstanding two-and-a-half decades of supposedly increasing democratization: the highest income 20% of the population corners over half of total family income (52%) while the remaining poorest 80% divide the leftover 48 percent. Strikingly, the net worth of the twenty-five richest Filipinos continues to rise and at Php1,021 billion in 2009 (US$21.4 billion) is almost equivalent to the combined annual income of the country's poorest fifty-five million Filipinos (Php1,029 billion).
Filipino producers have suffered under imperialist globalization policies that gave up trade protection and investment support, opened up the national economy, and integrated key sectors into the global economy. The share of manufacturing in the economy is as low as in the 1950s or half a century ago; the share of agriculture is down to the smallest in the country's history. This deprives millions of Filipinos of the opportunity for decent work, livelihoods and their means of subsistence. The period 2001-2010 was the worst decade of joblessness in the country's history with average annual unemployment of over 11% and underemployment of 19 percent – forcing some 9.5 million Filipinos, or roughly a tenth of the population, overseas for work.
The rural poor meanwhile still suffer backward agricultural systems and feudal relations.50 Despite decades of successive agrarian reform programs overseen by former NGO leaders over half of all farms and total farm area in the country remain under tenancy, lease, and other forms of tenurial arrangement (52%). Less than a third of landowners still own more than 80% of agricultural land. Half of all farms still rely on hand tools, ploughs and water buffalos and only 30% of the total farm area is irrigated.
If anything, the NGO language of alternative development has been used by the government to embellish its socioeconomic policies and bolster the notion that technical solutions to the intrinsic problems and contradictions of the system are possible and, indeed, can be initiated by the oligarchic state. The 2011-2016 Philippine development plan for instance talks about “human rights, cultural sensitivity, gender equality, people empowerment and sustainable development” and decries the “perennial condition of poverty, inequity and lagging human development” but seeks to solve this merely through “massive investment in physical infrastructure [and] transparent and responsive governance”.51
Political outcomes have likewise remained poor despite greater civil society and NGO participation and engagement in various aspects of democratic governance – civil society and the NGO sector has not just been active during national and local elections, including presidential elections, but have also formed new political parties and entered into coalitions with traditional ones. Major NGO networks and prominent leaders actively campaigned for or otherwise supported recent presidents.52
Yet political parties in the country still lack substance, the electoral system remains corrupted and shallow, key government positions remain in the hands of local elites, and the military establishment is still tasked to attack the most active democratic forces in the country (as shown in its record of human rights violations discussed above). This is not to say that traditional elites have not had to adjust to a situation where civil society and NGOs are marginally more prominent and engaged in governance than before – only that despite this situation their hold on power remains consolidated and unthreatened.
The most recent national elections in May 2010 for instance did not see a significant departure from the country's tradition of elected national and local leaders coming from the ranks of established structures of power and patronage. The popularly elected president hails from one of the country's oldest political and landlord families. The country's peasants, workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples and other marginalized sectors meanwhile remain grossly underrepresented in the elected government including the presidency, vice-presidency, Senate, House of Representatives, and local government units.
There is actually even violent resistance to political incursions by the Left at even just the congressional and local levels – it is telling of the rigidity and resistance of oligarchic rule that, as reported by rights group Karapatan, over 200 members of Left-leaning partylist groups have been assassinated in the last decade. The external features of democracy such as regular, high-turnout and citizen action-intensive elections coexist with deep social cleavages, economic backwardness and lack of real sovereignty.
It is also noteworthy that United States (US) “democracy promotion” – a key soft power instrument of the US for stabilizing the global capitalist order – has included support to Philippine NGOs across a wide range of “good governance” areas. These projects have spanned electoral processes, good governance, anti-corruption reforms, building the legal system, assisting law enforcement agencies, promoting a free press, local governance and decentralization.
All this has given domestic elite economics and politics a human face, more democratic flavour and development façade. Yet post-1986/Marcos dictatorship Philippine governments clearly retain their elite character and do not confront the powerful local and imperialist interests that benefit from unimplemented land reform, non-industrialization, wage repression and liberalization of trade, investment and finance. The last three decades of thriving NGOs and increasing state-civil society interaction in the country has seen continued implementation and deepening of neoliberal “free market” policies of imperialist globalization. The Ramos government for instance actively courted civil society, as discussed above, but this administration also saw the most extensive implementation of neoliberal policies of any post-Marcos government with liberalization of trade, investments, infrastructure, oil, telecommunications, airways, shipping, foreign exchange and banking. The current Aquino government in turn, despite the accumulated failures of neoliberal globalization globally and domestically, is set to push free market policies even further.
The Philippine experience over the last decades fits well with a view of neoliberalism as post-Cold War neocolonialism and imperialist domination: opening up markets to foreign plunder, consolidating capitalist market processes and structures, and promoting Western liberal democracy and free elections. The civil society and NGO trend has gained much traction in the course of the neoliberal policy offensive since the 1980s and especially after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Social forces in the country spanning the traditional to ideologically-driven counter-hegemonic movements have all seen opportunities in NGOs. NGOs have accordingly flourished and now provide services and even engage in portions of governance to an unprecedented degree. And yet the country remains deeply underdeveloped.
The Philippine experience with NGOs can be taken as showing their dual character in relation to social transformation. On one hand, they are vehicles for people to mobilize and act on issues and concerns beyond their immediate families and selves. They can potentially support larger struggles for political and economic change as well as deliver concrete benefits at the community level, as they notably did during the Marcos dictatorship. They have a progressive potential to spur change in this regard.
On the other hand, their service character predisposes them to seeking immediate and concrete gains which is not necessarily undesirable in itself but can have unintended adverse consequences. Two possibilities are particularly problematic. First, in terms of orientation, NGOs may give undue emphasis on parochial community concerns rather than real and sustained political engagement whose gains will only be realized over the long-term. Second, in terms of practice, the chronic need for the funding necessary to deliver services could cause undue reliance on conservative funding sources – such as governments and corporations – and result in a correspondingly conservative political stance. These could diffuse dissent to the extent that people are diverted from political struggles to NGOs or are reduced to merely seeking marginal benefits amid an enduring inequitable state of affairs.
The crucial element appears to be the extent to which there are genuinely mass-based initiatives, efforts and struggles outside of the unavoidably conformist framework that NGOs are predisposed to – as ever, mass-based organizations are the fundamental dynamic creating the foundations and setting the pace and direction of the overall struggle for social transformation. The challenge is for such organizations to be stronger, have deeper roots among the people, and be more engaged in ideological, political and economic struggles than NGOs whose gains are inherently limited and which can at most have only a subsidiary role.
The global crisis of capitalism is the most important economic feature affecting the Philippine situation in the coming period and aggravates the chronic domestic crisis of backwardness and underdevelopment. These create the overall conditions for an accelerated resurgence of social and mass movements struggling against entrenched foreign-backed domestic elites. Long-standing poverty and inequality can only worsen which will further underscore the structural nature of the problem.
The country fortunately remains the site of a vigorous Leftist urban and rural mass movement and of armed revolutionary struggles with embryonic political power in areas removed from government control. Those forces are the most effective counters to any reactionary influence by NGOs and civil society and are the most important means for ensuring that impulses for social reform, such as find expression in NGOs, are directed towards struggles for revolutionary change.###
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This article was originally published by Zed Books in NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects edited by Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher.
1 See Asian Development Bank (2007), “Civil Society Brief: Philippines”, ADB NGO and Civil Society Center, December 2007 and World Bank (2005), “Stocktaking of Social Accountability Initiatives in the Asia and Pacific Region”, The World Bank Institute – Community Empowerment and Social Inclusion Learning Program (CESI).
2 These are the Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (PHILDHRRA), Philippine Support Services Agencies (PHILSSA), Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), National Council for Social Development (NCSD), National Confederation of Cooperatives in the Philippines (NATCCO) and the Association of Foundations (AF).
3 This is how Philippine civil society is characterized in: USAID (2011), USAID in the Philippines: 50 Years of Partnership for Peace and Development, 2011; World Bank (2010), World Bank Country Assistance Strategy for the Philippines (FY 2010-2012); and Freedom House (2007), Countries at the Crossroads 2007: Country Report-Philippines, 2007,
4 Songco, D A (2007), “The Evolution of NGO Accountability Practices and their Implications on Philippine NGOs: A literature review and options paper for the Philippine Council for NGO Certification”.
5 ADB (2007), op cit.
6 World Bank (2012), “The Role of Non-Profit Organizations in Development: the Experience of the World Bank”, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTSOCIALDEVELOPMENT/EXTPCENG/0,,contentMDK:20507529~isCURL:Y~menuPK:1278313~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:410306,00.html, accessed February 1, 2012.
7 Philippine Council for NGO Certification (2011), “Philippine Council for NGO Certification: Background and Rationale”, http://www.pcnc.com.ph/bgandrationale.php, accessed December 29, 2011.
8 Tuaño, P (2011), “Philippine Non-government Organizations (NGOs): Contributions, Capacities, Challenges” in Yu Jose, L N (ed) (2011), Civil Society Organizations in the Philippines, A Mapping and Strategic Assessment, Civil Society Resource Institute (CSRI).
10 Estimate of NGO employment from Tuaño (2011), op cit and of public sector employment and total employment from the 2011 Labor Force Survey (LFS) of the National Statistics Office (NSO).
11 Association of Foundations (2001), Philippine NGOs: A Resource Book of Social Development NGOs, 2001 and Tuaño (2011), op cit.
12 Association of Foundations (2001), op cit.
15 CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Caucus of Development NGO Networks (2011), Civil Society Index: Philippines – An Assessment of Philippine Civil Society.
17 CIVICUS (2011), op cit.
18 See for instance European Commission (2002), Participation of Non-State Actors in EC Development Policy.
19 CODE-NGO (2012), “Members: Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP)”, http://code-ngo.org/home/membership/pbsp.html, accessed February 1, 2012.
20 Tuaño (2011), op cit.
21 United Nations Children's Fund (2007), Uncounted Lives: Children, Women and Armed Conflict in the Philippines and Human Development Network (2005), Philippine Human Development Report 2005: Peace, Human Security and Human Development in the Philippines.
22 Santos, S M, Santos, P V, Dinampo, O A, Kraft H J S, Paredes, A K R and Quilop, R J G (2010), Primed And Purposeful: Armed Groups And Human Security Efforts in the Philippines.
23 This discussion of strategy draws from Armando Liwanag, Chairman, Central Committee, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought as Guide to the Philippine Revolution”, Contribution to the International Seminar on Mao Zedong Thought, November 6-7, 1993.
24 ADB (2007), op cit.
25 Management Systems Advancement, Inc. (2000), “The roles of Northern NGO activities directed at poverty reduction through service delivery and income generation”, Paper for the Danida Seminar on ”Civil Society in the South in the 21st Century: Governments and NGOs, Which Roles?”, January 2000.
27 Council for Health and Development (1998), “25 Years of Commitment and Service to the People Onward with the Struggle for Social Change!”.
28 See for instance Santos, S M (2005), “Evolution of the Armed Conflict on the Communist Front”, Background Paper for the Philippine Human Development Report 2005.
29 World Bank (2011a), “WB and Civil Society: Frequently Asked Questions”, http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/CSO/0,,contentMDK:20093224~menuPK:225318~pagePK:220503~piPK:220476~theSitePK:228717,00.html, accessed December 29, 2011.
30 World Bank (2009), World Bank-Civil Society Engagement: A Review of Years 2007-2009, World Bank (WB) Civil Society Team.
31 Asian Development Bank (2011a), “ADB and Civil Society: Overview”, http://beta.adb.org/site/ngos/overview, accessed December 29, 2011.
32 Asian Development Bank (2011b), “The Bank's Experience with NGOs”, http://www.adb.org/Documents/Policies/Cooperation_with_NGOs/ngo_experience.asp?p=coopngos, accessed Dec 29, 2011.
33 See for instance ADB (2007), op cit, Racelis, M (2000), “New Visions and Strong Actions: Civil Society in the Philippines”, in Ottaway, M and Carothers, T (eds) (2000), Funding Virtue; Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion, 2000, and Wurfel, D (2002), “Civil Society and Democratization in the Philippines”, March 2002.
34 Some examples of prominent NGO personalities in government included Juan Flavier as health secretary during the Corazon Aquino government, PBSP's Ernesto Garilao as agrarian reform secretary during the Ramos government, PRRM's Horacio Morales as agrarian reform secretary during the Estrada government, CODE-NGO's Corazon Soliman as social welfare secretary, and long-time NGO activist Ronald Llamas as presidential adviser on political affairs in the Benigno Aquino, III government.
35 Management Systems Advancement, Inc. (2000), op cit.
36 Exemplified by the Akbayan Citizen's Action Party project of the so-called independent and democratic socialists and ex-popular democrats. Santos (2005), op cit.
37 Armed Forces of the Philippines (2011), Internal Peace and Security Plan.
39 National Economic and Development Authority (2011a), CY 2010 ODA Portfolio Review, 2011.
40 CIVICUS (2011), op cit and Tuaño, P (2011), op cit.
41 Sicat, G (1979), “The Five- and Ten-Year Development Plan, 1978-82 and 1978-87”, January 1979.
42 Philippines (1986), Memorandum Circular No. 4 - Directing the Formulation of the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan for 1987-1992, Manila, March 18, 1986.
43 Philippines (1997), Memorandum Circular No. 166 - Directing the Formulation of the Philippine National Development Plan for the 21st Century, Manila, August 21, 1997.
44 National Economic and Development Authority (1999), Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan, 1999-2004.
45 National Economic and Development Authority (2004), Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan, 2004-2010.
46 National Economic and Development Authority (2004), Philippine Development Plan, 2011-2016.
47 IBON (2011, June), “The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011-2016: Social Contract With Whom?”, June 21, 2011.
48 World Bank (2011b). Data from http://data.worldbank.org/country/philippines, accessed December 29, 2011.
49 Country socioeconomic data in this paragraph and the next are from IBON (2011, January), “Yearend 2010: Real Change, or More of the Same?”, January 13, 2011 and IBON (2011, July) “Midyear 2011: Failing Economy, Growing Disenchantment”, July 14, 2011.
50 Agricultural data in this paragraph from IBON (2011, November), “Submission by IBON Foundation, a Philippine NGO, to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Philippines during the 13th UPR Session (21st May 1st June 2012)”, November 28, 2011.
51 National Economic and Development Authority (2011b), Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016.
52 For example PRRM's Horacio Morales campaigned for Pres. Estrada and became agrarian reform secretary, CODE-NGO supported Pres. Arroyo and took a number of Cabinet positions, Akbayan campaigned for Pres. Aquino and its NGO leaders are likewise in the Cabinet.