By: Edmund S. Tayao
WHAT does it take to achieve development in the country? My experience working on local governance has led me to understand the critical role local governments play in development.
Local governments are frontliners and as such are first responders. This means that even before the central or national government could act, the local governments should act first. In the first place, how could one expect to be attended to individually and equally by the President or the many National Government Agencies (NGAs)?
The national government cannot possibly attend to everything; governance is so complicated that it is impossible for one competent authority to be able to make all decisions down to the local level.
This is the very reason why the principle of subsidiarity has become a measure of good governance all over the world; the national government should only have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks that cannot be done effectively at the local level.
There is then some truism in the saying that all politics are local, not because partisanship is only at the local level, but the more important decisions to make, e.g. the all-embracing general welfare, are more applicable at the local level.
REFORMS VIA DECENTRALIZATION
As I argued in an earlier study, “Decentralization has been the single most significant reform after Marcos. This is so because it completely changed the dynamics of politics in the country. The center remains dominant of course, but not without notable political and economic openings provided by decentralization. In essence, decentralization provided opportunities for local leaders and the community as well that it became the main vehicle of social and economic development in the countryside.”
I further argued, “Decentralization offers a good way to assess politics and governance in the Philippines…” It had a significant impact on the local economy that “this time local government units (LGUs) have the authority to ‘comprehensively’ plan as the local leaders are now empowered to come up with local policies and programs.
LGUs now control their own finances and that they can undertake what they see fit in their own locality without the need to ask the national government to go ahead. This authority of course requires political capacity that is likewise afforded by decentralization; in the (1991 Local Government) Code, national vis-à-vis local government relationship changed from that of control to general supervision.”
This political reform took a long time coming as our political history required centralization. We should ask the Americans for example why they offered the Presidential system to us but not the Federal form of government. The answer of course is the same as why the Spanish colonizers centralized power; it was simply easier for them to control a colony like us.
This centralized authority remained and was changed only when democracy was returned in 1986. This same centralized setup has led to patronage politics and political dynasties. Much scholarship has been spent in this regard, and we can talk about this in the coming articles.
I will not talk more of the concept and the history, as this will require more space. Perhaps we can go back to this topic in the next articles.
My interest on local governance and development has just been stimulated recently as I was trying to compare and contrast the different places I have been to recently and was reminded of the limitations of local governance as it is now. Yes, despite decentralization.
In fact, let me say that even if autonomy of LGUs is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, not once but twice (Section 5, Art. II on State Policies and Section 2, Art. X on Local Governments), the national government can anytime modify this autonomy even without amending the 1991 Local Government Code.
As it is in centralization, patronage politics and political dynasties, there had been considerable studies done in this regard which is not our main concern in this particular article.
We touched on decentralization because we are looking at development in the country. The Philippines is an archipelago; as such, it offers so much diversity, in fact, even opportunities, if only given the right tools and attention; resources remain rich yet underdeveloped that the danger there is that there may not be enough left for the future to enjoy.
Local communities, and therefore local governments enjoy this, so it’s impossible for them not to understand the significance of sustaining it. The question then is if this understanding includes capacity.
Capacity is both political and technical.
Politically, LGUs are already given so much power under existing laws. The same laws however allow the national government, to dilute these powers, either by coming up with so many requirements or absorbing some powers already supposedly devolved.
An examination of the annual budget in the past say 20 years will surely reveal all these. If only these powers given to LGUs are made to be effective with the support from the national government, it could have made all the difference.
This political capacity can also be measured in terms of the kind of policies LGUs are able to come up with, especially in terms of applicability. So much depends on its development plans that are supposed to be comprehensive to include everything from health, to environment, including land use, health and security.
Because of fragmentation in public administration however, NGAs have required LGUs so many different plans that the tendency has been to sacrifice comprehensiveness; the objective of development has been relegated next only to compliance first.
Even if say we are able to address this fragmentation of NGAs and their requirements to LGUs, political capacity is still limited, because of another fragmentation, of local governance itself. This is the culprit for the limited applicability of LGU policies and programs.
Size matters in political capacity, not necessarily requiring tremendous territory, but at least a good enough area to have effective plans, allowing development and the raising of local revenue. Tax base alone is already limited because of fragmented local governments.
I have always pointed out that the territory of the Philippines is only 15.7 percent of Indonesia’s. This means, Indonesia is equivalent to 6 Philippines. Interestingly, Indonesia only has 33 provinces. We originally had 81, now we have 83.
What has been the justification for creating more and more provinces, even municipalities? To bring government closer to the people. This is precisely why apart from provinces, we have municipalities, and we also have barangays, to have a government that is closer literally to the people. Creating more provinces therefore is but a redundancy. Of course, there are other reasons why this is still pursued.
This political capacity impacts significantly on technical capacity. Planning, which of course includes policy and program formulation, requires technical know how and therefore technically qualified personnel.
How many LGUs are there where local officials, department heads and technical staff are in fact not from the same LGU but from another nearby, sometimes even far from where they are actually employed and work as officials.
Why? Precisely because a smaller jurisdiction only means fewer residents, especially if development is wanting. We want more competent officials in government? We might want to revisit and reconsider this tendency to create more and more LGUs and seriously consider amalgamation.
I wish I had more space so I can bring this down to more specifics and particular cases. Recently I have been to a number of places where the potential of growth is without doubt there.
Unfortunately, if there is nothing aggressive that is done to address these limitations of local governance, it might just remain a potential for years to come. We will get back to this subject then and understand more about politics and local development.
(The author is a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)