The Politics of Utang na Loob  

We ended our last post by casually remarking that rather than having a “bad culture”, perhaps the Filipinos had too much of a good culture that interacted in a perverse way with weak institutions, allowing for vote buying. In fact, though the example we gave there was from Paraguay, there is quite a bit of evidence that some patterns of behavior are of this type in the Philippines. In the Philippines there is the concept of Utang na Loob which can be translated from the Tagalog as “debt of inside” or as “debt of gratitude,” and is closely related to the reciprocity we were talking about in our last post. Quite a few students of Philippine politics see this as an important concept to help understand various facets of who runs for and who wins elections (on this, see this blog post).

How such cultural practices and social norms interact with other institutions is an important area for research and at the moment is little understood.

Our only point here is that, like most other social norms, Utang na Loob fundamentally interacts with institutions and politics. On its own, it could be a positive behavioral pattern, facilitating trust, cooperation and exchange. But in the electoral and institutional world of the Philippines, it seems to produce the same sort of perverse outcomes that reciprocity and vote buying networks produce in Paraguay.

And if one wants to change politics in the Philippines, it makes sense to focus not on cultural change so as to undermine Utang na Loob, but rather on institutional reform and political change.

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