No more “wang wang” in the Philippines?  

For several weeks now we have been discussing the long-run history of development in the Philippines and its legacy for the present, why the Philippines failed to become a “Tiger economy” and how contemporary politics is riven by dynastic control and clientelism? Is there a way out?

There is some hope that the answer to this is yes. In his inaugural State of the Nation address President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino noted:

Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? So do I. Do you want to give everyone a fair chance to improve their lot in life? So do I.

The expression “wang wang”, derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way so they can come through, is commonly used in the Philippines to refer to the syndrome of corruption and lack of accountability of elites which plagues politics in the country.

Now there is some irony in President Aquino, a fourth-generation politician of a distinguished political family, spearheading a campaign to clean up Filipino politics and reduce corruption and elite-control.

It was the assassination of President Aquino’s father in 1983 that led to the social mobilization and the People’s Power Movement, which ended the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and catapulted his mother Corazon into the presidency.

President Aquino’s mother failed to eliminate wang wang because she had to spend a great deal of time fending off military coups and in order to regain some stability in many ways facilitated the re-consolidation of dynastic power (and perhaps dynastic politicians aren’t always the best ones to end the elite control).

But the military is under civilian control now and her son is trying to make a transition towards a different society. Can he do it? Does he really mean it?

President Aquino’s strategy appears multi-faceted. Part of it is to greatly expand a conditional cash transfer program CCT) and Community Driven Development (CDD) programs which deliver money and resources directly into the hands of poor people. The CCT program has been specifically designed to make sure that it is not hijacked by clientelistic politicians. To target the program to the poor, the government undertook a household survey to objectively identify who was poor and in the process cleared off the pre-existing list of “poor people”, hundreds of thousands of people who were incorrectly labeled poor for the sake of transferring patronage to them.

But can such a system actually break the grip of political patrons on local politics?

It might. As we argued in our discussion of the collapse of the Christian Democratic political machine in Naples in the 1970s, the construction of car factories which brought higher paying jobs was critical in making poor people autonomous from political bosses and vote buying machines. But the Naples example also suggests that organization was important too. It was crucial that the Christian Democrats were not able to control who got jobs at the car factories and the communist Italian trade unions made sure they could not. So the CCT program in the Philippines may loosen the grip of political bosses, but probably it needs organization for poor people to identify and articulate an alternative, better vision of how public good should be allocated.

The evidence in the Philippines also suggests the power of organization. Though, as we have seen, politics in the country is typically clientelistic, there is interesting variation.

Local politics is very different from the norm in cities of Naga and Cebu. Both feature reformist mayors and a local politics focused on public good provision and politicians competing on their track record.

In our field work in Cebu, we met with local organizations of poor urban people who actually endorsed different candidates. Before local elections they invite the different candidates to come and address them, and then they grade them according to different criteria. Once they have picked the one they think is the best, they work for this person’s election. This situation does not lead to a different type of clientelism simply targeted at the organized groups, but a different sort of politics. As one lady said to us:

if you sell your vote, you don’t get any services.

So vote buying is out, services and public goods are in.

When we asked where all this organization came from, we were told it was a direct legacy of the People’s Power Movement which had overthrown Marcos. People had organized to fight for the end of martial law and the dictatorships and after the return to democracy they had stayed organized and used this to try and get the new democratic institutions to deliver.

The situation in Naga is similar there though spearheaded by a reformist mayor Jesse Robredo, who tragically died in an air crash last year. But just as in Cebu, when you dig into the Naga case you see the power of organization. This has been done by Maria Teresa Melgar in an unpublished 2010 PhD Dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (“Constructing Local Democracy in Post-Authoritarian Settings: A Comparison between Porto Alegre, Brazil and Naga, the Philippines”). Just as in Cebu, the transition away from clientelistic politics in Naga has been spearheaded by intense social organization which has striven to stop clientelistic political practices and demand services and public goods.

What is unclear however is why the legacy of People’s Power was so strong in these two places but not elsewhere. It is also not clear if CCT on its own can create organization independently or in conjunction with CDD.

Some CDD programs have actually been designed with the specific aim of bolstering the organizational capacity of communities. But in this they seem to have failed, as exemplified by an attempt in Sierra Leone studied by Katherine Casey, Rachel Glennester and Ted Miguel. The failure in Sierra Leone seems to have been mostly because the program was designed without a real theory of what the political problem was in the first place they were trying to solve.

How to build effective organization and what Robert Putnam called “social capital” in his seminal Making Democracy Work in order to combat clientelism is something that the Aquino government will have to learn, and fast given that he is term limited when his presidency ends (actually the terminology of social capital was coined in the 1970s by the Brown economist Glenn Loury, but it was Putnam who popularized it and made it the centerpiece of his innovative theory of politics).

So why is it that we and the Filipinos should pin their hopes of such fundamental institutional change on a dynastic politician? There are a couple of answers, and of course one of them is wishful thinking. But more seriously, it probably has something to do with the fact that this particular dynasty is also deeply interwoven with the People’s Power Movement, which has brought down Marcos and has turned, as we have just explained, into a force towards making the Philippines a more inclusive society. More speculatively, it may well be that the political power of dynasties is a double-edged sword. That power, by shielding them, enables many politicians to fill their pockets and increase the dominance of their families. But it also enables a few, with the vision and the courage to do so, the elbow room to attempt real change. Time will show whether this more optimistic interpretation is on target, and if so, whether such an attempt can actually succeed. 

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