The bottom-up perspective: What it means for a strong Philippine economy

Blogger Ben Kritz in his Four Principles for Improving the Philippine Economy highlights some key areas where the potentially hardest hitting solutions lie as far as our economic aspirations go. They point to aspects of our economic landscape where flawed thinking has for so many decades prevailed and where the interests of the handful of traditional oligarchs that rule Philippine industry most heavily bear down on to crush any effort at reform.

While Kritz, like only he can, makes very succinct and straight-to-the-point recommendations on each that have clear implications on the macro approach that needs to be taken to deliver results (and therefore provides an in-your-face articulation of the challenge to anyone who aspires to lead the Filipino at an executive level), I began to form a few questions in my mind around how Filipinos at an individual or micro level can support our march towards these strategic directions.

Below are the four principles Ben lays out. If you want the detail behind these from a macro, strategic, and primarily economic perspective, Ben’s article steps up to that plate. Here I attempt to identify the cultural roots of challenges we as a people need to surmount if we are to face the challenges implied in these principles in a real manner (as opposed to the flaccid approaches we have been so renowned as a people to take).

* * *

1. Develop and enforce a meaningful labor code.

As employers of household servants, how do we fare? Are our household servants clear on what their roles, responsibilities, and scope of work are, or do we deliberately keep them in the dark about what they are expected and not expected to do as part of their responsibilities? Do we respect their right to kick back and relax at the end of a day’s work or do we expect them to be on call 24 hours a day? Do they report only to the person who signs their paycheck, or do we allow our kids to bark orders at them willy-nilly?

The last one is most relevant to how we see ourselves grow in character as a society. Do we impart on our kids an egalitarian ethic, strong empathy and a respect for the personal space of an individual? I believe one’s true character shows in the way one treats people who they have power over — the waiter taking your order, a person whose health or well-being depends on you doing your job properly, or less educated people who look to your credentials with trust. Do we regard, relate with, and treat such people the way we can or the way we should?

2. Put an end to tenant farming.

The basic principle of most land reform initiatives is to provide an opportunity to disadvantaged Filipinos (in the conventional sense — tenant farmers) to own and manage capital and see a clear and direct relationship between how hard they work and how much they stand to earn. In that same sense, do we strive to equip our kids with the ability to think for themselves, make sound judgments, and go out there and make it on their own in their way? Do we train them to rely on their intellect or merely to defer to what is traditional.

The ability of a society to be truly resilient and responsive to challenges lies in the ability of its people to continuously evaluate options. That is the whole point in us aspiring to be free and democratic, for it is only under democracy where we enjoy the privilege to be free that choices become available to us. And with that availability of options comes the need to apply a deep and robust intellectual capital to evaluating it. It means owning up to our own accountability for the thinking we apply to our decisions. Indeed, how well we think (as opposed, say, to how hard we pray or merely “hope”) has a direct relationship on how good the outcome.

3. Nationalization of, or at a minimum, providing strong, non-political, public oversight for critical infrastructure businesses.

In The sort of nation the Philippines should have been, I made an observation of how Filipino logic seems to make sense at small scales, but then starts to break down when we begin to apply it at larger scales. So the logic, for example, of multiplying wantonly like rabbits may make sense at a small rural community level where each offspring represents an added unit of labour to the farming effort (specially considering rice is a particularly labour-intensive crop to cultivate), but becomes an obsolete idea in the setting of an aspiration to become a modern capital-intensive and individually affluent society. Even the tradition of subsuming an individual’s personal aspirations to the goals of the family enterprise — which is essential to the survival of a small community — becomes a liability in a globalised economy where creativity, imagination, and innovation (over deference to old customs) is critical to remaining competitive.

Consider then the cultural baggage that predisposes us to building small and thinking narrowly. This reality about us becomes relevant to the challenge of developing and running modern infrastructure at the scales required to support our aspirations of becoming a modern nation. Perhaps we have ourselves — our character — to blame for how we’ve left the building of what should be the backbone of a strong nation, the public infrastructure, to the devices of the direct descendants of our colonial masters. As such it is in that inherent character of ours where a change should come to ensure that a truly national approach to developing world-class infrastructure is supported by the society in a sustainable manner.

4. Allowing foreign ownership of businesses and property, and liberalizing the restrictions on investment outflows.

Time and again Filipinos, despite the noise we make, have proven to be a dull and utterly unimaginative people. Given a sack of gold, we’d rather bury it than invest in an audacious adventure to double or triple its value. So given our aspirations to be a “great people” we have not earned the right to be sole custodians of the wondrous natural assets our land is (or was once) “blessed” with. Left in the unimaginative hands of the Filipino, our natural resource troves have been pillaged and exported raw (or turned into quaint but unimaginative artifacts). Rather than turn them into assets yielding recurring income, we killed the geese that could’ve continued laying us our golden eggs.

In my book, I cited noted columnist Ambeth Ocampo’s observation of how high-quality Romblon marble was succumbing to the famous imagination deficit of Filipino industrial sensibilities:

What did the people in this sleepy town do with their marble? They made them into tombstones, mortar and pestle. As a tourist, I asked myself: How many “lapida” [tomb markers] and “dikdikan” [pestle] do I want? How many lapida and dikdikan do I need? Come to think of it, how many lapida and dikdikan do they sell in a year? Here is a region that has skilled manpower and an almost inexhaustible natural resource, but their products are unimaginative. If culture comes in to introduce new designs and new uses of Romblon marble, that would go a long way in developing the industry and the province.

In short, we must ask ourselves this question: Do we deserve to be the sole exclusive owners of our physical assets and resources? If we have so far shown such a sorry track record of sweating our assets optimally, then it’s high time we re-consider the flawed concept of “protecting the national patrimony” that politicians have been shoving down our throats for decades.

* * *

More imporantly, we as voters need to ask ourselves — do our politicians think in the way we have demonstrated above. Do they insiqhtfully approach our challenges both from a strategic top-down perspective (in the way Kritz lays out in his article) and from a tactical or grassroots bottom-up perspective as shown above?

As responsible voters, we need to think in this manner. The campaigns have so far shown that our politicians — specially the leading “presidentiable”, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III — will not do that sort of thinking for us. And if we are looking to the “experts” that inhabit the Philippine Media — that supposed citadel of The Truth that we’ve worshipped since their rise to “hero” status on the back of 1980’s Aquinoism, well, all I can suggest is that we think again.


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10 Responses to The bottom-up perspective: What it means for a strong Philippine economy

  1. BenK says:

    Thanks for the plug, eh?

    This whole country could benefit from a basic course in cause-mapping. Or Ishikawa’s Fishbone. Or anything that would drill into people’s heads the principle of looking more than one step ahead or behind in developing any sort of solution for anything.

  2. J.B. says:

    The end of tenant farming is a lot harder to implement knowing bulk of congressman/senators owned vast tracks of land and they won’t give in without giving up a fight.

    There are limited land reform implementations but even in those areas where it is implement, the lack of government commitment to help the new land-owner leave them back to their original state – selling their land to others to gain quick money for their families immediate needs.

    What GMA has succeeded so far in some rural areas is micro financing and training. The reason for its success is the lack of interest of politicians to interfere the national program – one, it doesn’t affect their turf of control, two, SOP is very limited in micro business.

    I once attempt to supply one fisherman I know with a boat and he refused for GMA has already a program for them on a micro level. The good thing about this is their children can go to school ending the cycle of poverty.

    • BenK says:

      I’ve got a report somewhere that says that up to 70% of the land distributed under CARP has either been abandoned or sold back to the original landowners, so you’re absolutely right that one of the big failures of the program is the lack of support for the beneficiaries. The basic question as I see it comes down to how to make sure the Philippines has the necessary proportion of agricultural land and how to make it as productive as possible. It might be that large agricultural operations are a better alternative, I actually suspect they are; if that is the case, then the people working on those farms should be entitled to a viable wage, competitive benefits, freedom of job movement, and protection as a critical and valuable resource — in other words, a job on a hacienda should be a job somebody would want to do.

      Or, if breaking up large landholdings is a potentially more productive solution, then the small farmers need to have proper small business support, have to be given parcels of land that actually can be productive (subsistence + marketable surplus), and have to be given market access to allow them to compete fairly with each other and with bigger agricultural sector players.

  3. J says:

    Re: Labor Code Reform. I agree that there is a need to treat our maids professionally instead of treating them as slaves. My family is guilty of this, and I never fail to point this out to my grandmother, lol.

    While I have many disagreements with benign0, I agree that at the very least there are many things about our culture that needs to be overhauled. And as I see it, only Gordon and Bayani are pointing this out. Indeed there is a need for change in men. Unfortunately very few acknowledges this fact.

  4. benign0 says:

    @ BenK, no, thank you for the inspired article on BGMC (and the focus on what’s important on Sentro ng Katotohanan that you and Arnel’s crew provide. It’s hard to keep the eye on the economic ball with all the political crap that passes off as the national “debate” dominating the airwaves.

    As J.B. pointed out, the very politicians we are supposed to be relying on to represent the people’s interests and implement reforms are themselves part of the problem — particularly The Popular One himself.

    And like J my family too and many close friends of mine are also guilty of sub-proper treatment of the household servants they employ. To be fair, this is all so ingrained in our society that people do not even give such mistreatment a second thought (much the same way as racism used to be a banality in Europe and the U.S.). So awareness needs to be created about so often overlooked shameful treatment of domestic servants in the Philippines. It is the height of hypocrisy that many of us cry out for justice using all these pre-fab slogans that politicians and “opinion-shapers” come up with while the very injustice we call out are themselves carried out in our own households with nary a thought from us.

    • BenK says:

      I just went poking through my folders and found a copy of the Labor Code chapter that addresses the employment of domestic helpers. I’ll get on that later.

  5. Joe America says:

    I agree with the focus here on building instead of tearing down, but see the ever-present tendency to dis-evolve into a micro-natter about details (maids and tenant farming), versus arguing about what the limited set of main planks of a profound public platform should be, and, even more important, how to push that platform forward. After the planks are determined, you can debate the refineries.

    Words are like leaves in the wind, blowing across the countryside and eventually rotting into dirt. Somehow, if you wish truly to affect the development of the Philippines, you have to get from words to action. So many discussions dis-evolve down side tracks that lead over this cliff or that and don’t move the train anywhere.

    Therefore, I conclude it is best to avoid dirty rotten trains blowing in the wind, over cliffs.

    My own platform for progress is detailed at:

    Those ambitious enough to read it will see that BenK and I agree on two planks: labor laws and foreign investment. I find his focus on tenant farming well-intentioned, but, as agribusiness is not the anchor of real progress in the Philippines, believe its inclusion in the “top four” overdone and likely to lead to diversionary obsession over historical burrs under the saddle. I agree with his nationalization plank and would even extend it to include mining.

    Furthermore, note that Ben’s platform focuses on the economy. Mine is set on re-casting social dynamics because I can’t figure out how, for example, to get anything constructive done if there is no real judiciary that gives people who are damaged the right to restitution.

    But all in all, this direction of moving constructively forward rather than carping about irrelevancies such as the colors engaged in the presidential election is admirable.


    • benign0 says:

      A Joe: Indeed, perhaps there are too much irrelevancies and noise at the grassroots level where the multitude of variables do not neatly (read deterministically) add up to the macro/strategic perspective. However, consider that the most well-laid plans developed from a top-down perspective also somehow gets lost in cultural translation as the various initiatives such plans spawn trickle downward. Measured against (a) how they impact the average schmoe and (b) how well the average schmoe embraces them, many such initiatives conceived from those strategic planning heights seem to consistently disappoint.

      Does that mean there is no merit in efforts to develop strategic plans? Of course not. The whole concerted call for platforms to be articulated and made integral to campaigns in this year’s presidential race attests to how many of us see immense value in such an undertaking. However, amidst all the politics that dominate the national “debate” today, there remains that elephant everyone seems to consistently deliberately ignore — the cultural roots of the Pinoy’s ability (or inability) to embrace and build upon the sort of change we want to see realised in our society.

      That was the whole point of the above article. Filipinos need to enable change by preparing themselves with the right mindsets and attitudes to embrace the disciplines, rigour, and thinking approaches required make the economic and social reforms proposed in such strategic plans work. The change from the bottom up is just as critical as the “recasting of social dynamics” done, presumably by tweaking the governance structures applied to Pinoy society.

      • BenK says:

        Exactly so. People will never be able to translate the big picture into practical action – to say nothing of contributing their own ideas – if they do not have the fundamental tools in their heads and hearts to accurately interpret the sweeping initiatives.

        From my point of view, working both ends of the spectrum simultaneously is eminently valuable. As b0 says, every initiative will eventually have some tangible effect on Jose y Maria Average, and Jose y Maria have every right – and should be intellectually- and emotionally-equipped – to be able to ask, “What does this mean for me?” Doing the legwork from the top down to the level of Jose y Maria makes for more complete initiatives, and therefore initiatives that have a higher probability of generating the desired results.

        By the same token, there are problems that are just too big to take on all at once, so it’s more practical to start at some more manageable level and work upward. We can’t be Gods all the time and set a whole mountain down at once, sometimes we just have to roll up our sleeves and start piling up rocks.

  6. Pingback: Do Pinoys Understand What It Means to be a Citizen? | Anti-Pinoy :)

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