State of the nation: the hard questions

The highlight of the opening of the regular session of Congress tomorrow is the President’s address to the nation.  Section 23, Art. 7 of the Constitution commands the president to perform this task.  I’ve often wondered if this speech, known as the State of the Nation Address, follows a set model.  How does the president decide which aspects of the nation’s condition she must emphasize and which ones she must be silent about?

The state of the economy seems to be a constant feature of every Sona.  Does this mean it is the most important?  In contrast, culture and the environment are seldom, if ever, mentioned. Is it because they are of marginal value? The traditional view is that the Sona represents the president’s take on the most critical items in the nation’s life, and what needs to be done in order to manage them.  Thus, beyond defining the nation’s situation, the Sona is supposed to set new directions, express resolutions, and propose a legislative agenda.

At her pre-inaugural speech at the Luneta last June 30, President Arroyo presented a 10-point program by which she wants her presidency to be remembered.  The list is a hodgepodge of programs, targets, and fragments of strategies with no coherence. The development of the Subic-Clark corridor appears side by side the goal of providing electricity and potable water in every village.  The development of one to two million hectares of farmlands for agribusiness shares the same level of priority as computerized elections.  The list ranges from the general (e.g., education for all Filipinos of school age) to the specific (10 million jobs by 2010; loans and government aid to three million entrepreneurs. Policy analysts have wondered how this wish list is going to be funded.  They should be asking how the list was drawn in the first place.  What perspective or theory of national development informs it? Is it a fair, exhaustive, or rational account of the nation’s priorities?

One can think of a hundred other things worth achieving in this nation of our dreams.  A population growth rate of 2 per cent or less.  A living Pasig River by 2010.  A hundred million new trees planted every year.  A working garbage management system in every municipality or barangay.  A hundred shabu manufacturers and pushers arrested and jailed every year.  One government doctor for every town, and one public nurse, midwife or paramedic for every barangay.  A public park and a public library in every town.  Public funding for literary publications and translations in the local languages.  Free school meals in the nation’s poorest public elementary schools.  The list is endless.

Because resources are limited, there must be a method for determining a nation’s priorities that does not rely solely on a president’s instincts or on the vagaries of politics.  In my own studies I’ve been served by a framework culled from various traditions.  I find it useful as a guide in assessing the national situation. I think of the state of a society in terms of the basic areas of economy, politics, culture, and the environment.

The economy, for me, refers first, to a nation’s productive capacity; second, to its system of property.  The level of development of productive capability is typically measured by looking at economic growth rates relative to the growing needs of a population. The system of property, on the other hand, is usually judged in terms of how well it provides the conditions for further growth and participation in the economy.  The vision of developing nations like ours is a sustainable and participatory growth whose benefits are equitably shared.  How have we fared by these standards?

Politics I understand as referring also to two things: first, to the system of administration by which the nation’s collective goals and priorities are defined and accomplished; and second, to the mechanisms by which citizens are given the chance to participate in determining the course of the nation’s life.  The first is what we equate with governance.  The second is what we associate with democracy.  How effective is our present style of governance? How meaningful are our institutions of participation – our elections, for example – as modes of dispersing power?

Culture I understand again in two senses: first, as referring to the general way of life we have designed for ourselves as a people; and second, in a narrower sense, as referring to the institutions and activities by which as a nation we develop a shared identity, instill pride in our country, and provide our people the motivation to contribute to the nation’s growth.  All over the world, old and young nations alike are faced with what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas calls a “motivational crisis.”  Its clearest expression, he says, is young people refusing to take on any role or any responsibility for their societies.  In the last analysis, it is a failure of culture.  Have we done better?

And finally, the natural environment – both as a source of our material needs and as our home or habitat.  These two senses have not always merged successfully.  The tendency has been to instrumentalize the environment mainly as a source of natural resources, instead of seeing it as well as the place in which we live. Countries like ours, forever pressed by poverty, have complex laws pertaining to resource exploitation but hardly any to protect the environment as home.  Are we sufficiently bothered by this?

The state of the nation is not just about budget deficits and tax measures.  It is above all about the kind of nation we hope to leave to our children.


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