A nation without government

In our daily lives, we expect government to be the source of capabilities that are beyond the reach of individuals. We accept its enormous power over our lives, trusting implicitly in its ability to use this power for the common good. This trust, so easily given, is however also easily shaken.  It took only two weeks of back-to-back disasters to destroy whatever was left of the Filipino people’s faith in their government.

On that fateful weekend of September 26-27, residents in flooded communities waited in vain to be rescued from the flood waters that had trapped them in their homes.  They realized there was no one they could turn to in their moment of great distress, no voice of authority to keep order in the flooded streets, and no institutional presence to harness and coordinate the survival reflexes of a besieged community.  What they saw was a nation without a functioning government.

As dazed public officials shuffled pathetically in their places, making feeble references to “climate change” and the extraordinary amount of rain that had fallen, ordinary Filipinos stepped up to the challenge and did what needed to be done.  They opened their homes to their less fortunate neighbors.  They improvised their own watercraft and launched their own rescue missions, went on the air and on the Internet to pass on valuable information, and, within a few hours, collected millions of pesos and tons of food and clothes for distribution to affected communities.

In the absence of government, they rediscovered the spirit of community.  They relied on their own resources and strength.  And, they liked what they saw – that people worked more passionately when they assumed they could not rely on their government.  They felt the need to revitalize their local communities — many of which had withered in the vine of the state system — and learned to tap the wondrous potential of the new virtual communities that were emerging on the Web.

By the time our elected leaders got their act together and tried to show they were on top of the situation, their performance came across like a disgraceful afterthought, a faint echo of what the people were already doing for themselves.  At one point, Malacanang sent out text messages inviting volunteers to come to the Palace to help in the repacking of donated relief goods. But this was already being done in the countless centers that had spontaneously sprouted from the moment the scale of the disaster became apparent.  Had this gesture come at the first hour of the crisis, it might have served as an emblem of solidarity between the state and civil society.

One could sense that the political leadership is still desperately trying to promote this story line of public-private solidarity by coming up with a so-called “Special National Public-Private Sector Commission.” The Commission is to be headed by prominent business leader Manny Pangilinan, and co-chaired by a cardinal of the Catholic Church and the secretary of finance.  Its task is to raise about $1 billion in rehabilitation funds from the foreign donor community, and to oversee the projects to be funded from international donations.

Coming from the Arroyo government, this will not be received as an awe-inspiring initiative – unlike Cory Aquino’s “Coordinating Council for the Philippine Assistance Plan,” after which it is supposed to be modeled.  Cory’s Council was an invitation to participate in a project of hope; it drew its strength from Cory’s unmatched credibility. Gloria’s Commission is an admission of the outgoing government’s depleted esteem in the eyes of foreigners and Filipinos alike, a confession of its inability to draw, on its own, any sympathy for the victims of the recent disasters.

The disasters that have fallen on our people invite a re-thinking of the role and relevance of government in these times.  The withdrawal of government from many essential social functions is nothing new.  It has been going on for sometime, achieving its peak in the time of Arroyo.  Government has retreated from education, health, housing, transport, public utilities, and even security.  This withdrawal is so extensive that citizens now ask why they should continue paying taxes.

Just to put this in perspective, it has to be mentioned that the shrinking of government’s role is a phenomenon that is observable in all modern societies.  The difference is that in these societies, a whole range of specialized systems have evolved to take on those functions that used to belong to government.  In our case, these same functions have been taken over by private service providers operating solely by market rules.  The outcome of this shift has been the systematic exclusion of the poor from the vital circuits of national life.  They constitute more than 40% of the city’s residents.  They are the homeless who pitch their shanties on river banks, under bridges, on the steep ridges of low-lying hills, and above drainage canals. They are the sick who die without ever seeing a doctor. They are the illiterate who drop out of school after only a few years.

Those who think that a strong centralized government is the key to disaster preparedness need to take a look at what is happening elsewhere.  All over the world, it is strong and cohesive local communities that have shown a greater ability to prepare for disasters, respond to emergencies, and protect the communal resources on which their way of life depends. More than the interventionist state, it is these that we need to nurture before it is too late.

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