Mar 122013



Roland G. Simbulan

Vice Chancellor for Planning and Development

and Professor in Development Studies and Public Management,

University of the Philippines

(Address before the Third Forum on Human Development, hosted by the French government and co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, Paris, France, January 17-19, 2005)

“Organization is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong.”

-Robert Michels,

Political Parties

I come from an Asian country whose economic growth is highly dependent on the remittances of overseas contract workers and the export of parts of electronic products which we, in turn, import—a cycle that diminishes our foreign reserves and gives no added value to the domestic economy.

I come from a country that is the largest exporter of nurses and the second largest exporter of doctors in the world, especially to North America and Europe, while many of our own people at home die without the benefit of health care and go about their lives without having gone through a single medical check-up. We have had two people power uprisings that toppled two corrupt presidents who are now listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as among the most corrupt leaders.

But my country, the Philippines, is also becoming a superpower in its own way. It is a superpower when it comes to social movements, people’s movements and NGOs which are playing a vital role in the human development discourse—both locally and internationally—and in social transformations that are taking place in economically and politically empowered communities.

This is probably the reason why that country which claims to lead a war on terror on behalf of democracy refuses to allow me to speak in its territory, why its government does not like to hear what I have to say on behalf of my country’s economic and political sovereignty and my region’s aspirations for a de-militarized, foreign bases-free, nuclear weapons-free region. Freedom, or liberte is there on paper—in the American Constitution—but it does not exist in substance, and it is the state that denies it through such laws as the USA Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act. This is all too ironic.

In recent years, we have also seen people’s movements in the Asia-Pacific region articulate the possibility of and desire for human security and genuine development through their common opposition to neo-liberal globalization and warmongering by some states. A global “new democracy movement” was born in Seattle, Washington, to challenge unbridled corporate power, and many civil society movements all over the world are now building transnational solidarity alliances, the best expression of which is the World Social Forum (WSF). Local and national social movements have been able to sustain themselves and build strength through global solidarity and engagement. The so-called “war on terror” campaign being waged by the United States—and which some countries like the Philippines support—threatens to label any form of dissent as terrorism. The “war on terror” has, in fact, become an attempt to destroy the capacity of people’s movements to achieve social, economic and political reforms.


State Abdication

There is now a more critical attitude towards many Asian countries that pride themselves on their economic achievements and unabashedly tie their future and vision to the globalization bandwagon led not only by the Bretton Woods twins (IMF and World Bank) but also by new actors in the modern imperial firmament, the GATT-WTO and APEC. This neo-liberal form of globalization is being exposed as a form of re-colonization, and is being equated with mal-development in the South. The North-South Divide is today dramatized in the policies and operations of the multilateral institutions dominated by developed countries. This is also manifested in concerns about environmental degradation and its relation to bio-imperialism. Issues like the patenting of seeds, biodiversity, the dangers of biotechnology and genetic engineering likewise come to fore, and are now seen as attempts by transnational corporations to establish control over every dimension of our lives—our food, our health, our environment, our work and our future.

In the context of globalization, the practice of transnational corporations of treating culture and its management as commodities has created conditions that threaten cultural autonomy, creativity and cultural diversity. Even the notion of political democracy has been remodeled after the market, where loyalties are bought like goods, through means such as currency, patronage and the perks of power. Social movements are reminding us that it is time to reaffirm democracy as a value commitment to pursue the common good.

There is now a strong perception among members of the region’s civil society that economic policies of the states also serve as lynchpins of a blueprint for mal-development. Such policies include trade and financial liberalization, privatization, export orientation (including the export of labor), the emphasis on cash crops and the importation of agricultural products at the expense of food security, the encouragement of a harmful type of tourism just to earn dollars, and attempts to amend the patriotic provisions of our Constitutions and local laws to complete the opening of developing countries to transnational capital. States are perceived to have abdicated their role as protectors of national sovereignty and the patrimony of the nation. They are crippled states, or to be more precise, corporate states, who have given up the rights and powers of their citizens, as a form of their abdication of responsibility to the nation and people.

There is now greater recognition that economic and political realities account for the health of a community, if not an entire nation. Since disease and ill health are realities of institutionalized hunger, poverty and the despair of the exploited and oppressed, solutions are inseparable from the larger solutions to society’s ills. Since poverty, ill health and disease are largely a product of the social and economic organization of society, the question of health and illness is really a political question and the fight for better health is a political struggle. Poverty and ill health are actually situations brought about by economic factors, such as foreign domination and a market-oriented economy, and political factors, such as lopsided priorities and decisions that benefit only a few in society.

National policies like privatization, deregulation and market liberalization, which are supposedly “efficient” from the management point of view, are in fact now perceived as anti-poor and work against increased subsidy to basic social services. Pro-foreign capital policies, which serve the ends of neo-liberal globalization, have only put our countries at the mercy of foreign capital and big business who have become the supreme players in our economies and economic planning, while the poor are left with no safety nets, protection or support from their own government, which, in fact, has become the local enforcer of these policies. Governments have abdicated their role in leading the nation to defend its sovereignty and patrimony against the onslaught of foreign political and economic interests.

Governments in the region are being urged to prioritize the urgent needs of the poor in society. For they have only paid lip service to economic and social reforms that would have benefited the poor. The poor do not need those charitable dole-outs that have only led to their own disempowerment, loss of self-respect and greater mendicancy. Giving priority to the poor means more than honoring commitments to foreign creditors and liberalization policies; it means attending to the urgent need for health care, education, housing and shelter, and livelihood and development. Militarization, encouraged by the so-called “war on terror,” on the other hand, is a machinery of death that has contributed to the ill health of peoples everywhere. These policies result in less equitable distribution of economic wealth, greater economic dislocation, and fewer resources for public services like health. The US’ fixation on terrorism which has influenced smaller states in the Asia-Pacific is not a sound policy and is only breeding more radicalism and extremism—situations that are fed by massive hunger and poverty.

Finally, there is the expectation that nations must restore competence and meritocracy in government service, and consistency in economic, political and social policy that is pro-poor. In this way, governments and their bureaucracies can become effective vehicles for the genuine economic empowerment of their people. We need governments that are efficient, participatory, transparent, competent, respectful of human rights and truly accountable, especially the toiling masses. We need a new breed of pro-poor leaders who are in government not to enrich themselves or to enjoy the perks of public office. We need dedicated leaders, both elected and appointed, with a strong political will, who can lead us by their example of selflessness and dedication to the marginalized.


Social Movements in the Asia-Pacific

The formalization of the GATT/WTO in the mid-1990s is turning out to be a pyrrhic victory, victoire a la Pyrrhe. Fortunately, an increasing number of peasants, fisher folk and indigenous peoples are now empowering themselves through their mass organizations. They have been the hardest hit by neo-liberal globalization policies that have resulted in massive lay-offs, the widespread use of labor contractualization, the demolition of urban poor communities and the conversion of agricultural lands to non-agricultural purposes. The masses are now developing their capability to be an effective political and economic force that can break the monopoly of power of foreign and local elites. The increasing politicization of the masses are giving them the power to scrutinize and collectively see through the manipulations of our foreign and local elites, and to engage in the broader struggle for the socio-economic restructuring of our marginalized societies.

In the Asia-Pacific region, social movement expressions of people power come in the form of transnational alliances of national movements, regional campaigns on specific issues and regional networks. Regional Asia-Pacific alliances include the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP) with its secretariat and resource center, the Pacific Concerns Resource Center (PCRC) based in Suva, Fiji. Then there is the anti-debt Asia-Pacific Movement for Debt and Development (Jubilee South). There is also the No Nukes Asia Forum which is focused on campaigns against nuclear power plants and advocacy of non-nuclear alternative energy sources. The Asian Peace Alliance (APA) was organized after Sept. 11, 2001, as an anti-war coalition in the region. We have also forged very strong sectoral alliances such as those of women: the East Asia-Okinawa-Puerto Rico Women’s Network Against Militarism, and the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women in the Asia-Pacific (CATWAP); and the World March of Women-Asia Pacific. Women’s leadership is very prominent in the grassroots where they are shaping the agenda and where they are defining social issues as their own such as food security, water and the destruction of livelihoods of farmers. Likewise, regional and sectoral alliances of national farmers’ and workers’ movements have been formed.

Highly intellectual advocacy has been produced by the Focus for Global South, which has rightly linked the issue of neo-liberal globalization to militarism. Then there are the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) based in Hong Kong and the International South Group Network for the Asia-Pacific. Local research NGOs like the Third World Network in Malaysia which publishes Third World Resurgence and the Ibon Foundation in the Philippines have found their regional expressions through the network of think tanks like the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN).

Meanwhile, networks on specific issues like the Pacific Campaign to Disarm the Seas (PCDS), Reality of Aid(ROA) Network, the International Initiative on Corruption and Governance(IICG), the People’s Food Sovereignty Network, Our World is Not for Sale, and, the Peace, Disarmament, and Symbiosis in the Asia-Pacific (PDSAP) where parliamentarians, academics and activists have been brought together. Social movements have also suggested canceling the automatic appropriations provision for debt service, supporting local producers and entrepreneurs in their struggle to survive and prevail. They have built a regional united front or alliance, an entente cordiale against the WTO, and strengthened NGO demands for the regulation and control of transnational corporations. But essential to carrying out these tasks is the rebuilding of a sense of national community and regional solidarity for which we must enlist the indispensable services of enlightened intellectuals. Former Malaysian prime minister Mohammad Mahathir tried to do this by initiating an “Asian Renaissance” based on popular culture, a pride in common traditions, aspirations and the culture of resistance to colonialism. It is imperative that social movements first get their act together for the broadest possible unity.

The Philippine Case

There is a movement among the grassroots in the Philippines and it is a movement fueled by the recognition that they have the right to participate in the affairs of their government, even on matters related to foreign policy and defense issues. This movement has been referred to as organized civil society or cause-oriented groups, and it is happening in barangays (villages) and municipalities all over the country where more and more people have recognized its necessity in the pursuit of social reform and survival. An aspect of the social movement in the Philippines that we can cite is the one related to peace and national sovereignty issues. Such issues have become important in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks which made the Philippines the second front in Asia in the so-called “War on Terror,” next to Afghanistan.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution institutionalizes people’s participation in governance. The issues of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, the U.S. military bases and the Philippine military involvement in Iraq provide examples of participatory governance in foreign and security policies. The successful struggle and campaign of the Nuclear-Free Philippines Coalition (NFPC) is an example where the people’s movement has built a coalition not only with all political blocs, but also with local governments, civic organizations and churches. The campaign led to the non-operation of the Nuclear Power Plant, the construction of which the Marcos dictatorship had enormously profited from. The nuclear power plant was built near an active volcano and was also located in a shoreline facing an active earthquake fault.

On the US bases issue, the NFPC provided the experience and core to the expanded Anti-Treaty Movement that successfully lobbied and put pressure on the Philippine Senate to reject the renewal of a new bases agreement in 1991. These experiences show that the gap between wavering governments and the people can be bridged by empowering the people and by providing the venues where their voices can be heard.

Among the countries in the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines has historically had the longest security relations and alliance with the United States, giving the Philippines the image of being a U.S. stronghold in the region. In recent years, however, the Philippines has also become the Achilles heel of U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific. There are two important reasons for this.

One reason is the 1987 Philippine Constitution that explicitly contains pro-peace and anti-nuclear provisions that were incorporated after the first People Power Revolt against the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Section 2, Article II, of the Constitution’s Declaration of Principles states:

“The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation and amity with all nations.”

Furthermore, this basic law of the land declares the following state policies:

“The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount considerations shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.” (Sec. 7, Art. II)



“The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory.” (Sec. 8, Art. II)

The other reason is the institutionalization of organized people power, a form of direct democracy, through the pertinent provisions of the 1987 Constitution, to wit:

“The State shall respect the role of independent people’s organizations to enable the people to pursue and protect, within the democratic framework, their legitimate and collective interests and aspirations through peaceful and lawful means. People’s organizations are bona fide associations of citizens with demonstrated capacity to promote the public interest and with identifiable leadership, membership and structure.” (Sec. 15, Article XIII, Social Justice and Human Rights – The Role and Rights of People’s Organizations)


“The right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making shall not be abridged. The State shall, by law, facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms. (Sec. 16, Article XIII)

It must be emphasized that the real moving spirit behind the Philippine Senate, which voted in September 16, 1991 to dismantle U.S. military bases, was the broad and unified people’s movement outside the Senate. In the end, it was the power of the people that ended the most visible symbols of colonial legacy and the Cold War in the Philippines.

The Anti-Treaty Movement was formed with the broadest unity possible among organized forces and individuals. In the post-bases era, various configurations of people power have tried to replicate the model of the Anti-Treaty Movement: from the Nuclear-Free Philippines Coalition to the post-9/11 Gathering for Peace. The latter movements were formed to respond to the new situation of a less visible U.S. military presence with no U.S. bases, but with year-round military exercises (Balikatan), U.S. naval ship visits and U.S. deployment of Special Operations forces in conflict areas under the legal framework of the Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement.

The Angelo de la Cruz case where a Filipino truck driver was kidnapped and later released by Iraqi resistance forces after the Philippine government decided to join the “Coalition of the Willing” (that is, willing to support the US’ illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq) underscores the capacity of social movements to influence the actions of their government with regard to foreign policy, if not their security alliances. To quell and pre-empt growing public outrage toward the government, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was forced to accede to demands for the withdrawal of Filipino soldiers, whose token presence in Iraq was the result of the Philippines’ alliance with the US. Here, we highlight an arena where decisions can be made with the active political input and intervention by organized civil society, as well as new venues opened for mass participation in governance.

Lessons for Social Movements

In the process of struggle, a lot of theoretical questions have been answered even as more still need to be resolved. Yet, one has to act dialectically if one’s political goals are to be served. Progressive forces must be exposed to many ideas to gain insights, for to be exposed to merely one thinking without considering the reactions of the other sectors and groups is to be un-dialectical. Issues like anti-nuclear weapons transcend generations, classes, politics and ideologies. A nationwide campaign is needed to reach all the way down to the barrios. Indeed, there are great tensions that occasionally trouble various organizations with diverse personalities and political tendencies, but we have to remember that the purpose of alliance-building among groups is to bring together different political tendencies, different styles of work, different levels of politicization, different organizations to work together without losing their identity or autonomy. To achieve and maintain unity, attention must be given to real debate and dialogue, to the exchange of ideas, formulations and theories of the different groups. This would lead to an understanding and bring us a step forward to a unity of the people’s aspirations. There has been too much preoccupation with mass actions and artificiality in mass rallies that operate under a quota system of mass organizations. There is also the tendency by some to engage in “turf wars” by claiming they are the undisputed vanguards on certain issues.

Social movements need to be revitalized, consolidated and strengthened to respond to the challenges posed by governments that threaten to amend their constitutions and remove their pro-people provisions, and that continue to hew closely to the policies associated with neo-liberal globalization.

Social movements must be rooted in their own historical realities and must update their knowledge and analysis on the basis of new conditions and emerging trends. They must advocate and practice pluralism and internal democracy within their own internal politics. Aside from concentrating on organizing and educational work among the basic masses, social movements must also reach out to environmental, peace, human rights, feminist and other new and emerging movements for change. Aside from a comprehensive critique of imperialism, class and other macro-structures and institutions, they should also be involved in micro-engagement at the workplace, in the community, and in local politics if their struggle is to have meaning and sustainability in the everyday lives of the people. The people’s struggle must be from the bottom up in order for it to become the most sustainable way of educating the people and equipping them with the skills to ultimately govern themselves.

The era of mass politics has emerged in countries like the Philippines because today, the rest of the world looks up to the Philippines when it comes to people’s organizations and non-governmental organizations. Even by official statistics alone, the strength and number of NGOs are formidable. Almost 20,000 NGOs and people’s organizations and institutions are registered with the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission.

In reality, however, counting the non-registered NGOs at the municipal and grassroots level, there are no less than 65,000 of them performing quasi-government functions, or perhaps more accurately, the functions of an alternative government. These grassroots structures are today the model structures of civil society for most of Asia, Europe and the United States.

But we must clarify the content of the current political discourse. We must criticize the kind of people empowerment espoused by some governments as a cooptation of leftist rhetoric in order to sell their pre-designed program of governance which hews close to the IMF-WB economic line destined to further impoverish and disempower the people. We must also warn social movements against misunderstanding and misusing empowerment when they act as vanguardists who are supposedly dispensing information and analyses and not giving the masses an opportunity to think for themselves. We must likewise warn them when they implement a top-down approach to development by relying on outside intervention in the form of dole-outs without ensuring the informed participation of the people and building their capabilities. We should instead advocate empowerment from below through self-sustaining efforts at the level of the grassroots, for we maintain that only an empowered citizenry in a civil society can curb the excesses of a state that serves the narrow ends of a narrow elite.

Solidarity with Tsunami victims

May I, at this point, also articulate the call of the Jubilee South–Asia/Pacific Movement for Debt and Development, one of the largest regional NGOs and social movement networks in the region, as an expression of sympathy and solidarity for the people of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and other tsunami-stricken countries. The movement called upon all concerned governments:

(1) “to prioritize relief rehabilitation, basic social services, clean and safe water and human development programs;

(2) “that Southern governments should not be made to prioritize debt servicing and now, more than ever, at their hour of greatest need, in the face of this massive destruction, Northern and international creditors should not continue to hold South peoples in bondage and debts that have in large part, only contributed to their impoverished deprivation; and

(3) that if there is any measure of sincerity in the outpouring of compassion from North governments for these people affected by tsunami devastation, let this be their concrete action.”

The affected countries are among the most heavily indebted in the world. As a proportion of gross domestic product, the debt figures are even more staggering: 80% for Indonesia, 59% for Sri Lanka, 48% for Thailand, 45% for the Maldives. Debt relief to the tsunami-stricken countries is the best form of aid that can be given by the international community, especially its richest members.

People’s Agenda for Human Development

The people’s agenda for human development must necessarily be on the side of efforts to overcome poverty and injustice. Third World poverty is caused by unjust political, social and economic structures. Development must involve a fair distribution of wealth and power and protect the environment. Human development must not only be dedicated to economic and social justice but must invest in strengthening the efforts of communities to become self-reliant. Links must be forged with the people, their communities and organizations. Necessarily, the human development agenda must be towards a people-centered development.

The masses today are subdued and disempowered, both physically and culturally, but their liberation will come with the sheer strength of the magnitude of their organization. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the corrupt President Joseph Estrada, for all their might, their vaunted glory, and all the resources and uniformed manpower at their command, could not stop the people from flooding the streets during two popular uprisings in 1986 and 2001, respectively. These regimes fell with their arrogance and corruption.

Real human development and economic growth are achieved when a country has a strong, educated people who are politically active. In the spirit of Rousseau, they must be active in a democratic way, organized and united in a common endeavor to develop their human and economic resources.

Let me end with a quotation from one of the voices of hope that exist in the world today, a 15-year-old student, April Joy Jasmin, whose interpretation of genuine progress in a developing country was one of the winning entries (shown here) in a recent national poster-making contest on the theme, “Visions of a Developed Society.” She said:

“Daily rural scenes, simple as they are, do not mean that they be forever made simple and that the government deprives them of the development they’ve been asking for.

“Development means their every necessity is met and answered.

“Development means a number of fish in every fisherman’s boat, means a complete meal for every farmer’s family, means their children are privileged to be sent to school—a chance for the young rural minds to acquire deeper knowledge, a chance that the government must give.”

* * *


  1. Roland G. Simbulan, Effective Advocacy: Lessons from the People’s Anti-Bases Struggle, Quezon City: Ibon Foundation, 1992.

  2. Roland G. Simbulan, “The Betrayal of the Poor”, Today national newspaper, November 6, 2000.

  3. Roland G. Simbulan, “How the Battle for the Bases was Won”,, February, 1992.

  4. Tadashi Yamamoto, ed., Emerging Civil Society in the Asia Pacific Community, Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), 2000.

  5. Heikki Patomaki, ed. Politics of Civil Society: A Global Perspective on Democratization, UK: Network Institute for Global Democratization, 2000.

  6. Flor Caagusan, ed. Handbook on Advocacy Strategy and Techniques Development. Manila: Institute for Popular Democracy, 2003.

  7. “In the Face of Debt and Disaster: Long-Lasting Relief for the People of the South”, Statement of the Jubilee South Asia/Pacific Movement for Debt and Development for the International Tsunami Summit of Governments, Djakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 6, 2005.

  8. Dorothea Hilhorst, The Real World of NGOs, Manila: Ateneo University Press, 2003.

  9. Walden Bello. People and Power in the Pacific: The Struggle for the Post Cold War Order. Amsterdam/London: Pluto Press, 2nd edition, 1999.


The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Jan 15th 2005




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