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Is Political Will key to Development?

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Election season is a problem-ridden season both in its process and in its substance. The process is always ladled with issues of candidates manipulating election results, violence in remote provinces and vote buying. Substantially, challenges on very limited choices and the absence of mainstream political parties with a consistent and ideological agenda are endured. We seem to have grown accustomed to getting wooed, believing, electing and then trying to remove public officials every single time. The recent pork barrel scandal is just a recent addition to the inexhaustible pile of corruption cases that government churns out. Leading some to claim that corruption envelopes society from the lowliest Filipino citizen to our highest public official. They can only be differentiated through the scope and  magnitude of plundered wealth.

Then we have environmental problems. Cigarette butts, phlegm and litter are common sights in the metro; notwithstanding the smog, putrid water and the malodorous smell of urine on almost every street corner. We have public transportation problems too. Jaywalkers multiply despite putting signs that get more and more creative and really quite morbid (from bawal tumawid, nakamamatay to bawal tumawid may namatay na dito). Buses and jeeps give the most exciting commute by speeding and stopping whenever a passenger calls and an officer is nowhere to be seen. In other words, disorder is an everyday fact. You either live with it or leave.

Perhaps intuitively the response is instituting some form of discipline or cleave to notions of political will. Traffic jams and violators would be a thing of the past because of the harsh and swift punishment that transgression brings. Litter would disappear too under this condition. For crimes, putting the death penalty back would surely be a strong deterrent to crooks. The logic is inescapable. To save a disorderly country, you need someone or something to force everything into order. Then and only then will we have national development. In other words, amending an old adage, “if you do not want development, I will force on you development”.

Perhaps intuitively the response is instiuting some form of discipline or cleave to notions of political will…The logic is inescapable. To save a disorderly country, you need someone or something to force everything into order…I am cautious of such a view

I am cautious of such a view — though I must admit I have thought about this too — and my reasons are quite simple. If political will is the solution to the nation’s woes, the opening salvo should answer who and for whom shall it be wielded. The former President Marcos had discipline. He had political will. But these were directed against the opposition and his political enemies. I fear that the political will of today is almost no different. It is seen as making the ‘hard decisions’ for the economy even if it translates into demolitions, loss of lives, crumbling of heritage and curtailing of freedom. We have even witnessed extra-judicial killings and all out wars for the sake of peace! In the current configuration of Philippine politics, political will can and seems to be wielded against the non-elite while the ‘righteous disciplinarians’ run awash with political spoils.

A deeper point I would like to make deals with the human dimension of development. This political will discourse equates development with clean roads, orderly traffic and no crime rates — but only that. To be sure, these are manifestations of development but if these are gained ignoring the costs humanity would have to pay either in lives or in unjust suffering, then, we missed the point of it all. Past development models placed industrialization above all, overlooking the labor exploitation and environmental degradation that went with it and in some countries this remains true. The insistence on political will to discipline rowdy Filipinos is no different. Using an analogy, this model of progress is similar to furnishing a house but the family to move in paid for it through brutal suffering. The human component, to use Amartya Sen’s logic, is both the means and the end of development and could not be given up or be considered a luxury for later.

This political will discourse equates development with clean roads, orderly traffic and no crime rates — but only that. To be sure, these are manifestations of development but if these are gained ignoring the costs humanity would have to pay either in lives or in unjust suffering, then, we missed the point of it all

I would like to end by addressing a possibility. What if there’s an enlightened despot or social group which will wield state power for the benefit of all, would that not be sufficient and desirable grounds for ‘disciplining’ disorderliness? I think such circumstances are unsustainable. Even the best efforts of public education or brainwashing cannot produce persons that are identical in all aspects of life. When the inevitable death of the enlightened dictator comes, absolute state power is again up for grabs by different groups promoting different agenda. The struggle for state power can lead to another enlightened dictator or a terrible tyrant; a process that repeats itself again and again in un-free societies. In free societies where rights are respected, dissent and opposition can serve as checks and balances for the powers that be avoiding the over-concentration of power thereby avoiding the unsustainability of dictator-based leadership. Political will seems to be an easy solution to the Philippine issues. However, it needs to be tempered through a system of checks and balances, of inalienable rights, of respect for human life. The political will of today where none of these are upheld would be counter-development.

PS: (1) If you found this essay quite vague, I apologize. I can be infinitely clearer if I can mention names but you know how Philippine law works.

(2) These thoughts were developed in the course of the discussion in Theories of Development and Philippines: In the Asia and the Pacific. While none of these reflect the direct thoughts of the authors we read, my professors and my classmates, they are all essential to the makings of this idea.

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Yvan Ysmael Yonaha (@YvanYonaha) is a Development Practitioner, Technology Enthusiast and Productivity Buff. Yvan holds an AB Degree in Sociology from UP Diliman. He is a former instructor in the Department of Social Science for the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Marikina, and currently works for Ateneo de Manila University as a formator of the Office of Social Concern and Involvement.