Insights and opinions from our contributors on the current issues happening in the region


Measuring the impact of advocacy programmes

September 3, 2021

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The word advocacy is used for various purposes and in each case, there is a different connotation attached to it. Commercial advertisements advocate the buying of their products and the promotion of other commercially-related objectives; political parties use the ideas of advocacy very often to promote their parties with the view that the voters may select them when there are in an electoral contest; politicians who are pursuing modernisation policies would use the word advocacy to mean greater industrialisation and improvement of modern technology in their countries within a given period of time; a dictator like Adolf Hitler would use advocacy to promote his reasons for going to war and to create public support for their approach; and an authoritarian, totalitarian leader like Joseph Stalin would use advocacy to mean the brainwashing of the entire population not only for a political programme but to completely change social relations and to justify extreme forms of repression.

Thus, in each area of human activity, there is an element of advocacy, and more and more with communication-related changes, and especially with modern communication, it changes what is meant by the term advocacy with various other names and plays a central role in almost every activity.

In this short essay, we use advocacy to mean those efforts to promote understanding and to win support for matters relating to human dignity, equality before the law and respect for human rights. This unique use of the meaning of the term advocacy needs to be thoroughly grasped in attempting to evolve the methods pertaining to the various measures that are taken for such advocacy.

This general theme of the promotion of human dignity, the rule of law and human rights is broken down to separate aspects when people have to work at particular times, under particular historical circumstances and on particular types of changes that are needed to achieve the overall goal. Thus, each project to use the term that is usually used in modern funders jargon has a specificity.

In measuring a particular advocacy programme, the first issue that needs to be grasped is what is specific to this project. Some examples will be useful. Respect for equality before the law is a general objective. Winning equality for the coloured people in the US, particularly those who are called the black people is a specific issue. The promotion of women’s rights is a general issue. However, getting the right to education for the girl child in a particular society is a specific objective.

The prevention of torture is a general human rights objective. However, the prevention of the torture of political prisoners is a specific project. Preventing torture in normal criminal justice processes by the police is again a specific objective within the general framework. The promotion of the freedom of expression, association and assembly is a general objective. Dealing with persons who have been persecuted for the use of the freedom of expression within a given political regime is a specific objective. Similar examples can be given in various areas.

Distinguishing the specific and the general in terms of the actual work is at the core of effective advocacy. For example, the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression to everyone. However, for many centuries that ‘everyone’ only meant the white people of the US. If the advocacy is done to promote the freedom of expression of the black community who are now called African-Americans, that is an extremely unique historical task beset with extremely unique problems relating to repression, the law, police behaviour and above all relating to the attitude of the different communities. On that specific issue, a larger section of the white community would think in one way and the Afro American community would think and experience it in a different way.

By merely promoting the freedom of expression in the US, we cannot address the issue of the problem relating to the freedom of expression in the black community, and nowadays in other communities from other parts of the world who have since come to the US. If we cannot understand that specificity, we simply cannot understand the particular struggle of that particular people.

This brings us to the issue that every serious advocacy issue in terms of human dignity, equality before the law and human rights is very specific in nature. It is a historic task. The history of every country and every locality is unique and specific. What that means is that there are unique problems in particular societies and particular communities at particular times. The geographical, cultural, political and other sociological boundaries including the psychological factors of the human attitudes are all uniquely expressed within unique contexts.

This brings us to a very vital issue as to who is an outsider to a struggle and who is an insider to a struggle. Depending on whether one is an outsider or insider, one’s view will take a different shape.

Let us once again go back to the issue of the black people (African-Americans now) in the US. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who escaped after suffering during the early part of his life as a slave, brought into the movement against slavery the unique perspective of an insider. He was the product of the very problems that he was struggling against, The manner in which he articulated the problem could not be articulated by anyone else even if he/she was sympathetic to the cause because they did not have the existential experience of being a part of the problem as well as the existential experience of being a part of the struggle. Any advocacy programme that loses this distinction about the work of insiders and that of the outsiders, the latter who may be sympathetic or not, misses the point of an advocacy programme.

We may explain this insider-outsider perspective from another well known historical example, this time from South Asia. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was from an untouchable family which means people who were so completely discriminated that they were considered to be so contemptible that no kind of contact could be had with them. He grew up with all the experiences and the sufferings associated with untouchability as a schoolchild and even after being qualified with two doctorates from Europe and England. When a very sympathetic ruler gave him a position, none of his subordinates wanted to come close to him. Nobody was willing to rent him an apartment. He had to pretend to have a different name and be of a different caste in order to even get a place to stay. And of course, these are simply lists of such desperation that goes into thousands of things that he went through all his life.

He emerged as the leader of these people and he even changed the name of the untouchables to Dalit, meaning those who are engaged in a struggle. In all his contributions, both as a legislator, the secretary of the committee drafting the Constitution and the Law Minister and above all his organisational work and writings, he articulated the perspective of an insider giving guidance to his people as to how they could struggle to liberate themselves from their historical social imprisonment.

Mahatma Gandhi was also sympathetic towards the untouchables. He considered the existence of untouchability as one of the greatest sins of Indian civilisation. However, he was not able to provide the kind of vision and guidance to the Dalit population as Dr. Ambedkar did. Dr. Ambedkar is still the main inspiration of the Dalit movement in India and he has also influenced other movements like the black movement in the US. His was an insider’s vision, somebody who knew the problem from the existential point of view and was looking for an existential answer. Gandhi was a well-meaning good person who wished these others well and did whatever he could.

However, when it came to the Independence struggle, Gandhi was an insider. Gandhi was a part of the people who were subjugated under a colony. The British Empire dominated their lives. Their country belonged to the British crown. In that, his vision was to gain Independence from Britain at all costs. In that struggle, he was an insider. Colonialism was an existential problem for him and Independence was an existential solution to that problem.

The philosophical explanation of the insider-outsider perspective

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said something to the effect that if a person knows why he/she could do anything. Knowing why you do something is the most essential philosophical question that is associated with an advocacy programme.

The same idea was later rearticulated many times by Viktor Frankl, the former concentration camp survivor who wrote the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning and articulated the problem of the search for meaning, reducing it to knowing why. Martin Luther King Jr. in the US further elaborated the problem by saying that if anyone could answer why they would find the how. Thus, when assessing an advocacy programme, the most important issue that should be considered is why this programme was developed and whether it is justifiable to answer partially or fully that question as to why this is being undertaken. If that point is missed, then everything is missed. In terms of a particular project, unique to a particular country, what should be asked is why that project should be undertaken under those particular historical circumstances. If our project is about dealing with the institutional backwardness or obstructions to access to justice as a methodology to deprive all rights including the defeat of all attempts to improve the conditions of the poor, then the question that should be asked is whether this is a fundamentally valid idea.

When we say fundamentally valid, it does not merely mean a good idea or something that is alright but something which is far more fundamental. That is, do the historical conditions of this particular country or particular countries justify the selection of this particular objective as an answer to a problem that requires an answer? And it does not merely require some answer but it requires an answer without which the society cannot achieve the overall objectives of human dignity, equality before the law and human rights. Thus, we come to the core of ourselves. In short, it means that the objectives articulated in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) {State Parties undertake to respect and ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or another status} and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 of the UN for 2030 {Promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies with peace, justice and strong institutions} are so fundamental to these societies, that without which, not a single step can be taken forward in achieving the other overall goals.

Therefore, considerable time should be spent on measuring the validity of this project. That means the validity of the answer to why meaning the justification for the particular objective in the particular historical context in the particular society.

Who would answer that question as to the validity of these objectives? Above all, those who can answer that are the insiders, meaning those who live in these countries and who suffer from the absence of the realisation of these objectives. They have an existential experience as to whether one could achieve respect for human dignity if for example the policing system of the country is so backward and it relies heavily on the use of torture and ill-treatment of the poor as their tool for investigating into crime and also of social control. It is only an insider who knows what it means to go to a court which will frustrate all his/her requests for justice and instead push them back to a worse position than from where they started.

It is a rape victim who would know whether the justice system in her country would be able to grant justice. It is a young woman who has to go out of her house for education, or to the office for work, or for social purposes who could answer the question as to whether they feel safe and protected outside their homes.

It is the trade unionists of a particular country who answer whether the rights of trade unions are respected in that country or not. It is the people engaged in media work that could assess whether they are exposed to direct or indirect censorship and other kinds of punishments if they engage in the free exercise of their profession. To this we can add a whole other list.

For an insider to answer these questions, they do not need to read books or engage in any other kind of references. They can talk about these problems from their life experiences. If their life experiences show that everything is fine and that all these rights are guaranteed, then the insider story is one that affirms that the system is working well. But if the general will of the insider is such that it is negative, either completely or to a great degree, that means that the proper problem has been understood in terms of advocacy work to change it.

Therefore, any proper measurement or evaluation must first answer the question: is the objective of pursuing Article 2 of the ICCPR and SDG 16 valid and a fundamentally important issue to be pursued in the particular context in which this project is being operated. Without answering the why, going into all other factors will only be a diversion of the discussion towards trivialities rather than to the fundamentals.





Always go to Christ

August 31, 2021

Especially when we find ourselves in some difficult, if not impossible, situations, we should readily go to Christ to seek at least some relief. He always gives it, perhaps not in the form we want, but always in a way that would be beneficial to us.

This can be the lesson we can learn from that gospel episode where Christ went to St. Peter’s house where he was presented with Peter’s sick mother-in-law whom he readily cured. After that, all those in the neighborhood who had some sickness were brought to Christ for curing. And he did! (cfr. Lk 4,38-44)

We have to learn how to deal with the difficult and the impossible things in our life. Let’s remember that as long as we are here on earth, we have to contend with all sorts of difficulties, trials and temptations.

And as if these are not enough, we also have to contend with the truth of our faith that tells us that we are meant to pursue a supernatural goal that definitely cannot be achieved simply with our own human powers, no matter how excellent they are.

The secret is always to go and to be with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit who can make the impossible possible. In all our affairs and situations in life, we should always go to God to ask for his help and guidance, and to trust his ways and his providence, even if the outcome of our prayers and petitions appears unanswered, if not, contradicted.

This should be the attitude to have. It’s an attitude that can only indicate our unconditional faith and love for God who is always in control of things, and at the same time can also leave us in peace and joy even at the worst of the possibilities.

We just have to remember that Christ never abandons us and is, in fact, all ready and prompt to come to our aid, albeit in ways that we may not realize, at first, just like what happened in that story of the two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus. (cfr. Lk 24,13-25)

We should not allow our feelings of sadness to be so dominant and pervasive that we shut off Christ’s many and often mysterious ways of helping us. If we do not pose a deliberate impediment to Christ’s ways, there is always hope. In our darkest moments, some light will always come piercing and dispelling the darkness away.

In so many ways, Christ will remind us, as he did to the two disciples, about the meaning of all human suffering, and of how our suffering can be a way to our joy, to our fulfillment as a man and as a child of God. He will explain to us why we have suffering in this life and how we can take advantage of it to derive something good from it.

Our difficulties and problems, including our failures and sins, can be good occasions to get close to God and to draw his mercy and grace to keep us moving on with renewed spirit.

God is always with us. He continues to guide us all throughout our life. As creator and savior, he is actually shaping our life. Anything that happens in our life, including the negative ones, serves some purpose in God’s loving providence over us.





Inclusive Economic Recovery 101: Why helping MSMEs and strengthening the FDA is crucial

August 27, 2021

Like a bad refrain, strict quarantines were declared again in response to the surge of COVID cases from the highly infectious delta variant. While government-mandated quarantines are essential to contain the pandemic, the economy suffers, leading to business closures and loss of jobs. The pandemic’s impact on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) has been excruciating. This is worrisome, as MSMEs account for 99.5 percent of all businesses in the country.

Recently, quarantine classifications had been relaxed, in line with efforts to regenerate the economy and prop up MSMEs. Unfortunately, those in the food processing industry face a perennial bottleneck: licensing and registration. This has been a continuing challenge for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency tasked to ensure that all food and medicines used in the Philippines are safe for public consumption. The FDA is under the Department of Health (DOH) and very much in demand, as it also reviews medicines for use in COVID vaccination programs.

Clearly, there is a need to strengthen the FDA to enable it to fulfill its urgent mandate in these trying times.

Burden of Regulatory Compliance

Enterprises with an asset size of up to PhP100 million and less than 200 employees are classified as MSMEs. The sector is responsible for 40 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and plays an important role in our economy. MSMEs pave the way for new entrepreneurs and help in poverty reduction by creating jobs for our growing labor force. As suppliers and providers of support services, MSMEs serve as valuable partners to large enterprises. MSMEs stimulate economic development in rural and far-flung areas. Overall, MSMEs employ more than 5 million workers or approximately 63 percent of the country’s workforce.

Many MSMEs are into food production and processing and are required to get a license to operate (LTO) and a certificate of product registration (CPR) from the FDA. MSMEs selling food products without FDA registration are subject to sanctions. The FDA is empowered to issue a cease-and-desist order, as well as impose fines, to prevent the sale of unregistered products. It also issues a public warning against products that are not registered.

To ensure public health and safety, as well as to protect consumer rights, the FDA, and the business sector, including MSMEs, have a mutual interest in ensuring that regulatory requirements are met. This is especially important at this time of pandemic when business processes are being reengineered to respond to the new normal of limited mobility and human contact. Unfortunately, the difficulties that MSMEs face in FDA registration hinder the industry’s growth and potentials.

Perennial Backlog

The backlog in FDA’s processing of applications for license and registration had been the subject of lamentation for years. The agency has tried to address this, with the FDA Director-General even instituting an agency-wide “Project Backlog” in 2018, to settle some 80,000 pending applications. That year, FDA also piloted a program with the Department of Trade and Industry to fast-track the permit process for micro-enterprises producing low-risk food products.

However, the problem persists. In Nov. 2019, the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) instructed FDA to address its backlog of 11,000 CPR applications. Then, in Feb. 2020, the ARTA pushed for the deputization of local government units (LGUs) to conduct inspections on food-processing MSMEs with low-risk products. This program was pilot implemented in Quezon City, where LGU inspectors were trained and provided with the standard checklist for conducting inspections in line with FDA Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations.

MSMEs in the provinces face even more difficulties. While applications may now be submitted online, the approval process still takes time because FDA’s system remains highly centralized. Laboratory tests and nutritional value analyses for products are done in Manila, due to lack of laboratory facilities in FDA regional offices. The situation is aggravated by lack of manpower.

Social media is rife with tales of start-up businesses who experience difficulty in getting their FDA licenses and certificates of registration. Those in the microfinance industry also know that their clients who engage in food production or food processing are usually stymied by the complex and lengthy FDA registration process, sometimes leading to the discontinuance of their micro-enterprises.

Reforms Needed

The FDA has adopted measures, including automation, to improve its processes. However, as people explore alternative sources of income due to the pandemic, more applications are filed, and efficiency becomes more important.

The government must invest in updating FDA’s information technology (IT) infrastructure, to enable it to cope with the rising number of license and registration applications online. The approval of FDA’s pending request for the hiring of additional inspectors and evaluators should also be prioritized. It would be good for FDA to roll out the pilot programs implemented in NCR, where DTI Negosyo Centers and the LGU were deputized to conduct inspections. FDA should also consider alternative tools, such as remote video and other digital channels, to facilitate remote and live interactions in inspecting products and establishments.

FDA’s centralized registration process also needs to be reexamined. It could delegate to the regions the approval of micro-enterprises engaged in the production of low-risk food products, for instance. FDA should also consider partnering with academic and other institutions with facilities and technical expertise for laboratory testing and inspection at the local level. It could even partner with the private sector, such as the Philippine Food Processors and Exporters Organization Inc. (PhilFoodEx), to facilitate testing procedures.

MSMEs play a crucial role in our economic recovery. Looking for solutions is surely a better option than tolerating an untenable situation where FDA is swamped with backlogs and MSMEs are forced to operate outside the ambit of regulations or discouraged from continuing their enterprises. We need to help MSMEs flourish even as we ensure compliance to regulatory requirements. The best way to do this is to make the licensing and registration process easier.





Church group decries Duterte government’s litany of corruption: ‘immoral, unjust and a betrayal of public trust’

A press statement by Promotion of Church People’s Response on government corruption
August 22, 2021


Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Ephesians 5:11, NRSV)

“One whiff of corruption and you’re out.” Five years ago, then president-elect Rodrigo Duterte vowed to stamp out corruption in government.

Fast forward to today, the continued coddling of Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque by Pres. Duterte and the latter’s tirades against the Commission on Audit (CoA) highlights government’s continued lip service to good governance. Duterte has not only ordered the agencies to ignore the CoA reports, he has ‘ordered’ the body to stop publishing their initial findings that purportedly create impressions that they are corrupt.

CoA is an independent constitutional body responsible for checks and balances in the handling of public funds. It is mandated to publish its reports and is not accountable to the country’s Chief Executive.

An emotional Duque utterly failed in explaining the misuse of some PhP67 B funds before an ongoing Senate inquiry. This demonstrates the height of incompetence, at the helm of the main agency supposedly directing the country’s battle against the pandemic. It also sorely lays bare the Duterte government’s brazen lack of accountability, of hurling vitriols and attacks against critics (including activists exercising basic rights and in this case, COA, for performing its mandate), and promotion of widespread disinformation that paints a narrative starkly different from ground realities.

Based on the latest CoA reports alone and as reflected in various news reports, the stench of anomalies extends to other agencies and instrumentalities as well. Some of these include:

Dept. of Budget and Management (DBM) – questioned for securing Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies, buying high-priced ones from private suppliers that are slow moving. These are now in the depots because client agencies do not want to buy them anymore.

Dept. of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) – CoA has suspended DPWH’s disbursements worth more than P4.2 B for various infrastructure projects made ‘without proper and complete supporting documents.’ State auditors noted that 3,283 infrastructure projects worth over P108 B have been delayed or are no longer implemented due to the “absence of proper coordination” with local government units and other government agencies. COA also noted that government lost over P681.9 M of advance payments to contractors.

Dept. of National Defense (DND) – bought P14.5 M worth of surveillance and security equipment without producing some necessary documentary requirements provided for under RA 9184 or Government Procurement Reform Act. It also did not submit the basis for the contract’s approved budget. CoA likewise flagged the agency for its 20 unauthorized bank accounts worth P1.8 B and dozens of incomplete projects amounting to P6.8 B. [In 2020, COA questioned the agency for spending P6.4 M for costly air-conditioning units and showers in its comfort rooms.]

Dept. of Interior and Local Government (DILG) – over P3 B worth of projects across many years have not been completely liquidated. This included fund transfers to local government units worth P2.6 B (the biggest chunk) for projects supposedly for poor and conflict-affected communities, including war-torn Marawi. Of the P372 M unliquidated by national government agencies, P223 M was transferred by the DILG between 2011 and 2019.

Technical Education and Services Development Authority (TESDA) – despite the absence of authority, transferred P160 M to the NTF-ELCAC (EO 70). The biggest chunk (P41 M) went to its regional office in Davao, an act COA found “highly questionable”. TESDA’s budget did not include activities for the NTF-ELCAC, which constitutes grounds for technical malversation. Technical malversation is a crime of corruption, punishable under the Revised Penal Code.

Dept. of Social Welfare and Development (DWSD) – disbursed P1.28 M for 330 supposed rebels under the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP), while P4.4 M was released for the Livelihood Settlement Grant (LSG) assistance with inadequate documentation casting doubt on the validity of the transactions. This includes absence of government-issued IDs to determine veracity of the rebels. The so-called validity is limited to a certification by the Joint AFP-PNP Intelligence Committee.

People’s Television (PTV4) – the state media network was called out for granting P1.8 M in salaries to employees without seeking for approval from the Office of the President, as required by law. A total P7.4 M was also unliquidated cash advances for travel and other expenses.

Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) – was asked to explain expenditures worth P1.2 M for the purchase of sanitary napkins, hygiene kits and thermal scanners, alas, from a hardware store. Upon the audit team’s ocular check of the hardware store, it was nowhere to be found. Among OWWA’s administrators is a rabid spreader of false information, Mocha Uson.

Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) – its training compound in San Fernando, La Union spent P6.5 M on an infinity pool and jacuzzi. Other amenities worth P10.8 M included guest rooms, pergola, and a decorative rockwall. The budget was "realigned from a supposed new port development project" in Camarines Sur.

The list goes on. And it is not only about the past year but also the previous ones, which can be listed altogether. This immoral, unjust betrayal of public trust must end. Public money badly needed, especially during these times, has been pilfered and squandered. This is totally unacceptable. We must persist to hold leaders to account, no matter their crocodile tears or expletives.

As the pandemic rages on, we reiterate the need for an overhaul in the government’s response starting with removing Duque and retired military generals from directing a health crisis. We stress the urgent need to strengthen the public health system (especially at community levels), ramp up targeted, free mass-testing, conduct serious contact-tracing, hasten vaccine roll out, and deliver expediently just compensation for health workers and other frontliners. Much-needed economic aid must be provided for all those affected by the endless lockdowns: healthworkers, workers (including those in the informal economy as well as displaced or stranded Overseas Filipino Workers), farmers, teachers, and students. The rights of the people, at all times, must be upheld; however, attacks continue, including a most recent illegal arrest and detention of farmers in Southern Tagalog. Militarist lockdowns – that penalize people and fail to see them as central and most important in any policy or program – must end.

These glaring reports of a daylight robbery of the people’s resources for almost six years make clear that the people have lost much. We must lend our voices in saying NO to this regime.





Christian poverty

August 17, 2021

“IT will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 19,23)

For sure, everytime we read these words of Christ, we can have the same reaction as his disciples had. “Who then can be saved?” To which, Christ answered, “For men this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

We need to understand this message from Christ well, especially nowadays when there are many indications we are not living this Christian spirit of poverty. Many of us are trapped with their perishable treasures on earth when the real treasure is in heaven.

The big problem of the rich of this world is his attachment to his wealth such that he cannot give himself fully to God. He may give the appearance that he is giving a lot, but if it is not the whole of himself, then it is not total self-giving which God deserves and expects from each one of us.

Let us always remember that God wants the whole of ourselves. He wants our entire heart, not a divided heart. He wants to be everything to us, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. He wants to be given priority over everything else, including our own life.

This is not selfishness on his part, an act of ego-tripping. It is simply in recognition of the basic truth that everything, including our life, comes from him and also belongs to him. We have no right whatsoever to expropriate as our own what actually comes and belongs to God.

We need to understand that our intelligence and will, our freedom and rights that enable us to be and to do what we want, and to be rich in many ways, also come from God and belong to him. They can only be properly exercised when used in accord with God’s will and ways.

And to be rich here does not mean only those with a lot of money and resources. It can mean those who are well-endowed in the other aspects of life—power, fame, health, intelligence, luck, etc.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that even if we can say we are the owners of such wealth, resources, talents, power, fame, and indeed of our whole life, we actually are at best only stewards who have to give account to the absolute owner and source of all these things that we possess.

Our total self-giving to God and to others is when we start entering the supernatural character that our life possesses, since we are the very image and likeness of God, children of his, meant to share in God’s very life that obviously is supernatural.

We are not meant to live a purely natural life. There is no such thing. Our nature opens us to make a choice between a supernatural life with God or an infranatural life. But make no mistake. Our supernatural life with God does not eliminate or suppress what is natural in us. What it does is to purify and elevate to the supernatural order what is natural in us. Christian poverty actually enriches us. That’s when we achieve our human and Christian perfection!



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