We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Friday, October 31, 2008

Philippines: Struggling with Direct Democracy

Valdehuesa: Ignorance makes ours a “bonsai” republic

By Manuel Valdehuesa
Monday, September 15, 2008

Street Talk

We’ve dealt with the barangay as a government, as a corporation, and as an economy. Anyone who doesn’t know why these three aspects are important or how each is supposed to be managed has no business demanding or preaching about good governance. And any official who doesn’t know how to make each one functional has no business staying in office.

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It’s been over a decade and a half since the Local Government Code of 1991 became law. It was meant 1) to correct the imbalance of power between the national and the local, 2) to lessen excessive centralization at the top, 3) to devolve what properly should be exercised by the intermediate and primary levels of government, and 4) to empower the community by giving the people an official role in overseeing its affairs.

But while the first three are substantially operative, the fourth and most important for the proper functioning of democracy – empowerment -- has been ignored. The people are still uninvolved, powerless, unable to participate in governance. Instead they are controlled and manipulated by the barangay chairman and his cohorts. And it’s all due to ignorance.

Ignorance about the barangay as a government -- with a direct democracy and a parliamentary form -- has turned it into an oligarchy of mostly incompetent officials that feed on its income. Ignorant chairmen not only trivialize the role of the people, they arrogate their power and govern the community arbitrarily, turning the kagawads and the sangguniang kabataan into puppets. Equally ignorant of their role, the citizens are mere spectators instead of actors in local governance. Even civil society seems clueless; they’re focused on the upper governments.

The legislative governing body called Barangay Assembly -- the local parliament consisting of all adult residents -- does not convene or hold deliberations. The people themselves are ignorant of their role in it. Failing to meet or decide collectively, the community cannot determine let alone express its collective will. It cannot form a consensus on anything. Voiceless, they are helpless, vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of corruption.

Worse, the leading citizens surrender the community’s fate to power-obsessed little trapos. They reinforce the barangay chairman’s thinking that he is a little president/commander-in-chief when in fact he is a little prime minister presiding over a parliamentary government -- with the people as members of parliament; as such they’re supposed to be the foil against abuse by the chairman. It is a non-performing government.

Ignorance about the barangay as a corporation makes it rely on subsidies, mainly on the internal revenue allotment (IRA) -- which the officials spend like an allowance instead of as capital for development. Clueless about the barangay’s corporate powers, they don’t organize enterprises to generate their own revenues. They do not enter into joint ventures with other barangays or tap private equity to capitalize enterprises including cooperatives, micro-lending or even a modest public utility like a water system, a shuttle service to and from the market, to and from the school, or wherever people need to be ferried. The idea of a subsidiary company to develop profitable opportunities is alien to them. They have overseas workers interested in ventures to create employment or income for those left behind, but there’s no initiative to do so. It’s a non-performing corporation.

As an economy, there is no attempt to explore the development of their land, labor or capital. They don’t inventory resources. Rural barangays don’t exploit opportunities offered by their nature-rich and exotic areas -- for ecotourism, recreation, adventure, or agribusiness. There are tropical beaches, lush forests, rolling plains, winding rivers, and underground wealth that are neglected. If at all, these are exploited by economic predators who strip their environment and leave nothing for future generations. Even their forest products and herbal goods are taken right under their noses to be exported or patented, depriving generations of their present and future value. It’s a non-performing economy.

Urban barangays neglect the production, marketing or financing possibilities in their own backyard. Entrepreneurs, craftsmen and assorted talents in their neighborhoods cry out to be discovered or supported but are ignored. Their fate is left to opportunists that trawl the community and strip it of its human and other resources.

Barangays form the base on which our republic’s politics and economics is built. But ignorance about the people’s role in it and the failure to develop it is making it a “bonsai” republic!

Ask Arturo Sanvictores, Ed Layug, Ruben Vegafria, or Hernan Agpawa why this is so! #

A former UN executive and director at the development academy of the Philippines, Manny heads the Gising Barangay Movement and writes Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays.

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