catholic church

“Beg your indulgence”

Image credit: internetmonk.com

How the Catholic Church eliminated its own version of pork barrel and how the Philippines can too

Back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was undergoing its developmental phase. It was not the huge global entity that it has become today. It was heavily dependent on the patronage of the landed aristocracy. As a result, the Pope did not have much clout and could not exert central authority to appoint priests and bishops to the parishes of feudal lords who would place their relatives in these prestigious positions.

Faced with limited means to address the missionary role of the Church, priests decided to engage in the practice of selling indulgence, “the remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.” Although the sale of forgiveness, which is what this amounted to was not really sanctioned by the church, it was nevertheless widely practised out of necessity. The funds raised went to pay for monasteries, schools and even Crusades to recover the Holy Land.

Despite the noble causes it supported, the practice undermined the legitimacy of church teachings. The abuse of indulgence eventually contributed to the Protestant Reformation which weakened the Church by splitting it in two. If such an organisation devoted to otherworldly spiritual endeavours can fall for such malpractice, what more a government not meant to be run by angels, solely devoted to temporal affairs?

The Philippine state is in a position much like what the early Roman church faced. You have the president of the republic resorting to the bully pulpit of his office, engaging in mini temper tantrums, to complain before the nation that he cannot even get lowly bureaucrats to comply with his orders to do their job and follow the rules set out by the law of the land. These bureaucrats are purportedly protected by wealthy elites who placed them there.

For the same reason, the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) or pork barrel, though it may go to some noble programs, actually corrodes and weakens our democracy by perpetuating many corrupt politicians in power. This limits inclusiveness in our politics as dominant clans have ruled many places since the time of the late-Spanish or early-American colonial period. Their exclusive control over most jurisdictions has been directly correlated with the severity of poverty across the nation.

The dominance of aristocratic political dynasties, undisturbed by the upheavals of the Pacific war or Marcos’s New Society, is actually facilitated by taxpayer’s money through the institution of pork barrel. These elites have also weakened the state by appointing friends and allies into strategic posts within key agencies and business units such as the Bureau of Customs which provide a revenue stream not for the government, but for the “padrinos” who have cornered it through such appointments.

When appointees are recommended by power brokers acting as “padrinos” and subsequently underperform, we know it is for a reason. Their appointments undermine the very rules that they as officers are meant to uphold. It is clear that the rules within these agencies are not set by the central government, but by power brokers who benefit from illegal activities. This weakens the very integrity of our state, as in the case of the customs agency since it erodes our ability to enforce our borders and puts this power in the hands of crime bosses.

According to Francis Fukuyama in the Origins of Political Order, the Church was able to gain financial independence from its patrons when it undermined the very notion of kinship and family. How did it do that? By refusing to sanction cross-cousin marriages, and recognising the rights of women to own and bequeath property. Previously, childless widows married back into the clan of their deceased spouses which allowed his land and other property to revert back to his family.

By changing this custom, the church encouraged childless widows and spinsters to convey their inheritance to itself. The church profited immensely from this. By undermining the family, the Church was able to wean itself off of the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to fund its missionary projects.

In the same way, the Philippine government needs to wean itself off the system of patronage. Banning PDAF won’t solve the problem, just as banning the sale of indulgences did not prevent corruption from continuing in some shape or form. It takes more than idealistic moral crusading to get rid of it. Apart from eliminating pork, state resources must be used to shore up political reforms that would make elections more inclusive and contestable.

The irony is that the large sum of money devoted to pork demonstrates that the state now has the capacity to directly finance political institutions and decouple our democracy from the “anarchy of families” as Alfred McCoy put it.

If we promoted meritocratic institutions within our political system through state funded electoral campaigns, political parties and better pay for elected officials, we would be able to remove the perverse incentives currently at play that motivate the abuse of PDAF and other appointive and recommendatory powers.

Let’s face it, political dynasties have begged the indulgence of their constituents (we the people) for far too long and gotten away with “patrimonial plunder” (hat tip: Paul Hutchcroft) – which is using the very money they have stolen from the public purse to pander to the needs of the very same people they are keeping impoverished by that act.

The Papacy or else!

“Your Eminence, you’re looking good.” — US President George W. Bush to Pope Benedict XVI who should have been addressed, “Your Holiness”.

Filipino Catholics are celebrating  the elevation of Manila Archbishop Antonio Luis Tagle to cardinal.  He is now a prince of the Catholic Church, a rather pompous title for a truly humble and unassuming servant of the Lord. 

Cardinal Tagle is what the native clergy needs at the moment. He is a voice of humility and moderation in an organization that has turned strident and full of itself.

In a speech before he was made cardinal, Tagle called on the local church to stop behaving like a “triumphalistic, know-it-all type of institution.” He encouraged his fellow clerics to return to being ”a simpler witness to Jesus, meek and humble of heart.” Amen to that.

As bishop of Cavite, Tagle preferred to do his pastoral rounds unaccompanied by aides and using public transportation or his bike. A man of the people, he is aware of the temptations that go along with being a prince of the church.

    “If I am not cautious, I might just believe it, and I might start demanding your offerings – of the best food, the best wine, money, cars, houses, adulation, submission! After all, I am God – hah! I might take so much delight in my stature and its benefits that I might end up being callous to the needs of the poor and the earth.”

Tagle is  not a political player, has no interest in becoming one, unlike some of his colleagues who used their position and power to support certain politicians. I will not go as far as saying that some bishops gave political support in exchange for SUVs and cash gifts but I would ask why brand new SUVs and cash were vital and necessary to the job of spreading God’s word and administering to the spiritual needs of His flock. 

Farthermore, Tagle knows his place in God’s scheme of things. 

    “I am disturbed when some people who do not even know me personally conclude that my being a bishop automatically makes me closer to God than they could ever be. My words are God’s words! My desires are God’s desires! My anger is God’s anger! My actions are God’s actions!” 

Those qualities, in addition to brilliance and wisdom, makes Archbishop Antonio Luis Cardinal Tagle the perfect successor to lead one of the most powerful and richest organizations in God’s creation.

In the near future, Europeans will no longer dominate the Catholic Church. There are more and more non-European cardinals who can elect Popes. We are happy that a Filipino will be among those who will choose Benedict’s successor. But should we content with being a mere vote? 

We have had a vote since Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos was made cardinal generations ago. How many cardinals have we had since? Six, seven? What we want, no, what we demand, is the papacy. Our time has come and we have a perfect man for the job.

We are the largest Catholic country in Asia. We are the only remaining Catholic country that has not gone against Church teaching on artificial contraception, divorce, and same-sex marriage. Our churches are filled on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and our devotion to saints remains as fervent as ever. 

Most important of all, since the Church is ultimately an organization in the material world – it is a worldly organization despite its stated purpose of being primarily concerned with the soul – it cannot ignore the fact that the Philippine Catholic Church is one of the biggest contributors to the Vatican’s coffers.

The contributions do not only come from Filipinos in the Philippines. How many churches in the western world will close down if not for our OFWs’ continued patronage?  The Church might have to retrench many of its officials and sell many of its valuable real estate and priceless treasures if not for the weekly donations from ordinary Filipinos here and abroad. And we’ve not even looked at the bequests of rich Filipinos. 

We are good for the Church. The Church will be hard put if we were to turn away like those overly secularized cash-strapped westerners. We are a power in the Church. We can and must exercise that power. For the good of the Church, of course.

Consequently, the Filipino Catholic’s message, no, irrevocable demand, to the college of cardinals must be: Archbishop Antonio Luis Cardinal Tagle becomes the next Pope or else!

Christianity Undermines the Family

Yup, that’s right; that’s not a typo. The Catholic Church was responsible for reducing the size of families in Western Europe contrary to popular belief.

Before I get stuck in the details, a little context is needed.

The fight over the reproductive health bill in the Philippines has pitted the Catholic clergy and faithful on the one hand against secular, feminist, and humanists on the other. One of the contentions of the anti-RH camp is that the bill is anti-family and will cause a rapid decline in our population similar to what has occurred in Western Europe.

Here is Sen President Juan Ponce Enrile one of our elder statesmen opposed to the RH bill,

If you are going to contract the population, you reach a point in time where you will have less workers, less production, less consumption, less taxpayers to support the government.

And again, he goes on

The economic interest of the country will be a factor and the security of this nation for the next 100 years will be on the balance. Mind you, this bill is not really that easy. It’s a matter that will affect, will impinge on the faith of each one of us.

This popular belief which he expresses comes from the experience of Western European countries where fertility rates have dipped below replacement levels since the mid-60s. This is attributable to the rise of contraception use in those countries, the strength of the women’s movement and the legalization of abortion. Concurrent with these developments has been the collapse of the traditional family and with that the greying of the population.

The Philippines with its exposure to Western media and culture has still managed to maintain laws which reflect the predominantly Catholic nature of its population. This according to Sen Enrile is the only thing that prevents it from slipping into the demographic malaise of our European counterparts.

Modern Family

In reality, the decline of the traditional family in the West preceded the rise of modern contraceptives. In his new book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama devotes an entire chapter the title of which I borrowed from him here to discuss this form of “European exceptionalism.” According to Fukuyama, dating the rise of the modern family is a bit tricky.

Karl Marx associated it with the rise of the bourgeois class during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Communist Manifesto Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced family relation to a mere money relation.”

For his part, Max Weber felt that the rise of individualism came about through the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on personal salvation and the Enlightenment with its emphasis on individual rights and secular humanism. This would date the existence of modern families to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If Weber and Marx are correct then the collapse of traditional societies, which were based on extensive ties of kinship, restrictions on market transactions and individual social mobility due to informal social norms grounded in tradition, religion, and charisma, and the transition into modern societies which are based on individualism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and rational-legal forms of authority is only but a few centuries old.

The french historian Marc Bloch however believes that the rise of feudalism in the ninth and tenth centuries was in part a way of coping with the decline of kinship based tribal societies in Europe. According to Bloch, “Neither the state nor the family any longer provided adequate protection…Everywhere the weak man felt the need to be sheltered by someone more powerful.” This dates the birth of the modern family much sooner.

But it was actually around the sixth century, when the Catholic church, confronted with the marriage practices of newly converted Germanic tribes that had toppled the Roman empire, introduced changes to them. These tribal practices included marriage to cousins or close kin, the levirate or marriage to widows of deceased relatives, adoption and divorce. The church instituted edicts that forbade concubinage and promoted marriage as an indissoluble, monogamous and lifelong bond.

The reason according to Jack Goody was not theological but material in nature. Goody labels the marriage practices banned by the church “strategies of heirship” whereby kinship groups maintained control of property. At a time when the average life expectancy was less than thirty-five, the likelihood that a couple produced a male heir who survived into adulthood was quite low.

At that time the church encouraged donations of land and property to itself. Accordingly, women were allowed to own property to prevent their deceased husbands’ inheritance from reverting back to the family group in the absence of an heir. Thus, women’s rights to own and bequeth property was an unintented consequence of this teaching which profited the church largely. By the end of the seventh century, one-third of all productive land in France fell into the hands of ecclesiastical estates.

So there you have it. The rise of individualism, women’s rights and the modern society in Western Europe which is blamed for the demise of the traditional family originated from church law back in the sixth century. If it was motivated by material interests to outlaw old forms of marriage back then, it might be similarly motivated today in seeking to discourage new forms of family planning to prevent its flock from shrinking.

Fertile Ground

Finally with regard to the argument that the promotion of modern forms of contraception will lead to an irreversible decline of population and economic stagnation, I would offer the following chart taken from a study by Mikko Mryskyla of the University of Pennsylvania published in the science journal Nature back in 2009.

It shows two snapshots of cross-country fertility rates recorded in 1975 and 2005 on the vertical axis plotted against human development scores on the horizontal. Back in the twentieth century, you could be forgiven for thinking that the downward trend would have no end as countries that grew richer exhibited lower fertility rates. This is clearly shown by the 1975 scatter plot (in blue).

Here in the twenty-first century, that pattern has clearly been reversed with countries exhibiting advanced levels of human development recording a recovery (see the red scatter plot) of their fertility rates compared to previous levels set in 1975 (HDI or the human development indicator on the horizontal axis is a composite index of health, education and income levels).

The way that these countries have reversed the downward trend and produced the J-curve observed in 2005 has been by promoting a number of family friendly policies which include generous maternity/paternity leave allowances, free or subsidized childcare and pre-schools, pre- and post-partum care to mothers and newborns, and flexible working hours, to name a few.

Myrskyla has since then studied the relationship between happiness and fertility using data from the World Values Survey and has concluded that having children is “a long-term investment in well-being.” In the short-run however the data shows that having more kids poses challenges to happiness (less time for personal needs and interests). The policies mentioned help to counter that and allow families cope better with raising kids.

With such policies in place, these countries have seen their fertility rates rising above the demographic point of no return (of around 1.5 births per woman) to near replacement levels (around 2.1 bpw). Given that this field of policy research and development is still in its “infancy” (pardon the pun), we can expect to see more countries joining them and hopefully see fertility rates in rich countries reach replacement levels in the near future.

So to the doubters out there who still feel that modern family planning is anti-family, perhaps they need to brush up on their reading of events, both past and present.

Doing Family Planning in a Pluralist World

Sometimes, the discourse surrounding the reproductive health debate in the Philippines sounds more like it was lifted out of the Middle Ages.

Case in point was the exchange recently held in the Senate between Sen Juan Ponce Enrile and both Pia Cayetano and Miriam Santiago, joint authors of the reproductive health bill in the Senate. Enrile, the former defense secretary who served as the chief architect of Martial Law under Pres Marcos which gave rise to the country’s first population management policy in the 1970s and 80s is now casting the proposed bill on responsible parenthood as a sinister plot on the part of the state to dictate to particularly poor households the number of children they are to have. He said,

What reason can we morally advance to justify the idea embedded in the recesses of Senate Bill No. 2865 to accomplish the sustained and deliberate reduction of the size of Filipino families, especially the poor and marginalized, through birth control in the guise of adopting a reproductive health policy for this country?

The Senate President evidently believes that when the law becomes operationalized, the government will engage in interventions over and beyond what is explicitly stated in the bill, which is to provide couples with informed choice and access to different forms of family planning and reproductive health. He likens the intrusiveness of the State under this imagined scenario to the very heavy handed attempts at social engineering by Fascist dictators, when he argued,

If we condemn the idea of euthanasia that renders mercy killing in the guise of (being merciful) to a needy human being, if we condemn eugenics that advocates selective breeding in the guise of improving hereditary qualities, if we condemn the idea behind the act of Adolf Hitler in exterminating Jews in Europe in the guise of preserving the superiority of the Aryan race, if we condemn the idea behind the killing fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the guise of reforming the social ills of his country, and if we condemn the mass graves of Saddam Hussein in Iraq where he buried his political enemies in the guise of maintaining law and order in his country—what reason can we morally advance to justify (the bill)?

The claim of a clandestine agenda behind the bill sounds as though it was made by some crackpot, not by one of the highest officials of the land and one of its legal luminaries. One wonders however whether Enrile truly believes in the competency of the State to: (a) hatch such an elaborate plan, and (b) competently carry it out.

I mean, if even under an authoritarian regime, the government with a more restrictive population management and control policy was not able to effectively implement its policy then, why would it be able to hatch such a devious and deliberate plan today and be able to get away with it?

The simple fact of the matter is, the global consensus that formed around population policy since the 1970s has tended to focus on choice and the ability of couples to decide in a well-informed manner how many children they want to have and stick to such a decision. It is no longer about achieving some pre-determined “optimal size” of the household. And this basic tenet is what the current RH bill embodies.

Under such a framework, the State becomes less intrusive and in fact merely acts as a guarantor and facilitator of last resort to a household of its capacity to make such an all-important decision. Under the current situation, the default “choice” of most couples is the natural family planning method, for the simple reason that they do not have the means to choose otherwise.

This in a way creates a bias in favor of the Catholic Church’s position. In a pluralistic world where even Catholics should be allowed to make a conscious decision about such personal and intimate affairs, such a bias is really untenable. What the RH bill would in effect do is shift the default setting to a more neutral position: one where all the safe and reliable methods are made available and where choice is not restricted.

Given the cultural preference already exhibited by Filipinos for larger families (when compared to other countries, while controlling for income and other variables), such a light-handed approach would only influence those who might have exceeded what they deem their (higher) limit for child rearing. This is demonstrated by a number of cases reported by the media where other family planning options are only considered by poor households primarily the womenfolk when they have given birth to upwards of eight children when six was their desired number.

In other words, through early interventions, what the RH bill is most likely to do is help these families achieve their desired family size which is usually in the order of four, five or six members, rather than force them to limit their household to three or four members.

Now in a pluralist world, such an outcome is perfectly acceptable.

Continuity reboots

Reboots, paradigm shift are all the rage this year. For instance, DC Comics announced that it was rebooting its entire comic book line, bringing 52 of its comic books to issue as well as publishing all their comics digitally. Then recently in the Philippines, a move is in place to bring divorce back, which Archbishop Oscar Cruz calls a anti-Filipino.

The Philippines went on a sort of reboot. At the very least, we are seeing the reboot ongoing. As Deputy palace spokesperson Abigail Valte pointed out sometime ago, “Democracy is already in the recovery room as of May 2011“.

If you look at the Philippine Development blueprint, you could see the depth, and breathe and shape of what Aquino wants the Philippines to be, when he leaves office.

It explains why the government refuses to spend money it doesn’t have. Without government spending 17 percent, it showed why the economy slowed down to 4.9 percent. In the same quarter in 2010 the economy grew double that, what with election, and election spending driving the growth.

How I read the tea leaves, government doesn’t want to spend what it doesn’t have. The administration intends to institutionalize spending: if the government doesn’t have the money to pay for it, the government doesn’t finance a project.

We can talk about lies and statistics. It is pretty good take, but without Government propping up GDP, who will pickup the slack? A GDP growth of 4.9 percent showed that the private sector as a whole wasn’t able to pickup the slack that government dropped. So the question is: as government intends to spend less, or at the very least manage its spending, what is it doing to get more business into invest?

Is the government making it easy for investors of all stripe to come in? Is the government interested in tapping the OFW market to invest in the Philippines? What is it doing to make investing in the Philippines easier, and more interesting?

The question also comes in that we know that Internet is a game changer, and that the Internet is like roads, and railways and electricity before it: they generate business. There is no clear cut government policy on the Internet. There is no clear cut government policy on science and technology. And yet we have policies like Cybercrime bill that is being debated in Congress that doesn’t actually help, but make Internet worst for Filipinos. Our legislators lack the understanding, and the foresight to take this Internet and make it go zoom. Do you want the government to regulate the Internet?

In the past year, we’ve also seen the push to diminish the power and influence of the Catholic Church. The push for reproductive health for example is one thing. It is meant to institutionalize maternal health and the side effect of course it goes against “church teaching.” Then there is a push to revive the Divorce law in the Philippines. The latter since the Philippines now becomes the only country in the world without any sort of divorce law.

There was once a divorce law according to @nerveending. The Philippines had a divorce law prior to 1947. Then we didn’t. Today, if you want to go get divorced, there is always annulment or legal separation. So you can get separated from your wife or your estranged husband. Relationships are never easy. They’re messy. They’re never black and white. It lives in that gray terrain. Divorce becomes important so we could protect wives and children who are being abused where the only recourse is to separate. Divorce becomes important when to have a better life, a man or a woman must reboot their continuity.

If the Reproductive Health bill becomes law, and it is followed by a divorce bill? That would be one continuity reboot for the Philippines. It signals that the nation is slowly becoming secular and less under the thrall of the Vatican.

As a Catholic, for me, it presents an opportunity for the Church to focus on the spiritual. I want sermons and direction that make me a better person. I don’t need the Church to tell me what is wrong with government. Filipinos everywhere already know what’s wrong with our nation. It is that time in history that we fix it. I need my church to help guide that poor maid who is always beaten up by her husband. I need a Church that guides street children away from the streets, and into education. I need this church to be relevant.

This is how I see continuity reboots. Like all things in life, it would depend a lot on how it is executed.

Image credit: The New Justice League by Jim Lee

Upate: @mannyneps and @jesterinexile points out that if you’re a Muslim in the Philippines then divorce is legal.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/mannyneps/status/75752647151464448″]
[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/jesterinexile/status/75755836303097856″]

Why is the RH Bill taking so long?

Philippine adherence to the Catholic Church remains strong.

It is an institution that has withstood half a millenium on home soil. The only time in its history that Roman Catholicism was under threat was during the Philippine revolution for independence against Spain at the turn of the last century, when as part of the movement, the Philippine Independent Church sought to secede from the Church of Rome.

The Catholic Church has formed such an integral part of Filipino cultural identity that even after its transformation into a highly literate, open society, the Philippines remains staunchly conservative with respect to social mores including sexual education and family planning.

Filipinos demonstrated a strong devotion to their church as an institution in the World Values Survey of 1996 and 2001. In the chart that appears below (click to enlarge), country responses to the question do you have “a great deal” of confidence in the church are shown. The Philippines ranked eighth among all the countries surveyed (for those wondering if there is more recent data, the latest round conducted between 2005 and 2008 did not include the Philippines).

The only predominantly Christian nation

With 65% of respondents expressing great confidence in their church, the Philippines finds itself trailing countries like Morrocco, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Tanzania. It edged out India, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Iran. It is the only predominantly Christian country in the top 10 (Census data in 2000 revealed it was 92.5% Christian, 81% Roman Catholic).

The nations with the lowest levels of confidence in organized religion include Japan, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and Great Britain. They are followed by Estonia, Austria, Belgium, Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Finland. The United States falls very close to the world average at about 37%.

To demonstrate just how revered the church is in the Philippines, the following chart (click to enlarge) shows the results for various institutions in the Philippines from the same survey (1996 and 2001 results are averaged out). It shows that churches are by far the institution that has secured the greatest level of trust from the people with 65% expressing “a great deal” of confidence in it.

The environmental movement, along with the army, justice system, women’s movement and the media inspire much lower levels of confidence ranging from 28% down to 23% (not even half of confidence in churches). Among the least trusted are political parties (8%), the government (12%), labour unions and parliament (both at 15%), major companies (16%), the police (17%) and civil services (19%).

Most revered institution

The next chart combines those that expressed “a lot” and those that had “a great deal” of confidence in a range of institutions.  Again, churches garnered the highest level of trust with almost universal confidence (93%) being expressed by the sample (which numbered close to 2,400 participants for the two rounds). The women’s movement came in second (75%) followed by the environmental movement (74%), the army (71%), television (70%) and the press (70%).  They are followed by the civil services (69%) and the justice system (66%).

The institutions that found the least levels of confidence were political parties (46%), labour unions and government (both at 55%), the police (58%), parliament (61%) and major companies (66%). Given the strong performance of the church vis-à-vis other institutions in the country, it is not surprising to see it have such a big influence on the public debate over the consolidated reproductive health bill (RH bill) in congress.

The good news for the women’s movement is that it does not seem to suffer the same stigma as other seemingly “radical” institutions like labour unions. The same bit of good news applies to the environmental cause.

By contrast, congress, the government at large and political parties seem to suffer from low confidence (the presidency which was part of the survey in other countries was not included in the Philippines). It is therefore not surprising to see the president swing from one end of the pendulum to the other and back again on the issue of the RH bill.

See-saw battle

In late January consistent with his campaign pledge, he expressed continuing support for it. Then in early February after a one-on-one private meeting with a retired cardinal in his office, the president backed away from including the RH bill among his priority legislative measures. Then in March, he proposed a “third way” to bring about a compromise between the pro- and anti-RH camps. He said he would stick to his stand even if it meant ex-communication.

Seeing the president waver and hedging his bets, women’s and environmental groups came out to rally behind the bill. To their credit, congressional leaders including the speaker and leader of the minority seemed to form bi-partisan solidarity in ushering the package through the lower house. Then came support from other religious institutions in the country. The protestant churches and the influential Iglesia ni Cristo came out in support of the measure.

This might have tipped the scales for the president who then belatedly renewed his support for the house version of the bill which he had earlier de-prioritized. Having found a lukewarm greeting to his invitation for dialogue, his representatives issued a statement saying the president was happy with the house version and would throw the full weight of his office behind it.

One final hitch

Then finally the latest twist came from the speaker of the house Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte, Jr whose view it was that there was no urgency to pass the RH bill before the end of this session of Congress. The following was reported in today’s Inquirer

Belmonte Thursday said it would not be possible to put to a vote the consolidated House Bill 4244, or the “Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health, and Population and Development Bill,” during the remaining session days of Congress.

“We need not finish this (RH bill) in the last 13 days. We’re trying to get in as many bills as possible and these are bills considered for committee reporting or on second reading,” Belmonte said.

The Speaker said there was no need to rush the RH bill since President Benigno Aquino III himself “has not made anything or any pressure on us” with regard to the measure.

In fact, the RH bill was not among the priority measures submitted by Malacañang to Congress, Belmonte said (emphasis added).

Once again, another snag has been uncovered on the road to the passing of this bill. It will certainly be frustrating to those who support it, but not surprising. I predicted that the real game here was to “beat the clock.” Many said that the president’s tacit approval of the bill was all that mattered. To me, the prioritization of the bill was crucial in securing its place on the agenda.

In the final analysis, we can see just how important not prioritizing the RH bill was. The cardinals might have extracted from the Palace all that they needed to delay its passage once more. No one can fault Speaker Belmonte for prioritizing other measures. It is after all his ministerial duty to do so. The president using the “judicious use” of his powers as an excuse to exclude the RH bill last February, may have found a middle path alright. On the one hand, he remains a supporter of reproductive health, on other he found a way to “keep the faith”.

The Politics of Reform

Like mother like son?

The Asia Sentinel at the end of last week posted a piece entitled The Philippines’ Tentative President. It makes the point that as he enters his ninth month in office P-Noy has yet to demonstrate that “he has the will to use his popularity and the size of his mandate to make tough decisions.”

Such a piece is timely as we approach the 25th anniversary of the first people power revolution of 1986, as comparisons are now being drawn between the president and his mother. She was generally regarded as a weak leader although the generals who served under her embattled presidency and helped her stare down numerous coup attempts would challenge such a view.

Be that as it may, the Sentinel piece highlights the fact that with his penchant for posing as the “nice guy” P-Noy risks being perceived as a do-nothing president unwilling to roll-up his sleaves and tackle reforms that would pit him against very powerful interests.

His stance towards the issue of family planning is illustrative of this point. After promising support for the passage of the Reproductive Health or RH Bill that has languished in Congress for the last 13 years, his spokesman announced early this month that it would not be listed among the priority measures he would endorse to Congress on the 28th of February.

His intention as explained by Palace spokesman Lacierda is to introduce a new draft bill maybe later in the year following extensive consultations with the Catholic hierarchy. This of course assumes that the current RH Bill making its way through the plenary sessions of Congress will not pass. His refusal to meet with adherents of the bill further cements the view that he has closed off all access for those seeking reform to himself.

Indeed the vascillation of Aquino-II in the RH Bill can be likened to that of Aquino-I in the enactment of the CARL (or Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law). Just as Aquino-I allowed for the watering down of the bill that sought to address the issue of asset inequality (CARL), Aquino-II seems to have acceeded to the more conservative and powerful interests in the country to water down a bill seeking to address the issue of human capital inequality (RH Bill).

The saying, “what are we in power for” which symbolizes the politics of corruption and collusion in this country went to the root of P-Noy’s popularity. The country in the last election was craving for more honest leadership. When it comes to honesty in government, none can come close to the Aquino brand.

Just as Aquino-I allowed for the watering down of the bill that sought to address the issue of asset inequality (CARL), Aquino-II seems to have acceeded to the more conservative and powerful interests in the country to water down a bill seeking to address the issue of human capital inequality (RH Bill).

But to run an honest government is not the sole purpose of the reform-minded leader. The point of power is to wield it to do “some good”, namely to restructure incentives that currently align themselves to bring about perverse outcomes. Currently, in the debate over reproductive health, the Catholic Church as a corporate entity wants to preserve its monopoly of ideas when it comes to the issue of family planning.

The current structure of incentives makes it impractical or improbable for poor couples to make the best informed decision with regard to the size of their family and to stick to that decision. Studies have shown that particularly in poor families the gap between the size that they want (small) and the size that they actually end up with (large) is significant given the present levels of support available to them in this regard.

The bishops with their vast resources have issued veiled threats against the president on the eve of the EDSA-1 commemorations against changing the status quo. Having blocked the enactment of the RH Bill for so long, they want to see a version that agrees with their views. In the president they seem to have found a willing accomplice.

In engaging in the politics of reform, there were so many possibilities open to a president with exceedingly high popularity ratings. He could have set the agenda by opening a debate over reproductive health. He could have led the debate by using his office as a bully pulpit from which to educate the public with respect to the issues. He could have leveraged the sizable majority that supports the bill and could have built alliances to act as a counter-weight to the vested interests (the Artists for the RH Bill being one of the potential members of such an alliance).

Instead the president has chosen to remain within the fold of the dominant bloc. The thing about dominant groups is that they are often in the minority. Their ability to concentrate power to themselves comes from their ability to mobilize resources to help their cause compared to the majority that are often inchoate and disorganized.

The only way to move from a closed society to an open one is to democratize access to information and power. A bill which seeks to improve access to information and empower individual households among the poorest especially with respect to family planning and parenthood deserves to be prioritized. The advocates of it deserve a seat at the table.

Rather than closing off access to his office, the president should guarantee it. Only in this manner will policy development be allowed to proceed in a rational and considered manner. Only in this manner will the politics of reform be given new life.

PH warned it may end up like Somalia

PH warned it may end up like Somalia
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Like Somalia, the Philippines may become a failed state in 40 years if the reproductive health (RH) bill is not passed by Congress and the country’s rapid population growth is unchecked, an American population expert said Thursday.

Malcolm Potts said the Philippines would suffer far worse economic, environmental and even national security problems if the population would reach a projected 160 million by 2050.

“I think this is probably the most important single issue facing this country … the consequences of having perhaps 160 million people in 40 years time are very, very somber,” he told a population conference at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in Makati City.

Potts works for the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability of the University of California, one of the organizers of the conference titled “Demographic Governance: The Philippines’ Way Forward.” The agency’s partners were the AIM, Venture Strategies for Health and Development and the Asia Society.

“Unless the RH bill goes through and unless you are able to offer the poorest economic quintile the choices that they deserve, then people will be poorer. You will be importing food, you will be more like Somalia than Thailand,” Potts said.

“I think these (data) charts should give us all nightmares—those who love this country and have been here many times and those of you who belong here and love your country,” he added.

The RH bill seeks to promote both natural and artificial birth control methods through government programs and advocates the education of students on reproductive health at the appropriate age, among other aims.

It is being strongly opposed by the Catholic Church, which prohibits the use of artificial means of family planning such as birth control pills and condoms, and only favors natural means such as abstinence and the use of fertility beads among women.

Advocates in the House of Representatives expect the controversial measure to be passed by June next year, or the end of the first year of the 15th Congress.

According to a conference briefing paper, population pressures can also “increase environmental degradation and may push more people into areas more prone to natural disasters.”

The Philippines already faces severe environmental problems, the paper noted.

The country has less than 10 percent of its forest cover and coral reefs, less than 50 percent of its ground fresh water resources is potable while untreated domestic wastewater threatens water bodies further, and diseases from polluted water—which account for 31 percent of the total illnesses in the country—cost P6.7 billion annually.