Podcast: Thinking and Working Politically in a Pioneering Programme in the Philippines

September 10, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Earlier this year I spent a fascinating week in the Philippines with the Coalitions for Change programme, one of the pioneers of ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ in the aid sector. CfC is run by The Asia Foundation and funded by the Australian Government. It ‘focuses on key policy reforms to improve lives of Filipinos and promote their economic well-being.’

I asked some of the key players (two members of staff and one partner) to explain how it all works. Here’s a summary of what they told me.

Jaime Faustino, Strategic Adviser to CfC: How to identify issues for thinking and working politically (TWP)? Generally the main problems are known – decades of studies whether in infrastructure, public finance or whatever, and umpteen efforts by aid agencies to address them. The real challenge is identifying leaders who are committed and have the drive, vision and grit to address these intractable problems.

How to construct a reform team? You’re trying to find the leaders buried in the system, in a CSO or a policy thinktank. They know enough to be frustrated by the ways things are done, but they don’t yet have all the bad habits from logframes etc. And they’re unknown, hungry and keen to build their careers.

Toix Cerna, CfC Team Leader: What’s it like moving here from an NGO? I am freer right now. NGOs have certain rules and processes, discuss everything in the General Assembly. Have to write everything down to submit it to the donors, then as you implement the programme you have all the reporting requirements, make sure you’re following the agreed agenda. In TWP we’re more nimble – we work in a very small team, the reporting to donors is done by The Asia Foundation. We can change our plan depending on the information we get from the field, sometimes within the week!

How do you get ‘field information’? You get key information over beer – that’s when some people feel more comfortable talking about the real game, so you can find out the incentives of certain players. They won’t talk about it in public, but over beer you get ‘confessions in whispered talks’.

Jaime Faustino: How to put together a ‘reform team’: Apart from the team leader, you need some technical expertise, someone who knows the issue well. Second, you need political skills and networks, people who have connections into the sector you are working in, or can open doors. The third is the insider – normally they come from the sector you’re trying to influence. It’s like hacking the system. And those roles often overlap. The hardest one to find is the insider – they’re the traitor to the class, who knows the inner workings of the sector.

3 Examples of CFC-promoted reforms

Sin (Tobacco)Taxes, Carla Michelle Yu, Action for Economic Reform (CfC partner):

How does AER push a new law through Congress? It needs a strong technical foundation for the conversations with legislators, evidence-based. But the other part is building trust – that’s where a lot of my work comes in, building relationships with legislators, civil society. They have to learn to trust you as a person, not just based on the evidence.

Take Manny Paquiao for example (the legendary Filipino boxer turned senator). Around 2017 we were pushing for another increase in the tobacco taxes, and most senators weren’t interested. We got to Senator Paquiao’s office – we didn’t think he would be interested in taxation, he’s more into the sports side. But what piqued his interest is the health aspect of the reform – we found out he’s a big health advocate, they have competitions within his office to lose weight or eat healthily! He ended up sponsoring the bill. That was a key learning – no matter what we think about them or their party, there’s a person underneath all that. The task is to find what motivates them to move in a certain way.

The players won’t talk about the real game in public, but over beer you get ‘confessions in whispered talks’.

Working in a hostile environment (Duterte): It’s our job to look for the cracks, the openings where we can introduce policy reforms that we think are feasible. Under this administration the economic reform team is pretty competent and there is a space for reform – space for us to engage.

School Congestion, Jaime Faustino

The Australians and Asia Foundation said ‘try to do something in education’. So we went around for 9 months and identified a problem everyone else had missed. Everyone had said the problem was classroom shortages, so the solution was to put money into building classrooms. We identified a different problem (by listening) – schools had no land to build on. So we tried to make it possible for the government to purchase land for schools. There was a lot of initial resistance – legitimate fears of corruption. So we ended up finding a workaround via the legislature.

Now there’s a lot of new building – 12 or 13 new school sites and the first school is opening next year for about 2000 students, to alleviate crowding in two nearby schools.

A lesson that we try to emphasize is that policy reform is specific – specific words, specific phrases and language. There are certain phrases that need to go into the policy reform because they mean something legally or in the context. And that’s why having the insider is so critical – they understand why certain words are so important.

Manila’s traffic nightmare, Toix Cerna

We’ve broken down the problem into adding mobility options or improving existing ones. So we’re looking at adding options specifically for the poor. Motor bike taxies already exist, but they’re informal, unregulated – a risk both for the commuter (no insurance) and the driver (penalty fines if caught). So our position is legalize it, and regulate it.

We’ve built a coalition with CSOs, the motor bike taxis and others. The government’s initial position was ‘this is not going to happen’, but we mobilized online, created pressure so the government agreed to set up a Technical Working Group, which is a big step. We think the government will issue the policy – it’s inevitable.

Tomorrow: Comparing CfC to other adaptive management/TWP programmes