The Golden Age of Civil Society


A small group of ordinary, like-minded,individuals, is coming together,and casting an invitation to the rest of the world to join us in exploring through LIWANAG 2015 what the Philippine Civil Society in the 1990s and all preceding and succeeding forces of deep change are teaching us about—the imperative role of social movements and its collectives of people in reshaping Civil Society to become a force that makes positive societal change possible.

Over the course of human history, Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement and Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement have given us a glimpse of the capacity of social movements to transform society. The Civil Rights movement and the non-violent resistance movements did not necessarily end racism but they provided a whole new context in which to view race and racial segregation and have allowed societies to reach a certain threshold of thinking or attitude enough to shift a set of belief systems and put them into action. At the same time, movements like the post anti-apartheid system in South Africa and the Philippine People’s Power movement of 1986 that deposed a 20-year dictator have also shown us how some—perhaps, most—social movements, even after their initial success, run the danger of being absorbed or co-opted by the very system it has been trying to change.

In looking over the historical landscape of social movements, we ask ourselves, is the world a better place to live in? Is a positive future for our children and their children seven generations over more secure? Is our planet safer, our human community more peaceful, more loving? If none of this is so, should we be shifting the way we do what we’re doing or doing something completely different?

Today, we continue to facecomplex challenges—poverty, climate change,transactional and “trapo” politics,budget deficits, corruption, fast, unplanned urbanization & high taxation with poor public services,social and economic inequality, injustice, conflict, wars, criminality, human trafficking, technological singularity and materialism trumping spirituality & humanism. Each alerts us to the deterioration of our human values and the loss of our soul. What should we be doing about this?

Golden Age of Civil Society in the Philippines and Cebu

There was a time when Philippine Civil Society and the social movements in it were the most respected in the world. No government policy nor business practice in the country could move without civil society supporting them. Billions of dollars in investments were held up in business and government because projects were not passing the social and environmental criteria that had been set up, agreed upon and legislated by the three-folding partnership of government, business and civil society.

Felisa U. Etemadi, professor in the Social Sciences Division of the University of the Philippines Cebu College and technical consultant to government organizations, NGOs and peoples organizations describe this time in this manner:

“SOON AFTER THE 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime, the Corazon Aquino government started restoring democratic institutions and processes in the country. The new Philippine Constitution recognizes the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based or people’s organizations (POs) in nation building, and their participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making. The 1991 Local Government Code laid the foundation for local autonomy and provided the enabling mechanisms for popular participation in governance.(1) The winds of change reconfigured state–civil society dynamics at the national and local levels.”—The politics of engagement: gains and challenges of the NGO coalition in Cebu City, Environment & Urbanization Vol 16 No 1 April 2004.

At the time, ninety-five percent (95%) of civil society in the Philippines were in communication with each other—even without cellphones and the internet, The heads of national networks comprised of thousands of non-government organizations (NGOs) and movements of different backgrounds and histories throughout the country met regularly for the interestof collective vision and advocacy.

From 1989 to 1998, civil society had powerful positions in national councils and there were venues for real influence in making important social reforms—the biggest examples being the Social Reform Agenda and the Philippine Coalition for Sustainable Development. In 1996, PCSD launched Philippine Agenda 21 (PA21) which is the country’s highest development policy. “PA21’s origins can be traced back to 1992, when newly-elected Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos invited 18 civil society leaders for a dialogue on sustainable development.”—Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding. It was also during this time when 12 to 20 laws had been passed and approved like the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) and important legislation in women’s rights.

Through PA 21, a culture of threefolding was fully exercised. There was a “participation of civil society, government and business at all levels of engagement: the villages, the towns, the province, the regions, and at the national level.” According to one of its co-authors, NicanorPerlas, winner of Alternative Nobel Prize Winner for Right Livelihood and on the United Nations Top 500 Roll, “Social movements that are in the culture sphere [Civil Society] alone cannot be the only players in transforming society. Sustainable societies are the harmonization of cultural, political and economic interest towards the greater goal of integral sustainable development.”

It was in this golden age of Civil Society that the Philippines was established as the next “green tiger” economy in Asia.

In Cebu City, 851 kilometers south of the country’s capital Manila, the so-called Queen City of the South where Liwanag 2015 will be held, Professor Etemadi describes a similar climate during the heyday of Civil Society.

“The first local election held in 1988 occasioned the forging of a strategic alliance between the cause-oriented and urban poor groups and the political neophyte Tomas Osmeña of the Bando Osmeña–PundokKauswagan Party. He and his ticket, including the vice-mayoralty candidate Alvin Garcia, attended all the rallies organized by urban poor groups and signaled their support for the seven-point People’s Alternative.(2) As promised, when Osmeña became mayor, he created the City Commission for the Urban Poor (CCUP), (3) making Cebu City one of the first local government units (LGUs) in the country to have such an office; also, a few NGO leaders and development workers were recruited to join the city frontline offices.(4) These developments sent a positive signal to the NGO community, which decided to come together in order to maximize the opportunities offered by such a propitious political climate.”

Over time, several different factors began to erode both the positive changes that social movements have been trying to bring about in society as well as the social movements themselves. In a quick survey of 45 NGO leaders and movement activators—in and outside the Philippines—about their experience of social movements conducted recently by the LIWANAG 2015 organizers, we learned about the following factors that diminish the long-term potential of social movements, many of which reflect those in Professor Etemadi’s studies:

  • Time, energy and resources are used up in reactive response to the misbehavior of the day, be it to stop the building of flyovers, the cutting of healthy 100-year old trees, the entry of GMOs in live crops/seeds/feeds and genetically engineered Golden Rice, etc.
  • Connected with the above, the NGOs or movements either do not have a long-term development plan they are following, or they had it but didn’t have the bandwidth, time and resources to implement them
  • Volunteers and staff go through burnout as they watch both their personal as well as project resources dwindle over long periods of time, their efforts bringing very little to bear
  • Leaders of movements are recruited into government positions or positions in government agencies, thus losing their ability to fight independently for their cause or losing themselves within the system
  • Internal conflict, competition and other egotistic patterns of behavior weakened the advocacy of the organization
  • Movement leaders who have been fighting the good fight for many years, are still leading many of the movements of today. Many feel a little worn down and feel they cannot retire to fully enjoy their grandchildren and the farms or beach houses they forsook in their most activist years. They worry about the next generation’s commitment and ability to lead the next movements
  • Project initiatives that give up their bold, creative and long term transformative ideas to cater to altruistic but many times short-sighted, in-the-box funders who have narrow agendas to accomplish and short term, quick-fix results to base their success on.
  • An unsupportive government that caters to its own agenda, always angling for whatever will win them the next elections.Proponents of change fearing that a change of leadership in their local government unit (and up) will change their commitment to the project
  • A lack of consciousness about the importance of a healthy and strong inner life and inner character to deal with the material and egotistic temptations of the outer world. Such matters that only a healthy, authentic, spiritual and responsible Civil Society could help to develop in its citizens.

Is the Golden Age of Civil Society a thing of the past? What has taken or is taking its place? What transpired between the late 1990s into the 2010s?  What forms of social movements have begun to take shape, to what impact? And what new shapes are they taking on?evolving into? Is there a resurgence of Civil Society through its movements?