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Investing in People
Business buzzwords work in the Philippines

Ellen Tuyay for Asiaweek
Naga mayor Roco (right) and his predecessor Robredo patrol the streets

On the surface Naga looks like a typical Philippine city. Lying in the shadow of the extinct Mt. Isarog volcano, its familiar blend of ancient and new buildings rises against a backdrop of giant, old trees. But looks can be deceiving. An unusual brand of governance distinguishes Naga from its more conventional counterparts. This is one of the few places in the Philippines where the mayor does not parade around with bodyguards; where he helps sweep the streets after devastating typhoons, and cycles through town with village leaders on weekends, looking for needed repairs. This is also the home of a unique law that authorizes citizens to meddle in city policies, institutionalizing the spirit of the 1986 People Power revolt.

Naga sits in the heart of Bikol, on the southeastern tip of Luzon island. The region shares the irony of much of the Third World: its abundant ores, fertile soil, geothermal power and rich fishing grounds have failed to enrich its people. Unemployment is high and half the families live below the poverty line. "Bikol has the second highest incidence of poverty among the country's 15 regions," says Jesuit priest Joel Tabora, president of Ateneo de Naga University. Yet the city has thrived over the past nine years.

According to government rating, Naga leaped from being a third-class city in 1988, in terms of income and services, to first-class status in 1990. Jesse Robredo, co-engineer of that feat, describes the city's dramatic progress as "more institutional than physical." It all started when he was elected mayor in 1989. Robredo ran the mayor's office as he did when he was an executive at San Miguel Corp. He made buzzwords such as "accountability," "transparency," and "service" concrete qualities citizens could expect from city officials. One way he did that was to set standard response times. For instance, officials had one day to attend to complaints about uncollected garbage before citizens could petition directly to the mayor's office.

Aided by the city council, Robredo boosted social spending - by as much as 100 times in some instances. With the help of the Rotary Club, Naga began aggressively feeding poor children and expectant mothers. Malnutrition, the seventh leading cause of child death in 1994, was not even in the top 10 by 1997. The city also cajoled private owners and the Catholic Church to augment government-owned lands for a housing program. Of 5,500 squatter families at the beginning of Robredo's tenure, 4,668 now own land. "That's why many people missed the mayor when he left," says Rodolfo Eduardo, a former squatter. But Robredo had served the maximum nine years allowed by the constitution. Term limits are necessary, he says, because even a mayor's imagination "can be exhausted."


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Robredo's certainly wasn't when he was in office. Among his many ideas: educational improvements. During his tenure, Naga gained 30 public pre-schools, four high schools and 760 college scholarships for poor, bright students. Father Raul Bonoan, Tabora's predecessor at the university who died in April, did his bit by inspiring students to stay put in Naga. "Education in Bikol must be for Bikol development," Bonoan used to insist. He opened the region's Institute for Local Government Administrators, and the Center for Community Development, which lends money to poor women. He also persuaded neighboring colleges to offer courses like volcanology, mining and geothermal engineering "to break the paradox of beggars in Bikol sitting on a gold mine," explains Tabora.

Despite the heavy spending on education and housing, the city still found money for infrastructure improvements. The number of concrete roads and households with running water doubled between 1988 and 1996, and garbage collection efficiency rose from 29% to 85%. This progress - phenomenal by Philippine standards - was funded by an increased tax base (the number of businesses doubled), and by the elimination of corruption, which wastes huge chunks of public money. We have "no adverse findings" concerning fund misuse in Naga City, says Virgilio Verdadero of the Commission on Audit.

Perhaps the greatest of all of Naga's accomplishments is the hotly contested passage of the country's only Empowerment Ordinance four years ago. The law allows non-government groups to form a People's Council, which in turn chooses representatives to fill up to a quarter of the seats in the city government's committees. Members are not allowed to vote, but they have been able to sway elected councilors through vocal arguments. "We had no model [to follow]," says priest Nelson Tria, of the Caceres Social Action Foundation, one of the 44 groups represented. In fact, the People's Council is a model of participatory government.

Sulpicio Roco, who was elected mayor last year with Robredo's backing, confesses that the People's Council makes his life more difficult. "But the good thing is issues are masticated more fully," he says. Roco had his heart set on turning 20 hectares of farmland into a much-needed landfill but the idea was blocked by the People's Council. "We recognize the need for a solid waste program, but there's no technical study to vouch for the landfill's safety and effectiveness," says council executive director Marilou Capucao. Roco notes wryly that if there were no council, he could just send his bulldozers. "My failure is indicative of our success in developing participatory democracy."

Leftist pressure group Bayan is unimpressed. Ronnie Competente, one of Bayan's officials, dismisses Robredo's accomplishments, arguing that most workers continue to take home less than the minimum wage. But complaints like Competente's are rare. Other people note how the Church, the biggest landowner for over three centuries, was finally persuaded to sell 5.5 hectares to the city at below market rates for squatter housing. The sale went through after more than 40 years of fruitless negotiations. That, the residents say, is a miracle in itself - one of the many that has made Naga a better place to live.

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