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55th Anniversary Keynote Address

On Naga City Governance
by Jesse M. Robredo
Mayor, Naga City

Jesse M. Robredo (Mayor, Naga City) The Honorable Former Senator Helena Benitez, Chairperson Emeritus of the PRRM, Chairperson Wigberto Tañada, President Conrado S. Navarro, Trustee Edicio de la Torre, Trustee and Former President Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales, Vice-Chairperson Vicente Jayme,

Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat!

First of all, I would like to congratulate you for this new milestone — a celebration for the Philippine NGO movement and for the Filipino nation.

For over the past five decades, PRRM has been a major contributor to Philippine rural development. The first NGO to send dedicated and unselfish workers to the villages to introduce a progressive, integrated, fourfold program of education, livelihood, health, and self-government, PRRM pioneered a whole era of rural development and local democracy in the country.

For all its attendant problems, I believe, PRRM has done a great job in pioneering the establishment of an elected barangay government. In fact, today’s barangay councils can be claimed by the organization as one of its most valuable contributions to grassroots democracy. This pioneering effort has been replicated with commendable success in such other countries as Colombia, Guatemala, Ghana, India, and Thailand.

PRRM draws its strength from a broad membership base, representing various sectors and professions. Many of them are here today to celebrate and revisit your triumphs, as well as re-dedicate themselves for more challenges ahead.

The Philippines would have been a prouder nation, and a better one, if its leaders went beyond lip service and tried to understand and follow with their hearts PRRM’s core principles and values of justice, unity and peace, nationalism, volunteerism, care for the environment, culture, family orientation, and advocacy for people’s participation and community empowerment. While all of these do seem universal, sadly they are more often espoused than practiced.

Many of our leaders failed to heed the call, or at least heard about your credo of rural reconstruction. And probably that’s the reason why you have stayed this long and will continue to carry on for another fifty years. And probably, the road ahead is even more difficult than before.

We are fortunate in Naga City, because we did subscribe to your ideals and draw inspiration from them. This led us to making our people the center of our governance. And as your credo urges, we went to the people; lived among them; learned from them; planned with them, and; worked with them.

When Naga City was chosen by Asiaweek Magazine as one of the “Most Improved Cities” in Asia in 1999, our triumph was measured not by its physical and infrastructural development. Naga’s leap, according to Asia week, was “more institutional than physical”, where buzzwords such as transparency, people participation and efficient service delivery actually work.

In a video documentary produced by the Philippine-Australian Governance facility through experts from Swinburne University, the city’s multi-awarded land tenure and shelter program, “Kaantabay sa Kauswagan” (Partners in Development) was put into focus. As it reveals now, the video is not just a story of a government relocating squatters to better housing so that the rest of the community does not have to put up with the eyesore of ramshackle squatter areas.

It is more of a success story of how even the poorest of our people were able to identify their problems and find workable solutions. It shows how people’s lives improve by being organized and outspoken, and by accessing their rights as fellow citizens, regardless of creed, wealth, and political persuasion.

Naga’s good governance started with empowering the people. While good governance is defined as having honest, efficient, responsive, and accountable government, good governance cannot triumph without engaging the active participation of its citizens. Citizens should be encouraged to know their rights and demand that government should respect those rights. In other words, “the strength of a democracy is never greater than the will of the people to uphold it.”

Empowered People

Because we have an empowered people, those who run city hall are always kept on their toes, making their every move accountable to the taxpayer. And the best way to make it convenient for both sides is to make governance truly participative and transparent.

Because we have an empowered people, strong partnerships are developed which enable the city government to tap community resources in major undertakings. Working with the private sector and other community groups, for instance, has allowed the city government to multiply its capacity and thus overcome resource constraints. And listening to them and accommodating their inputs in decision-making, we came up with various innovative programs – from growth-oriented projects to those meant to mainstream the poor in community development.

Where It All Began

As a young student of the turbulent 70s, I saw how the braver of our people spoke and expressed their ideas under pain of being labelled and detained as a subversive. So when I first became city mayor in 1988, or two years after the fall of Martial Law, we responded to the call of then President Corazon C. Aquino for the Filipino people to make “People Power” permanent by building “organized People’s Power” at the grassroots level.

Several of my friends in Naga who belonged to the “popdem cluster” of NGOs that included, among others, the PRRM and the Institute for Popular Democracy, discussed with us the idea of not only defending democracy but of “deepening” democracy, as well. Thus after a fruitful, nay, relatively tedious period of consultations and dialogues, discussion papers and research, the Naga City People’s Council was born, with its enabling “People Empowerment Ordinance” being hailed as the first of its kind in the country.

In effect, the city government has put a watchdog over itself. This is doubly significant especially because since 1992, during my successive terms as city mayor, we won every election on a straight ticket, from the mayor down to the last member of the Sanggunian.

As we have discovered when people talk about their own ideas, offer different options, and engage in debates over opposing views and opinions, nothing is lost when translating them into common i goals and aspirations. We also realized that for development outcomes to be sustainable, the process of governance is equally important as the desired outcomes.

One good thing led to another, and another. While the People Empowerment Ordinance calls for participation of civil society in government decision-making, another innovation, the i-Governance program, was established to focus on engaging the individual citizen by providing avenues for information access and individual participation.

i-Governance not only recognizes the citizen’s right to know but also encourages him to engage his government to freely provide him with information on what his elected leaders are accountable for.

Under the i-Governance program, we have published copies of the Naga Citizens Charter for the city households, the first of its kind in the country, and the naga.gov.ph website, cited by the National Computer Center as the country’s best LGU website for three consecutive years since the search for best website began in 2004.

Looking back, we have succeeded because we willed to put power in the hands of our people. Naga City has been cited for its innovative programs and excellent practices in various fields of governance, such as human settlement, education, health, environment, and the promotion of gender and women’s rights, among others. Truly, the more people there are who participate, the more responsibly we can address our problems.

It has been said that bad officials are elected by good citizens who did not take the time and trouble to be active in community affairs or even to vote wisely. As our people have learned, a small investment of their time and effort will pay big dividends in good government. And as they learned, too, good government is every citizen’s business.

Governance may be complicated, as life is. But the business of delivering service can be simple, indeed. With an empowered constituency, all that is needed is the will for government leaders to listen to the people’s voice and thus do what is wise and proper.

Challenges

Looking back, I always reckon with the thought that carrying on the banner of the ideal is a never-ending quest. The call for reform and effective governance is a continuing struggle where the challenge is to learn lessons from our failures and successes. This is so because times and demands change, including the ever- obtaining realities of politics and economics, which, incidentally have become global, whatever that means.

In another plane, such perspective is challenged by the idea that while more things change, the more they remain the same. Yes, the processes should change even while our core values remain.

I am at the beginning of my last term as Mayor of Naga City. Like in the past, we seize it as an opportune time to revisit our successes and failures. I must confess that we have learned more from our failures than our successes. While we have clang to our core beliefs and principles, we have accepted that fulfilling our mission requires recognition of new paradigms. Pragmatic policy change has marked our quest to make the lives of our people better.

Come to think of it, despite the changes in the physical landscape, especially in the more urban enclaves of the country, the brutality of life for peasants or farmers and the corruption that has been gnawing at every corner of the bureaucracy have refused to vanish since 55 years ago when you first dreamed of making the Philippines the most progressive nation in the Far East. This leads me to thinking that perhaps this 55th anniversary celebration will be an interesting time to revisit your achievements to make them more responsive to the demands of the times.

Thank you very much.

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