With pin-striped economic advisers in tow, Philippine President Corazon Aquino descends on the United States this week to drum up more investment and aid for her debt-ridden economy. So frequent have been such borrowing trips that cartoonists at Manila's dailies have had a field day lampooning Cory carrying a begging bowl from one world capital to another.
Would-be investors, members of Congress and the American public would do well to fight the inclination to fill the bowl further as the way to improve the lives of the majority of Filipinos.
A year of research across the Philippine archipelago convinced us that Aquino's "people's power" agenda is hopelessly stalled as far as the government is concerned. And enhanced financial flows from the United States through what was originally called a mini-Marshall Plan (and is now known as the Multilateral Assistance Initiative) cannot overcome this basic obstacle.
Aquino's promise of land to the tiller has degenerated into a program of almost comical scandals in which wealthy landlords sell their worst parcels of land to the government at ridiculously inflated prices, which peasants-turned-landowners must repay in full. This may be the first land reform in history in which the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
Similarly, loggers are tearing down Philippine forests at a rate that is among the fastest in the world. The core of the problem is a timber-licensing system in which about 90 wealthy individuals have been granted control over most of the forests. Time and again they avoid replanting new trees by using part of their ample profits to buy off government and military officials.
Aquino did not help the situation earlier this year by appointing a wealthy businessman, Roberto Villanueva, to head up an agency created to oversee the new aid. Villanueva put together an uninspired policy framework that would channel the mini-Marshall Plan to an almost endless list of large projects that fail to address poverty and environmental destruction. As Yale economist Gustav Ranis recently warned in a critical assessment of the aid plan, giving lots of money to Aquino's "return to the same old discredited narrow growth path" could "do more harm than good."
News of Aquino's failures is undoubtedly jarring to Americans who invested so much hope in the exuberant symbolism of her victory over the Marcos dictatorship. Yet we should have realized that improving the prospects of the two-thirds of Filipinos who live and die below the poverty line would require substantial redistribution away from the small elite who have long controlled the Philippines' economy and natural resources. With her family owning one of the country's largest sugar plantations (where we observed race horses living better than migrant workers), Aquino was ill-positioned to initiate the necessary land and other reforms.
Fortunately, a far more fruitful and inexpensive alternative for U.S. assistance was clearly visible as we traveled the Philippine countryside. While stalled at the government level, the people's power agenda of social reform continues to percolate in pockets of action around the country.
Farmers on the southern island of Mindanao--men and women, young and old--described to us their fears as they sat down for 11 days and nights to blockade logging trucks passing through their town. Mudslides from denuded mountains were destroying their fields, and help was not forthcoming from the government far away in Manila. The peasants felt that they had no alternative but to act. Despite brutal harassment by the military, they eventually forced the government to cancel the loggers' licenses. Now the farmers want assistance to replant the trees and to halt the logging that continues illegally.
Fisherfolk in the central Philippines are fighting the depletion of fishing banks by Japanese trawlers and the destruction of nearby coral reefs in which fish live and multiply. They seek assistance to create sustainably managed marine reserves and to build artificial reefs from old tires or concrete.
Tribal Filipinos on the northern island of Luzon are fighting loggers and mining companies that have encroached on their ancestral lands. They simply want recognition of their land rights so that they may continue their traditional, sustainable forms of agriculture.
It is these people's power initiatives of the poorer majority in the Philippines that should electrify the world. They would benefit from modest amounts of outside aid. In this case, more is not better. Indeed, the billions of dollars that currently flow through the World Bank and government aid agencies toward large projects simply line the pockets of government officials and private contractors.
Rather, the United States could cut substantially the half-billion dollars in aid it has earmarked for the Philippines next year and use the remainder to endow a new foundation in Manila. Administered by experts from non-governmental Philippine and U.S. development organizations, the foundation could direct assistance toward promising small-scale initiatives.
To Cory Aquino and her well-dressed entourage, the message should be firm: The United States wishes to channel its limited aid resources toward people-powered programs--programs that enhance equity, participation and ecological sustainability. Until the Philippine government proves by its actions that it is unequivocally behind such an agenda, U.S. aid should go directly to those who are putting their lives on the line to advance that dream.