IPD: Twenty Years In Retrospect

25 September 2006
Article

Twenty years is a small portion of people’s lives, but long enough to challenge institutional remembrance. Its founders cannot agree on a precise date for the Institute for Popular Democracy’s birth, only that it goes back twenty years ago to July or August 1986. Continuing traditions are understandably easier to connect with. Ruptured connections may reveal more. There are many ways to tell IPD's story of twenty years. Because IPD identity is built around its progressive politics, that is the story I want to tell.

IPD began as part of an attempt to recover from the national democratic movement’s disastrous boycott of the February 1986 election and its exclusion from EDSA 1, the defining moment of the post-Marcos era. It was tasked with designing new language, the better to connect with the new, democratic ethos. “Peoples’ Democracy” became “Popular Democracy” following Latino usage of “popular” to mean poor, disadvantaged people.

Because language shapes thought, IPD found itself escaping the boundaries of national democratic ideology. Often this was not the result of explicit ideological combat. If you are assigned to work with other Left groups, it helps if you start with respecting their progressive credentials. If you have to converse with poor people, it helps if you make an effort to understand their own, separate discourse. These may seem like simple truisms. Try reading these ideas through sectarian lenses.

Letting go of national democratic certainties pushed IPD into the uncharted white waters of shaping progressive thought in the course of democratic practice. When you’re trying to form a coalition, a real one, you don’t start with a predetermined position. But, how do you calm fears of “unprincipled compromise”, of being coopted by those who hold power? Accepting that there are no answers that apply to all occasions is a beginning; building confidence in working for the poor and dispossessed as a political anchor is another.

Over the course of its first ten years, IPD was an active part of many progressive coalitions: to defend the Cory Aquino government from numerous right wing coup attempts, to push the limits of the newly won democratic space, to expand the space into new areas for indigenous people and for the urban poor, among others. Although open national democratic formations sometimes joined these coalitions, IPD worked closely with smaller progressive groups, non-party political formations called ‘political blocs’ or—sometimes with characteristic self-deprecation—the ‘three little pigs’.

The next ten years began with a simple idea, ‘post-bloc politics’. Most progressive coalitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, whether issue-based or longer term-sectoral coalitions, were started by or included the main political blocs. But they remained small, unable to go beyond their limited NGO and social movement bases. ‘Post-bloc politics’ started with the idea of political bloc coalitions for the purpose of opening up new areas of work and building new organizations together to accelerate the accumulation of political power. The gamble was that doing this would bring these small political blocs together to the point where they could build an alternative political and organizational identity.

Attempts were made to build new-style labor and peasant coalitions, of which only the peasant organization remains. The most successful application of the ideas associated with post-bloc politics was the formation of a new progressive political party, Akbayan! (Active Citizens Party). The political and intellectual foundations for Akbayan were laid as early as 1996, but it was not formally founded until 1998. It has grown steadily, quite deliberately, to become the main democratic Left party in the Philippines.

The most difficult obstacles to building a political party were ideological. It might seem self-evident that contesting elections is a necessity if you want to build a party. Not if you have to do it in a country where Left strategy has been dominated by armed struggle for three decades. Building an open, democratic mass party ran up against two traditions: parties of the elite which are small, temporary coalitions of politicians, and the dominant Left tradition of underground, democratic centralist parties controlling above ground parties.

The uninformed ascribe an embarrassing closeness between IPD and Akbayan. The overly imaginative or merely malicious say one controls the other. IPD’s role has been more modest, if substantive: facilitating, sometimes provoking intellectual encounters, providing venues and coffee, generating contacts and resources. While remaining fiercely, sometimes exasperatingly independent, IPD has shaped many of its programs towards generating the kinds of reforms that would assist the growth of Akbayan and democratic Left accumulation of power by other groups.

I have been accused of ceaselessly looking for a constitutional reform angle to every issue. Not true, only most issues. Political reform has to be fought at many administrative and legislatives sites. But we have worked in these sites on the assumption that in the end, it is the form of government bequeathed by American colonial authorities and their elite Filipino heirs that requires changing and that can only be done through constitutional reform. But constitutional reform is Catch 22. It can only be done by the very legislature that justifies reform with its corruption and ineptness.

The accelerating pace of changes in local politics opens up more room for intervention. The inadvertently radical Local Government Code of 1991, sown on a fertile field of changes in local political economy, has generated developments that go beyond decentralization. Analyzing these changes, designing and piloting programs of intervention, has taken up more and more of IPD energies. Working within Batman (a.k.a. the Barangay-Bayan Governance Coalition) and with local NGOs and local chief executives calls up strategic reserves of energy.

IPD’s local governance work even went international. We had avoided getting caught up in the international NGO conference circuit because it takes up so much time. We contributed as best as we could to international anti-globalization and peace campaigns, but concentrated our efforts on building a firm local/national foundation. We “went international” because of the demand for sharing Philippine civil society capability in advocacy and local governance with neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. For four years we ran an advocacy internship program for eight Southeast Asian countries. Our role as the “Southeast Asian node” of the international local governance learning network, Logolink, translated into the Citizens Participation in Local Governance (CPLG) program in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

While pushing civil society and Left political party work into local governance, IPD understands that the political power of the poor needs to be built on their own organizations, or on what in the Philippines are called 'social movement organizations'. Without active and growing social movement organizations, Left political parties will not grow, and if they do without organizations of the poor to be accountable to, will lose their progressive moorings. In 2002, IPD initiated an extensive research program into Philippine social movements. Research results have been actively inserted into social movement discourse.

Through most of the last ten years, IPD's political 'constituency' (I prefer 'working partners') tended to be determined by who was willing to engage our political ideas. In practice, this meant working with the four political blocs who went into Akbayan, plus the occasionally broader issue-based coalitions we went into, and independent progressives and reformers. In 2005, IPD capped its forum series on issues of the Left with a three-day conference of the main Left groups, parties and longterm coalitions. A month later, the crisis of the Arroyo administration broke and provided a challenge to the groups that met. A broad coalition of democratic Left organizations, coalitions and individuals formed Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses).

These programs and the generous institutional support of CORDAID, Ford Foundation, Bread for the World and Novib enabled IPD to double its staff and secure the equipment needed for its work by the second half of the 1990s. Unlike many NGOs, we did not need to scramble for funds or spend lots of staff time preparing funding proposals and innumerable reports. But, we knew that the unusual financial situation of IPD would not last forever. We began to prepare for the shift when Ford Foundation unexpectedly closed down its Philippine operations a few years ago. This meant competing for scarce project funds with other NGOs, and developing an income generation capacity.

We started with something we humbly called a “Political Mapping Project” but was in fact an ambitious plan to build a massive data bank of election results down to the precinct level, political influentials down to the municipal level, local public finance, and a capacity to translate accessible public and private demographic and survey data into more usable forms. The idea was to use sophisticated, IT-based electoral campaign technology to make up for Akbayan's disadvantage in campaign finances and to sell the technology to other contestants. It has taken much longer to build this capacity than we thought. But in the meantime, we developed other IT capacities.

The last, we insist progressive, IPD innovation during this twenty year period, is building what we call a Sustainability Work Team. Sustainability is understood here both as financial sustainability and developing the IPD capacity, and by extension our partners' capacities, to use IT to advance the progressive cause. The projects range from designing an SMS-based quick-response assistance system for overseas Filipino workers, to a computerized distribution system for pharmaceuticals for a large national cooperative federation, to 'free and open software' management programs for ten small and large towns and cities.

Somewhere else in this website, there should be a place where we can tell the stories of the individuals who have made this varied and I don't have to be bragging (just objective) to say 'impressive' history possible. If the national democratic movement that IPD came out of was built on the capacity of people to be disciplined, 'grim and determined' in implementing a preset strategy, IPD's achievement has been built on something completely different. Together we have undertaken an uncharted journey that privileges individual initiative, that is more joyful than grim, that builds on solidarity less than discipline. A journey that now continues into the next twenty.