In pursuit of an inclusive city

21 Feb

Gerald M. Nicolas
JJCICSI

The contrast between Naga City and Quezon City is staggering. In terms of land area, Naga City (8,448 hectares) is half the size of Quezon City (16,112 hectares). As of 2007, the population of Bicol’s industrial hub was only 12,300 persons short of Quezon City’s Barangay Commonwealth’s 172,834. Last year, Naga City’s revenue was P323 million while Quezon City earned more than P11 billion. Quezon City is host to the biggest malls, best universities, tallest condominiums, and swankiest villages. Naga City has only a branch of a famous mall chain and an Ateneo “extension.” There are no “killer highways” that put Nagueños’ lives in danger, but they cannot brag that their place is a “City of Stars.”

But there is something that distinguishes Naga City from Quezon City, or any city in Metro Manila for that matter. It is its brand of urban governance that embraces local democracy and exemplifies political maturity.

While Typhoon “Juaning” was battering the Bicol region, urban poor leaders and NGO representatives from the two cities, as well as from Legazpi, Valenzuela and Caloocan, met in a humble LGU-owned facility in Naga to share stories about their experiences in exhorting their local governments to allow citizens to take part in governance. It was a short but insightful discussion. The leaders from Quezon City and Naga City described their struggle as “long and arduous.” Their efforts though have so far led to (or are heading towards) opposite directions.

People’s participation in the local government of Naga City was institutionalized through the Empowerment Ordinance. Passed in 1995, the landmark ordinance mandated the city government to engage accredited NGOs and people’s organizations (POs), collectively known as the Naga City People’s Council (NCPC), in running the affairs of the city. The idea did not sit well with politicians, who were not receptive to a government-NGO/citizens partnership and unsympathetic to their constituents’ concerns, particularly those of the poor. But with then Mayor Jessie Robredo at the helm, it was not difficult for civil society groups—representing different sectors such as businessmen, informal settlers, tricycle and jeepney drivers, and laborers—to influence government. The NCPC was able to stop the construction of a golf course that would have put a strain on the city’s water sources. It was also responsible for the development of the implementing rules of the Kaantabay sa Kauswagan Program that has benefited thousands of informal settlers through in-city relocation and site-upgrading projects. One could sense the pride in the Nagueño urban poor leaders as they shared their experiences, observations and insights as to what happens when local government gives them space to contribute to the city’s development.

Can a participatory governance mechanism similar to the NCPC be replicated in Quezon City? Why not? As a matter of fact, an initiative to bring this about has started. During his term as city councilor, now Rep. Jorge Banal Jr. introduced the “Participation, Accountability and Transparency (PAT) Ordinance.” The PAT Ordinance, passed in 2009, would create the People’s Council of Quezon City (PCQC), giving citizens’ groups a voice in governance. But the people’s organizations and NGOs that pushed for the measure are beginning to worry about the seeming lack of interest on the part of the city’s present leadership to put the PCQC in action—PAT ordinance’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) have yet to be issued.

One urban poor leader pointed out that it needs an open-minded and visionary leader like Jessie Robredo to allow vibrant civil society participation. He went on to say that local governance in Quezon City, from the City Hall down to the barangay, has been characterized by personalistic and patronage-based politics. Elected leaders secure votes by handing out favors to their constituents but offer them no opportunities for collective and constructive participation in decisions that affect their welfare.

Can the elected officials of Quezon City enter into real dialogue with nongovernment groups, even those that criticize them, in order to develop programs for the homeless, women, children, and informally employed? Will they allow these sectors to have a voice in the formulation of policies and development plans?

People’s participation is an essential element of good urban governance. Quezon City may be big and rich, but its local government and civil society can learn a lesson or two from a small city like Naga. An initiative has already been taken by the previous city administration through the passage of the PAT ordinance, but its implementation is being held up simply by the absence of the IRR. Is anyone in the present city government afraid of people’s participation? It is only when the citizens, especially those coming from the vulnerable sectors, are given the room to become partners in governance that cities, and society in general, can become truly inclusive and democratic, not just inhabited by “stars.”

This article was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer (August 12, 2011)

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