Ronald Mendoza: 'Matuwid na daan' and political dynasties in the Philippines

Ronald Mendoza, executive director of the Asian Institute of Management’s Policy Center. Photo by: personal collection

Filipinos head to the polls later this month to elect members of the Philippine Congress and leaders in local government. On many ballots, voters will find familiar last names.

Political dynasties are common in the Philippines, as shown by a study co-penned by Ronald Mendoza, executive director of the Asian Institute of Management’s Policy Center. This is a cause of concern, he argues, as dynasties suggest an increasing monopoly of power that could hinder ambitious reform efforts.

A well-published policy scholar, Mendoza is one the most influential development leaders aged 40 and under in Manila.

Devex is recognizing 40 of these young trailblazers in international development. They are social entrepreneurs, government leaders, development consultants, business innovators, advocates, development researchers, nonprofit executives and journalists.

We spoke with Mendoza about his work, what can be done to accelerate development in the Philippines and how the academic community can have more impact on development.

You’ve written about the linkages between political dynasties and poverty in the Philippines. What have you found and what are its implications on development policy?

Our first study is one of the first empirical analyses of political dynasties in the Philippine Congress. Our main interest was to examine what types of socio-economic outcomes are linked to dynasties. Claims have always been made with anecdotal evidence, and until our study, we didn’t have a national snapshot of what it really looks like. Our findings give cause for concern:

  • 70 percent of the 15th Philippine Congress is dynastic, and dynasties dominate all of the major political parties.

  • On average, there are more dynasties in regions with higher poverty and lower human development.

  • 80 percent of the youngest congressmen (age 26-40) are from dynastic clans.

  • Dynasties tend to be richer when one outlier is removed among present non-dynasties. (That outlier, by the way, appears to be busy creating a dynasty as well.)

This study has been published in the Philippine Political Science Journal. We are now following up with another study that tries to differentiate “fat” versus “thin” dynasties at the local government level, analyzing the factors that contribute to these different patterns. Our initial results suggest that the key institutions in a democracy, such as media, could play a key role in trimming the size of “fat” dynasties.

All of this is important for our goal to promote inclusive growth, because the success or failure of all policies and projects of the government ultimately rests on how strong our governance structures are. Dynasties could represent either a longer timeline for politicians to implement reforms, or it could reflect a growing monopoly of political (and perhaps also economic) power. The latter could stifle more ambitious reform efforts, or it could even weaken the reform momentum.

The Philippines’ development prospects right now appear positive. What does the country need to do to keep this momentum?

We need to stay on the “straight path” and all stakeholders in our society — not just central government, but also all the local governments and the entire private sector — need to get the message that any other path will no longer be tolerated by our people.

Now the second challenge for us is to increase the speed on the straight path – to boost the ambition of our economic reforms so that investments are increased (including in key sectors like agriculture) and job creation becomes much more robust.

To empower the forces of reform and good governance, we need to push for longer-term reforms that institutionalize and make more permanent the types of reforms that we have been seeing in the past three years. This includes:

  • Continuing to build a strong and inclusive social protection system, so that we will continue to strengthen our human capital investments in our people, while also weakening the politics of patronage over time. If there is a strong and inclusive social safety net, then we are protecting our people from having to rely on patronage. Citizens must help fellow citizens if we are to build towards high and inclusive growth.

  • Promoting an empowered citizenry, and key to empowerment is access to information. We need a freedom of information law to cement “matuwid na daan” [a straight path]. Policy experience and evidence from other countries that implemented such laws suggest that it could help reduce corruption and boost checks and balances not just at the highest levels of government, but also at the lower levels that engage directly with people in providing public services.

  • Pursuing more ambitious economic reforms that level the playing field and improve foreign and domestic investments in order to arrive at stronger job generation results. The only way to sustain momentum is to include more people with a stake in the growing economy — if growth still fails to be inclusive, then policies will be vulnerable to critique and reversal.

How can the academic community make its work more relevant to development policy and practice?

Research and evidence already play a key role in many aspects of public policy, but there is still a wide gulf between what we know and what we don’t know in terms of what works. Too many times, anecdotal evidence is used to generalize policy prescriptions, and policy decisions are less informed by evidence and more dominated by particular advocacies.

Most policy reforms are difficult because they entail real trade-offs, hurting some while benefiting the many. Empirical evidence should be used as a means to bring people to a meaningful middle ground that finds solutions for the common good.

Read more about the Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in Manila.

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