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A three-way test

What a difference a short meeting makes.

The much-awaited encounter with President Noy happened on Dec. 23, 2010. Originally planned to be a “big” assembly of at least 300 participants, the meeting was an idea that came out of an earlier meeting between the President and six representatives of the network Urban Poor Alliance (UP-ALL) on July 16, 2010. In that meeting, the UP-ALL leaders reminded P-Noy of the covenant he made with their group during his presidential campaign. UP-ALL up until then had prided itself on being the only “basic sector” organization with a nationwide constituency to forge this kind of agreement with then-presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino and vice-presidential candidate Mar Roxas. The covenant-signing exercise, not a small feat in itself considering the painstaking negotiations that preceded it, was UP-ALL’s attempt at practicing the “politics of reform” civil society groups are known to preach.

The President was most gracious to the urban poor during that first post-election meeting and explained why he could not deliver on a few promises, affirming nevertheless his resolve to work with the group in pursuing the policy reforms and actions contained in the covenant. P-Noy and the UP-ALL leaders then agreed to hold a bigger meeting wherein the President would announce to urban poor leaders from cities all over the country his programs for addressing their concerns.

To prepare for the big meeting, the UP-ALL leaders and their NGO partners held successive meetings among themselves and later with representatives of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) and the Department of Interior and Local Government to work out the process for preparing the complete staff work on the issues to be addressed by the President. Everyone agreed that the big meeting would be an occasion for P-Noy to announce concrete actions and issue directives, and that it was therefore important to do the complete staff work and negotiations prior to the meeting. UP-ALL undertook the necessary data-gathering and internal discussions with its members, submitted the pertinent data and proposals to the PMS, a process which was repeated a few times as the documents went back and forth between UP-ALL and PMS. Then UP-ALL waited, and waited … for word on when the big meeting would be called.

Having invested much physical and emotional energy preparing for this meeting, many UP-ALL members were understandably disappointed when told that while the long overdue meeting would finally take place, it will not be a big meeting to which they would all be invited. Representatives from several housing agencies would be attending, hence only 10 representatives from UP-ALL could be accommodated.

The disappointment was somewhat abated when the Dec. 23 meeting had taken place and UP-ALL learned of the outcome. Previous commitments of P-Noy were affirmed, including the election in January 2011 of a new president for the Social Housing Finance Corp., the agency which administers the Community Mortgage Program. A proposal coming from UP-ALL for the President to declare a limited moratorium on forced eviction was also accepted.

The first steps taken by this new administration to deal with the housing problem of informal settlers understandably have been cautious, but deliberate and in the right direction. Obtaining a decisive response from the President has been a tedious process, but on the positive side, it has taught the urban poor to take a broader perspective on their issues and consider institutional constraints and processes when proposing measures to deal with them. For one, many of the proposed solutions require the cooperation of local governments which have their own development vision, priorities and political realities to deal with. To what extent presidential influence can hold sway over the actions of local governments will be put to a test if and when the President agrees to take new and bolder policy initiatives.

More importantly, these initial steps are a test for many things that would eventually decide whether the process that was started is worth continuing. First, the maturity, perseverance, problem-solving acumen and creativity of the parties will be tested as the search for solutions will require not just out-of-the box thinking but also patient and rigorous data-gathering, in some cases scientific and technical studies, long discussions and consensus-building and skillful negotiating. These skills and dispositions seem to be in short supply on both sides.

Secondly, also being tested is whether this style of new politics, where a grassroots-based reform constituency nurtures a relationship with elected leaders on an agenda and engages with institutions in programmatic negotiation and problem-solving, can bring about the desired reform outcomes. Can participatory processes be married with technically sound solutions? This negotiated reform process will be put to a test as the parties go beyond the initial goodwill-building stage and begin to face hard issues such as what to do with the urban poor communities residing in Lupang Arenda, or on the easements of the Pasig River and esteros that had been declared as danger zones.

Thirdly, assuming that UP-ALL and the President would at some point come to an agreement on the strategic solutions, would this consensus create the needed political clout to make the other key actors such as free-spirited local governments and shelter agencies faithfully implement these solutions?

So, much is at stake in this process that has only started. We have just begun a new year and hope should still be in abundance. Thankfully, the President has given the urban poor good reason not to lose heart.

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