N. Perlas, 10 December 2004
"Culture is central to the development process. This article
illustrates what happens when culture is ignored. Although it speaks about
conditions in the Philippines, the principle applies to all countries."
The Philippines is in the global news with the death of
over 500 residents in the town of Infanta, Quezon, and other parts of the
country. A string of four typhoons, especially the third one, blasted through
the denuded mountains and sent thousands of tons of mud sliding down, destroying
houses and burying hundreds of people in over 6 feet of mud in some places.
Meanwhile, at around this time, the fiscal crisis of the Philippine government
flashed back in the news. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) recently
declared that the fiscal crisis of the country is over. Some believed. Many
others promptly criticized her for trying to water down a serious national
issue. And the debate continues.
On the surface, these two events seem to have no connection with each other. Yet
they are deeply intertwined. They demonstrate the alarming lack of understanding
of culture as a central part of the development process. Continued neglect of
culture can only mean continued invitation to national disaster.
Mud slides, especially in a national park, do not happen if the mountains have
adequate forest cover. Why were the trees removed? Because illegal logging is
rampant. And why is it rampant? Because the culture of short-term benefit for
narrow individual interests is stronger than the culture to preserve the diverse
ecological and economic benefits of a primary forest. Because the culture of
corruption, benefiting powerful economic and political interests, is more
powerful than the culture of a country governed by decent behavior and an
adherence to just laws.
Sure there are anti-logging laws. But do the laws work? Of course not.
Otherwise, this country would have not destroyed over 95% of its primary forest
in less than 30 years. And why do the laws not work? Because, among other
things, the design of the laws and their implementation have not taken into
consideration the cultural and behavioral dimension of the problem. They did not
understand why people cut down trees, even at the risk of their lives. The laws
are meaningless especially to rural folks who have been neglected by corrupt
governments for decades.
Why do we have a fiscal crisis? It is not simply because the government spends
more than it earns. It is because, in the revenue side, corrupt government
officials siphon off custom duties and tax income. And on the expenditures side,
another related network of corrupt government officials appropriate almost 50%
of the total government budget for their own personal interests.
It is simply a cruel joke to swiftly create technical measures to address the
fiscal crisis and then announce that the fiscal crisis is over. Even if, for the
sake of argument, such measures are technically correct, it does not mean that
the fiscal crisis will disappear overnight. The fiscal crisis is a mere symptom
of the workings of a pervasive social structure that economically, politically,
and culturally rewards corruption.
Take the case of traditional politicians that swore that they would give up
their pork barrel worth billions of pesos for the sake of helping solve the
fiscal crisis. Yet barely a few months later, they were back claiming their
right to feed on their favorite diet of political patronage. They simply could
not overcome their ingrained habit and perverse intentions that bring them short
term benefit at the expense of larger society. It is like expecting a drug
addict or a drunkard to become sober the following day after declaring that they
will now abandon drugs or alcohol.
Those who want to stop the hazards of illegal logging and the on-going
devastation of the fiscal crisis, need to go beyond the obvious. They need to go
beyond paper calculations and policies and move into the uncharted territory of
cultural structures, resistance and transformation. Culture may be hidden and
invisible. But its workings nevertheless have an inexorable logic that has
large-scale societal impacts.
A culture of destruction cannot simply be wished away. One has to introduce a
new and more powerful cultural framework, including operational norms, to create
the necessary development infrastructure to overcome illegal logging and stop
the hemorrhage of nationís coffers.
Given this central importance and role of culture, it becomes totally
understandable why, a few years back, GMA infuriated artists and cultural
workers. She basically castrated and commodified culture by equating it with
mere entertainment, especially entertainment for foreign tourists who will bring
in the dollars.
If GMA and others in various levels and realms of responsibility do not
understand the strategic lesson and importance of culture, then one disaster
after another can only follow. But if we all learn the central role of culture
in creating flourishing societies, then this will be the dawn of a better
Philippines, the Holy Grail of generations of Filipinos.
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