Reclaiming social justice in social welfare

The appointment of Erwin Tulfo, a hard-hitting TV commentator, to lead the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) had elicited strong reactions from friends and acquaintances back home. Most of them are development practitioners, people who are very passionate about community work. I saw a post by a friend, lamenting about the incoming administration’s little regard for the social services sector by not considering appointing someone with a vast knowledge of developmental policies and laws.

I totally understand where he is coming from. After all, my friend is a social worker. So many in his profession invested sweat and tears to gain the recognition they deserve, stressing the importance of acting proactively to promote rights. Professionalizing the development sector (including social work) means they are more empowered than ever to take a collective role in policy advocacy.

Perhaps, it would be productive to reflect on the trajectory of development practice in the Philippines. During the martial law period, the underground movement delivered services to those beset by economic and social problems, especially in far-flung areas. Their developmental efforts were complemented by protest activities, believing that only through structural changes that the full effect of such initiatives will be achieved. Development work only became mainstream after 1987, when international financial institutions began channeling funds to local nongovernment organizations (NGOs). Affirming the role of private associations was related to the liberal ideal that enhancing the involvement of private citizens in nation-building will help prevent sliding back into despotism.

However, the growth and dominance of NGOs in social welfare delivery and advocacy also resulted in an increase in the handling of many social services by private institutions, effectively unburdening the state of many responsibilities. But this would prove ineffectual in the long run because the level of resources and influence of many NGOs prevent them from extending work beyond palliative measures. After all, individual deprivations are a function of broad forces—economic, social, and political—that transcend personal choices.

The brand of justice espoused by the Tulfo brothers on air takes advantage of these deprivations by playing on widespread resentment provoked by a lack of the rule of law. As a result, we often witness people humiliated on viral videos online for the sake of “instant justice” when the media can, otherwise, be an instrument to help people reclaim their agency in figuring out the root causes of their problems.

Many lasting reforms could have been waged, which are in fact mandated by the Constitution. However, the lack of an enabling law prohibiting political dynasties and the bastardization of the party list system by elites prevented bottom-up democratization that would have allowed the penetration of broad political forces into the arena of legislation and governance. The enlargement of private institutions devoted to project implementation or charity only works to support a system that is resigned to the apparent contradictions between a commitment to individual freedoms and the seeming social inequalities in the Philippines that render these freedoms useless. Technocrats prescribing what’s good for society did not succeed because, in the end, our problems are structural. And now, development workers struggle to justify their existence within a hierarchical, professionalized environment, especially since radical and imaginative voices are what we need in the current political milieu.

Perhaps, the appointment of a nonprofessional in DSWD is just a sign of the times. But I hope it’s never too late to reclaim our collective commitment to a lasting social change because getting accustomed to such political developments is how the status quo gains legitimacy.

Francisco “Kiko” Bautista is a development worker and a graduate student of adult education for social change at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, UK.


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