Grassroots & Governance

The pandemic crisis has reminded me of our foreign exchange shortage in the 1970s, during the Martial Law era, when we experienced rationing. This was the time when I first encountered and appreciated barangay governance. I was then living in a tiny street in Barangay Poblacion in Makati, right behind the old church and the then-Makati Catholic School (now St. Paul’s). I was renting the second floor of what I liked to refer to as a “pandemonium.”

Because of a lack of business investments then, the Marcos government was running out of dollars, and could not pay for oil imports. There was also a rice shortage. Fertilizer and chemicals had become so expensive that our farmers could not produce enough rice. Neither could we import enough rice because we had no dollars.

The impact on our lives was that gasoline and rice had to be rationed.

I don’t know how it was in other barangays, but we were fortunate in Barangay Poblacion, Makati. I think the mayor then was the dynamic Nemesio Yabut. Yabut was rumored to spend much of his time sitting in sari-sari stores, talking to his constituents and going from barangay to barangay.

Our barangay captain then was so devoted to his duties that I still remember his name now, almost 50 years later. Peping Samarista would walk up to my unit each month to ask me how much of my rations I really needed for myself. Since it was just me, my son, and his yaya (nursemaid), I did not need all of the one sack of rice allotted to each household. He always asked my permission to reallocate my “surplus” to neighbors who needed more. I honestly don’t even remember if I was paying for my rice. Probably not. I think that even then Makati was the richest LGU. Barangay Captain Samarista also provided my gasoline coupons. Since I was driving an energy-efficient Renault 4L and my office was not too far away, I did not need all of the gas coupons, so I shared them with him so he could allocate them to other neighbors. I have no doubt at all that soft spoken and low-key Peping Samarista was just doing his job. I had never met him before that rationing time, and I was not into politics. He just came up one day to my place and introduced himself. I don’t even remember if he was elected or appointed. More likely appointed since there were no elections back then. So, he was not even campaigning for my vote. I guess he did the same thing around the whole Barangay Poblacion.

Last week, my katabang (house helper) spent a weekend at her family home in the same barangay (Lahug) here in Cebu where I live. She said that she got five kilos of rice for free from our barangay office. As advised by the barangay, she also went to the local Department of Social Welfare and Development office to fill out a form so that some cash assistance would be given (delivered) to her as among the poor. She shared the rice with her sister’s family.

She also told me that the barangay people told her that my own “monthly financial assistance” as a senior citizen from Cebu City hall would be delivered by the barangay government after the Holy Week to my place instead of my having to pick it up. This arrangement was being made since senior citizens are not allowed to go out of the home these pandemic days. In fact, she said that the barangay was planning to deliver two or more months’ allowance (of P1,000/month) to our homes.

My encounter with barangay governance during these two crises have made me appreciate how much more barangays can do in community development and delivery of services once empowered to do so. My experience with Peping Samarista also makes me wonder what would happen if barangay officials, at least sitio leaders, were to develop personal relationships with their constituents. That could make government much more responsive and sensitive to people’s needs and expectations.

Perhaps there could be less garbage in the streets, and more environmentally sound lifestyles at barangay, and therefore, community levels. Perhaps sitio and barangay leaders can be trained in constructive community relations and of course, given adequate compensation for their work. More community consciousness could result in more responsible citizenship among the constituents. Local governments at municipal, city, and provincial levels could become more sensitive and responsive to their constituents’ real needs. And families can see and share beyond their own household.

Truly, small can be beautiful, as the economist E.F. Schumacher once said in his book with the subtitle “economics as if people mattered.” Perhaps from this strengthened small-community framework of governance, more appropriate methods and technologies could be developed that can improve the quality of life of our people.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.