Yellow Pad

Several years ago, I, a starry-eyed millennial, had a chance to visit South Africa. It was a learning experience.

Then, I would have fumed at the Nelson Mandela’s choice of giving up his revolutionary life and living according to his party’s tenets, and allowing his party to engage in traditional formal politics and to cooperate with the party of apartheid.

At home, I succumbed to the idea that the changes being introduced in the economy were hollow when political institutions were immature, weak, or corrupt.

But from Nelson Mandela, I learned that being principled and being realistic are reconcilable.

Thereafter, I have become a reformist activist. In particular, I have been advocating fiscal policy reforms.

One proud moment was being part of a formation that played a pivotal role in the passage of the Sin Tax Law in 2012. With drive and enthusiasm, I worked with movers — youth, development workers, health workers, other civil society advocates, lawmakers, etc. It was my attempt to work for social justice.

I began to appreciate what Naila Kabeer calls “strategic pragmatism,” a term she uses to depict that spirit which reformers must have while navigating complex and unpredictable systems, as cited in the book of Duncan Green, How Change Happens (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Strategic pragmatism is a choice to adapt and be flexible — instead of being trapped by rigidity — in order to advance reforms and fulfill the longer-term vision. Strategic pragmatism is asking what we should work on next. It is also being aware of intermediate goals, rather than being fixated on what should be, which actual circumstances may not allow.

States and institutions are not static. They can be influenced or they can be changed. Reformists and revolutionaries alike can do a lot to use the space and the institutions themselves to introduce structural change.

We can build stakeholders and coalitions as well as engage decision-makers in order to create the broadest support for policy and institutional changes.

Collective action is key to the success of societal reforms. But collective action is not just about staging militant protests and denouncing enemies. Transformative change also involves doing things that seem less visible, less dramatic.

Understanding who the potential allies are, even if tactical, arriving at sound compromises if the situation calls for it, and strategically engaging politicians and technocrats — or what Green calls as “dancing with the system” — are all too important to attaining objectives and realizing progressive reforms.

In the words of Indira Gandhi: “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”

For Green, outsider outrage without insider links is futile. And that speaking truth to power may not have its impact when power is not listening.

How Change Happens encourages us to adopt a unique attitude of mind. It asks: Have our actions succeeded in empowering others? Have we been consultative in our approaches and reviewed how history has proven the effectiveness of our methodologies? Finally, have we been quick enough to change course and take advantage of changes in technology, crises, and other critical junctures of time?

It imparts how activists and development workers must sustain within them the humility to accept that they play a limited role in cascading change. Throughout history, long-term and profound change has mostly been dependent on the empowerment of those who have internalized their inferior roles; on unprecedented events, disruptions, and failures. These are the unusual suspects that we may have lost track of.

Understanding how reforms become successful necessitates that activists be cautious of making impulsive attributions regarding gains and uncritically praising actions of certain individuals. Reformers must be “reflectivists,” too, for them to see how norms and power distributions have shifted; and on how these events have upturned some keystones in the course of the reform.

The most recent win for health and economy — the tobacco tax increase — is one of the best ways to illustrate Green’s Power and Systems Approach (PSA).

Health advocates argued that the number of new smokers would rise without further tax increases. The excise tax rate must keep pace with the growth of the Philippine economy.

According to the WHO 2017 Global Tobacco Epidemic Report, cigarettes sold in the Philippines were among the cheapest in the ASEAN.

In the early stages of the campaign, the bill to increase the tobacco tax didn’t move. Instead of approaching the campaign with easy-to-do, quick recipes for change, advocates took advantage of openings, course-corrected, and became more sensitive to the feedback that they were receiving.

They allowed for setbacks, such as when the tobacco tax bill was not scheduled for a hearing in the Senate for an entire year, or when the tobacco tax was not initially included in the first package of the Comprehensive Tax Reform.

What seemed to be a defeat turned into a gain. The rates for succeeding years inserted by the bicameral conference committee in 2017 were very low, in a move by pro-tobacco legislators and lobbyists to pre-empt further increases. But advocates negotiated a good rate for the first year, equivalent to an increase of 17%, and vowed to fight for further increases despite the passage of a weak bill in its entirety.

They took account of incremental gains. They adopted a long-term view. They searched for champions, including surprises like Senator Manny Pacquiao, and created spaces for discussions with the unusual allies.

They struggled to find effective messengers and to build helpful alliances. Ultimately, they succeeded in getting the executive branch to prioritize the tobacco tax increase, despite the slim-looking odds of having it passed. They secured Senator Sonny Angara’s commitment to submit the committee report on increasing the tobacco tax for approval. Their efforts paid off when the whole Senate, including the minority, forged a consensus to have the higher tobacco tax approved.

This case shows how conditions change for the better despite initial difficult conditions. But to do so entails strategic pragmatism and principled compromise. It also shows that the path of reform is crooked, that the journey involves stepping backward, that the steps forward can be incremental.

But in the end, the summit has been reached.

I return to Mandela. His resounding words are: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

And once more from him: “May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.”


Clarissa. Villegas is the social media writer for Action for Economic Reforms.