The example of Naga City

Even abroad (at least among people involved in development work, and among the International Government Organizations), Naga City, from the Province of Bicol of this sometimes wonderful, always wonderfully insane country of ours, stands out as a shining example of a lot of things going right. That the right things being done are so not out of happenstance but from a concerted action from all sectors of society makes the City’s achievements – and they are plenty, indeed – all the more awe-inspiring.

What inspired this post is a PCIJ piece on what should have been a black mark in the otherwise shining record of one of the best cities of the Philippines (and I say that as a proud, born and bred true, Manileño): Naga City’s looming inability to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for Education.

It probably came as a shock to the admirers of Naga City and its equally admirable Chief Executive, Mayor Jesse Robredo. Naga City, being told by the National Economic Development Agency (NEDA) that it has a low probability of meeting the MDG for Education? Considering that the City has achieved, or is about to, all of the other MDGs years, even decades, ahead of time sounds almost preposterous. Surely, the leaders of Naga City felt no little amount of incredulity at this out-of-place failing grade.

Now, its a common reaction among government officials to deny any negative report, or claim that something was wrong in the assessment done to them. In Naga’s case, PCIJ noted that the failing grade from NEDA was in sharp contrast to commendations given to the City with regard to its attaining the MDGs. In a sense, if Naga had cried foul, there would have been some substance to it, and not just like the typical reaction of a government body.

Instead, Naga City took the NEDA report seriously and went about doing something to address the issue.

I won’t dwell on the details of how Naga City acted on this rare failing of theirs since its all in the PCIJ article. But let me just say that Naga City’s reaction to it showed why its a model City not just locally but abroad as well.

In fact, I venture to say that a large part of the reason as to why Naga has been so successful an example of democracy, local government, and governance in general is the people itself. Yes, the people. Of course, having exemplary and visionary leaders like Mayor Jesse (a fellow Liberal, no less) and his City Planning Coordinator, Wilfredo Prilles Jr., makes a whole world of difference. But what (IMHO) makes the Naga City experience all the more amazing and inspiring is the reaction of the general public of Naga to the initiatives of their leaders: they have transformed from passive citizens to full stakeholders.

To me, this is the crucial ingredient in Naga’s success. Mayor Jesse and his fellow leaders created the structures and opportunity for the people of Naga to better their lives and the Nagueños took up the challenge with their all. Without the active participation of the citizenry of Naga, Mayor Jesse’s reforms would probably still have taken root but not as fast nor as well as they have. If Naga is a world-class city today, then its success was built on the blood, sweat and tears of every single Nagueño, and not just to the efforts of a few.

Its just inspiring to see stories such as this because it shows what is possible. Even considering the impressive credentials of Mayor Jesse, the experience of Naga City shows us that one doesn’t need a superman to bring about change. All a people need is the opportunity to be truly empowered, and the desire to make the most of that empowerment.

But let’s not forget that the outlook of the leadership is important as well. Its heart-warming to know that although it seems like the name Naga City is already synonymous with achievement, their leaders have not ascended the Ivory Tower of success. Lesser men and women would have scoffed at NEDA. Instead, Naga City’s leaders acted on the report, buckling down to work and erase this black mark in their records rather than tell a government body unfortunately connected to one of the biggest scandals in this country ever that it has no right to tell a model city its done wrong.

PCIJ says its too early as of yet to tell whether the program instituted by Naga City to address this issue will be a success. Records show that the cohort attrition and enrollment rates of Naga City are a deep-seated problem that is perhaps the most serious challenge to a dedicated and talented leadership, and their active, empowered citizenry.

But the efforts done to address this issue, to my mind, is in itself an achievement already. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if the City of Naga manages to beat this most pressing of issues.

Heck, its almost like a foregone conclusion.

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