Last August 6, NEA and the electric coops celebrated the 45ht anniversary of rural electrification int he Philippines.
We launched three books about rural electrification, including one I wrote – Resilient Partners. I am posting the introductory chapter;
The story of a resilient partnership
In 2009, the Philippine rural electrification program celebrated its 40th anniversary. That was also the year when the program reached a major milestone – the energization of all but a few barangays in the countryside. To tell the story of what has been called the most successful development program in our country, I wrote a book, Electric Dreams.
Many leaders of the electric cooperatives and advocates of rural electrification have expressed appreciation for Electric Dreams. They have recommended it as a useful introduction for those who want to know more about rural electrification and electric cooperatives.
Stories for a sequel
Last year, NEA Administrator Edith Bueno suggested: “You should consider writing a sequel for our 45th anniversary in 2014.”
I took up her suggestion, but not only to celebrate the 45th anniversary. There is at least one important story worth telling in a sequel – President Aquino’s commitment to rural electrification, and his goal of achieving the next milestone of energizing all remaining sitios by the end of his term. It is the logical next milestone after barangay electrification.
There is a second story worth telling in a sequel – the recent rapid response of the electric cooperatives and NEA to restore the electricity distribution systems in all the places that were hard hit by supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan), especially on the island of Leyte.
To accomplish this formidable task, they drew on their previous experiences of organizing various Task Force Kapatid in responding to other disasters.
Beyond sitios and supertyphoons
As I was doing my research into sitio electrification and the work of Task Force Kapatid, I realized that there is a third and even more important story worth telling: The partnership itself of NEA, the National Electrification Administration, and the 119 electric cooperatives.
This is the partnership that has delivered electricity to all the barangays, and is now delivering electricity to the sitios. It is the partnership that has restored electricity to communities devastated by Yolanda and other calamities.
The recent achievements of this partnership are the more immediately interesting stories. But I think that the story of the partnership itself is even more interesting. Its 45-year history offers valuable lessons related to larger contemporary themes – rural development and inclusive growth, governance and public-private partnership, and the hypothesis of building a “democratic developmental state.”
The history of this partnership is not a straight path of smooth and steady progress. There have been many dramatic achievements, but also setbacks, with various twists and turns.
Separately, NEA and individual electric coops have gone through a number of crisis moments. Together, their partnership has weathered many challenges.
They have survived, separately and together. And they have learned. The partnership is more mature, better prepared for new challenges. That is why I call them resilient partners.
Change and resilience
The idea of resilience has become central in our current development discourse. Climate change, or “climate crisis” as Atty. Antonio Oposa prefers to call it, is definitely upon us, and the “new normal” includes many hitherto abnormal and rare events. There is no room for complacency, and what was good enough in the past, is not good enough for the future.
But climate change is not the only reason for needing to be resilient. There are also market changes whose impact on programs like rural electrification are both immediate and long-term. In addition, there are political and policy changes that have affected and will affect the partners and their shared mission.
When I first got involved in rural electrification in 2001 through the invitation of Fr. Francisco Silva, the electric power industry reform act or EPIRA was just about to be implemented.
A dozen years have passed, and the electric coops and NEA are still dealing with its impact. Various voices are calling to amend EPIRA or scrap it. The debates continue to escalate, and can only reinforce the need for the partnership to be resilient.
Recently, a law was passed amending the charter of NEA. It is an expression of the administration’s trust in NEA’s capacity to perform both its developmental role and its regulatory role ín relation to the electric coops. Again, both partners need to adjust. One sensitive issue is how to relate to those electric coops who have registered with the CDA or Cooperative Development Authority.
Clearly, these are chapters of a story that continues to unfold as we move toward the 50th anniversary of the rural electrification program. As they say at the end of an episode in a TV series, “Abangan ang susunod na kabanata.”
Partnership for resilience
The tandem of NEA and the ECs offers useful lessons on public-private partnership as a way to achieve inclusive growth, which is the declared goal of the Aquino administration.
Given the challenges of climate change, market changes, and policy changes, it must aim to become also a partnership for resilience.
I did not immediately appreciate the issue of resilience when I was asked to be part of the program. Fr. Paking Silva pitched rural electrification to me mainly as an issue of social justice and rural development.
His point was that social justice, which he knew was my main concern, is not only about the redistribution of assets, as in agrarian reform. It is also about providing essential public goods to all, especially to the unreached and underserved.
Electricity is as basic an infrastructure as the roads and bridges. Rural communities need to be electrified so that they are not left behind by urban communities.
NEA and the ECs have the mandate and the mission to implement rural electrification. But since the passage of EPIRA, they had to do this in the changed environment brought about by major policy changes.
The over-all intent of EPIRA is to promote competition and use market mechanisms to attract private investments, to improve efficiency, and to lower the cost of power. Even the non-stock non-profit electric cooperatives are subjected to the same policies.
And yet they are supposed to work with NEA to fulfill their original mission of total rural electrification. This means that they must electrify barangays and sitios even if they are not yet viable economically. And with calamities increasing in frequency and intensity, their plans and budgets need to include the quick rebuilding of the distribution systems destroyed by calamities.
How will they do these and still become competitive in a post-EPIRA system? They need to become resilient, but also advocate the necessary role of public investments.
Resilience and the developmental state
In the course of my research, I was invited to a meeting at the Development Academy of the Philippines, to inform me that I have been nominated to be an eminent fellow in the field of rural development.
I shared with them my insights into the role of rural electrification in rural development, and the work of NEA and the ECs as a useful example of public-private partnership. As we pursued our conversation, I brought up another topic for us to explore – the concept of a “developmental state.”
The idea of a developmental state is a useful counterfoil to the premise of EPIRA which seeks to minimize the role of the public sector and public investments, and maximize the role of the markets and the private sector.
In countries where the private sector, both domestic and foreign, is not able or willing to provide essential goods, the state has to exercise not only its regulatory role, but also a proactive developmental role. Hence the term “developmental state.”
At a lecture he gave at the University of the Philippines, James Putzel observed that in Asia, the developmental states that have succeeded are authoritarian, as in Korea. That led someone to ask him: “Are you proposing that for the Philippine state to be developmental, it must be authoritarian?”
His diplomatic answer drew laughter: “If the Philippine state does succeed, it will be the first democratic developmental state in Asia.”
This started out as an anniversary book about the rural electrification program. It has developed into a story of public-private partnership and governance, and poses the question:
What does the story of NEA and the ECs tell us about the limits and possibilities of a democratic developmental state?
Fortunately, I found some initial answers from the early years of the partnership.
Learning from the pioneers
While writing the early draft of this book, I was able to read an advance copy of a book, The Philippine Rural Electrification Program: The Early Years. In it, General Pedro Dumol narrates the strategic choices they made in laying the foundations and over-all structure of the rural electrification program.
He provides instructive information about the travails and triumphs of the NEA-ECs partnership which he led from 1969 to 1986. Without directly addressing the theme, he offers valuable insights into the issue of a developmental state.
The book also spells out his ideas on management and leadership. As I read the passages, I appreciate what is meant by those who call themselves proudly “Dumol boys and girls.” I have heard many of his ideas and seen them practiced in my encounters with Fr. Paking Silva, Edith Bueno, Ed Piamonte, Naning Cuenco, Bert Bassig, Diana San Luis and other NEA and EC leaders.
It is also from General Dumol that I got the idea for the closing chapter of this book. He wrote that policies may be there, together with the organizational structures, but at the heart of them we need people who share a commitment to the mandate and mission, and who are prepared to acquire and upgrade their competencies to match the needs of the changing industry.
Resilient Partners ends with a chapter on how the people of the rural electrification movement can respond to the need to be resilient, by becoming lifelong learners.
I offer this book as a learning resource for people in the rural electrification movement, past, present and future – board members, general managers, department heads, the workforce and leader-advocates of the electric cooperatives, and especially the people of NEA.