NGO 101: No, NGOs like Angat Buhay are not ‘anti-government’

·Contributor
·11 min read
Former Philippine vice president Leni Robredo speaks during the launch of her non-governmental organization
Former Philippine vice president Leni Robredo speaks during the launch of her non-governmental organization "Angat Buhay" (Uplifting Lives) at the headquarters in Quezon City, suburban Manila on July 1, 2022. The newly-established NGO aims to be the biggest in the country, and will focus on health, education, disaster relief and response. (Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Angat Buhay, the new nongovernment organization (NGO) that was recently launched by the Philippines’s Former Vice President Leni Robredo, made the headlines twice last month: First was when the new nonprofit was officially launched on July 1, and the second was when National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict spokesperson and serial red-tagger Lorraine Badoy made baseless claims that insurgents had infiltrated the former vice president's NGO.

Badoy’s remarks were made just a few days after the NGO’s official launch. Maybe, this should already serve as a prelude of sorts to what is yet to come to Angat Buhay – more criticisms and red-tagging from parties or individuals that have opposing views from what Angat Buhay and Robredo.

But for starters, what, really, is Angat Buhay? What is the essence of an NGO? And why do they exist in society?

Are NGOs anti-government?

Robredo, who ran for the country's highest executive seat in the 2022 Philippine national elections and lost to former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., announced during a thanksgiving party with her supporters that she planned to transform her volunteer-led campaign into a sustainable, long-term initiative – a new NGO that she would later call as Angat Buhay.

True to her words, on July 1, or exactly her first full day as a private individual, she officially launched the new NGO already, which she described as a nonprofit with an overarching anti-poverty program. These are not new to Robredo as these have already been going on as her headline programs during her six-year term as the country's vice president. During the entire duration of her term, her office had partnered with many existing private entities and NGOs that supported her programs.

For Allan Vera, an assistant professor at the College of Social Work & Community Development of the University of the Philippines Diliman, building an NGO is an expression of the people to promote social change.

“If they want to help, they have an idea, they have a strategy, and they want to promote it, they can build an NGO to promote this idea [of] social change,” said Vera.

Angat Buhay NGO (DO NOT USE)
Angat Buhay volunteers distributing relief packs to residents who were affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake the struck the region. (Photo: "Angat Buhay" Facebook Page)

There were a lot of NGOs before and during the Marcos regime already, “but a lot of them also lived in fear, especially those who were trying to organize and empower communities because that was being equated to being anti-government at that time,” said Vera. “Yes, we have a right to self-organize but we want to do it in a way that we are free to express what we want and we are not being threatened, red-tagged, or accused of doing inappropriate things just because we are unsatisfied with the government’s performance.”

After the first EDSA Revolution that led to the departure of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the end of his 20-year dictatorship, and the restoration of democracy in the Philippines, the new administration at that time encouraged people to exercise their freedom to build their community groups. The Philippines, in some ways, became the NGO capital of the world because of how easy it was to build a nonprofit.

“The number of NGOs at that time had ballooned not because NGOs wanted to overthrow the government but to support the agenda of the new government to have a more democratic and more participatory style of government,” said Vera.

This is the same purpose as Angat Buhay, which Robredo said should be a reflection of the kind of government that she and her supporters hope to have.

We want the kind of governance that is participatory that works from the ground up and not the other way around. Moving forward, we hope to initiate capacity-building in the grassroots, especially among our many volunteer groups.Atty. Leni Robredo, Angat Buhay

"We want the kind of governance that is participatory that works from the ground up and not the other way around. Moving forward, we hope to initiate capacity-building at the grassroots, especially among our many volunteer groups," she said in Filipino during the launch of Angat Buhay. "We do not want these groups to become Angat Buhay chapters, because that would mean that they would just wait for the orders from the central office. That is not the kind of governance that we want, right? Rather, we want them to become local implementers of our programs so they can initiate programs of their own, too."

Given that NGOs often do programs that the government falls short in prioritizing, does this make NGOs anti-government, as is the common criticism pitted against Angat Buhay?

“It is not anti-government [but] it can be an ally of the government,” asserted Vera. “When you organize communities to enhance their capacities for critical thinking, if you make them aware of their rights, if you mobilize them so that they can perform collective actions and support good governance, you are not anti-government.”

‘NGOs fill the gaps in the government’

More often than not, NGOs focus on programs that fill the gaps in the government, with the mission to address poverty or social inequality for the benefit of the poor and the marginalized.

“Filling gaps in the government does not necessarily mean that there is a failure of the government,” clarified Vera. “It can be as simple as the government simply lacked the resources to fulfill their duties to the people, and that is why NGOs want to support them.”

Robredo emphasized that Angat Buhay will have four key advocacy areas: food security, education, disaster relief and rehabilitation, and community engagement. All of these will aim to support existing and future projects and programs of the Marcos administration.

The first one, Angat Kalusugan, will have food security, nutrition, and healthcare as its primary agenda. This is important, according to Robredo, as hunger and diseases remain to be the primary problems of those on the edge of society.

"One of the many important realizations that we had in Angat Buhay back when I was still in the Office of the Vice President (OVP) is that stunting becomes irreversible once a child reaches the age of five," shared Robredo. "This is what we want to address because we know that there are millions of Filipino children who remain stunted."

Angat Buhay NGO (DO NOT USE)
Angat Buhay volunteers distributing relief packs to residents who were affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake the struck the region. (Photo: "Angat Buhay" Facebook Page)

Angat Buhay's second key advocacy area is Angat Edukasyon, which will focus as a support to the country's longstanding education crisis. Back when Angat Buhay was still part of the OVP, they managed to build 129 community learning hubs or learning centers that are placed in underprivileged communities. While schools remained closed during the pandemic, the children could still go to these community learning hubs if in case they needed some help with their modules or online learning materials. Most of these community learning hubs had a computer or two, which every child in the community could use for free.

Now that schools are already reopening and welcoming students back, community learning hubs will be transformed into remedial centers that will tutor students, particularly in reading and mathematics.

"Back when we were still working on our community learning hubs, there were so many children in fifth or sixth grade already and yet they still could not read properly," recalled Robredo.

She added that through Angat Buhay, they will continue training volunteer tutors for the remedial programs and encourage private volunteers to locally implement community learning hubs or remedial centers in their respective communities.

On top of building remedial centers, Angat Buhay will also continue another project that has long been existing during Robredo's term in the OVP: partnering with the private sector in building dormitories for indigent students. Previously, they have already created dormitories in Siayan, Zamboanga Del Norte; in Sumilao, Bukidnon; in Balangkayan, Eastern Samar; and in Salcedo Eastern Samar. They strategically chose schools with high drop-out rates caused by the school's distance from indigent students' homes.

Robredo shared during the Angat Buhay launch that they recently signed agreements with the Rotary Club of Makati, local government officials of Quezon Province, and administrators of Southern Luzon State University. The said parties, together with Angat Buhay, will build a dormitory building for the said university's indigent student population.

When you organize communities to enhance their capacities for critical thinking, if you make them aware of their rights, if you mobilize them so that they can perform collective actions and support good governance, you are not anti-government.Prof. Allan Vera, UP College of Social Work & Community Development

The third key advocacy area that Angat Buhay will focus on is disaster relief and rehabilitation – something that, according to Robredo, should be familiar to many of her supporters. After all, every time there was a typhoon during her term as vice president, thousands of Filipino volunteers would provide volunteer assistance to the OVP's disaster relief efforts.

Lastly, Angat Buhay will give priority to community engagement initiatives. "This will be the primary mechanism to gather all volunteers and to effectively channel all of their energy to those who are in need, especially in their respective communities," said Robredo. "We hope that, through Angat Buhay, we will be able to strengthen our volunteers' participation in community engagement."

If anything, Robredo's Angat Buhay will rely heavily not only on the support from private partners but also on the millions of volunteers that her presidential campaign managed to gather in just a few months, or since the start of the People's Campaign early this year.

"Let us all remember that we are doing this because of our shared hope that we saw during our presidential campaign. We saw that when we have a shared hope and love for the country, we will achieve something," said Robredo.

The challenges that lie ahead for Angat Buhay, other NGOs

Angat Buhay NGO (DO NOT USE)
Atty. Leni Robredo during the block-laying ceremony for its first dormitory project for the Southern Luzon State University (SLSU) in Infanta, Quezon last August 2. (Photo: "Angat Buhay" Facebook Page)

As much as NGOs, generally, are nongovernment, there are certain factors to consider when figuring out what the synergy will be between them and the local and national governments that they will be supporting.

For one, government units may tend to be insecure towards NGOs that are highly favorable to the masses.

“That can be expected, especially if NGOs can win the hearts and spend more time to be with the people on the ground. NGOs like that can become a political force,” said Vera. “That causes members of the government to somehow be insecure of the influence of NGOs on the public.”

Another problem that may arise is when government officials rely too much on NGOs’ alternative support in providing humanitarian assistance and public service.

“It will be a huge problem because the reason NGOs exist is that they only want to fill the gaps in the government, right? And yet now, they are being expected to substitute the government. That is contradictory to their main mission," noted Vera. “Government substitution is not the way. Replacing the government is not the solution.”

Vera shared that there is an unwritten rule among NGOs that they should aim for obsolescence.

“You must want your organization to become obsolete eventually because you want the government to take over and make that social change that you have started more sustainable,” he said.

You must want your organization to become obsolete eventually because you want the government to take over and make that social change that you have started more sustainable.Prof. Allan Vera, UP College of Social Work & Community Development

Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government, previously told Yahoo Philippines that candidates and supporters of Robredo must organize themselves into a political party if they really want to leverage their volunteerism as a strength.

"Where will this so-called 'voluntary movement' end up if it is not a political party?", asked Yusingco. "If this voluntary movement is going to make an impact or if it is going to change our political landscape, it has to evolve into a political party and manifest as an organized political mobilization."

The primary function of a political party is to educate the electorate about their particular brand of politics and to participate in policy-making and legislation.

"If you are already a political party that is active in advocating certain policies, you can impact the ways laws are crafted or what laws should be legislated," noted Yusingco.

There is no specific criterion for being allowed to create an NGO. As Vera said earlier, they are created because the need for them arises. It may focus on community development, for example, because social inequality issues remain abundant, or on political movement because the sitting government is abusing its power.

As to whether or not Angat Buhay will last long – and whether or not it will soon evolve into a political movement – only time can tell.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, and gender.

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