11/22/2013 03:34 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Haiyan Tragedy Reveals Philippines' Hollow State: The Folly of Elite Democracy

The Filipino people are more than aware of the variant incompetence of their state institutions. Since the country's independence (July 4, 1946), the citizens of the Philippines have had to endure violent cycles of democratic anarchy, dynastic politics, and wanton policy inconsistency, which over decades reduced one of Asia's brightest stars into a cautionary tale for neighboring states, allowing authoritarian leaders in places such as Singapore and Malaysia to justify their uncontested rule by stoking fears of a Philippine like tragedy at home.

Filipinos didn't need eminent journalists such as Anderson Cooper to remind them of how little they could expect of their state in times of peace, never mind crisis. And yet, Cooper's emphatic reportage resonated with an increasingly frustrated and outraged society.

"...As for who exactly is in charge of the Philippine side of this [relief] operation, that is not really clear [to me]; I'm just surprised. I expected on this day 5, I thought I've maybe gotten here very late, that things would be well in hand. It does not seem like that," Cooper reported after witnessing the harrowing state of helplessness griping communities devastated by Haiyan, one of history's most powerful storms. "When I was in Japan, right after the tsunami there two years ago, within a day or two, you had Japanese defense forces going out, carving up cities into grids and going out on foot looking for people, walking through the wreckage. We have not seen that here in any kind of large-scale operation."

But the Philippines is no Japan, and Cooper knows very well how the U.S., the world's most powerful country, struggled to manage the humanitarian and economic fallout of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Quite naturally, much of criticism was directed at the Philippines' top elected official, Benigno Aquino, who in turn wasted no time to defend his government's record to keep critics at bay: "[We] had to replace a lot of the personnel with personnel from other regions to take care of government's vital functions."

After all, Haiyan inundated a number of local government units (LGU). In places such Tacloban City, there were only 20 out of 290 police available during the crisis, with many stationed military officers swept away by storm surge and government officers almost entirely devastated by the sheer force of the super typhoon. There was hardly any LGU to speak of, leaving the bulk of disaster relief responsibilities to the national government. But critics struck back at Aquino, accusing him of politicking, bureaucratic mismanagement, and lack of leadership.

Yet, was the national government prepared to fully shoulder such calamity? The answer may have to do more with the configuration of the Philippines' state institutions rather than personalities per se.

The State Deficit

There is a legitimate case to be made against responsible officials on all levels, and the ongoing buck passing among elected leaders isn't reassuring victims as well as the Filipino electorate. Aquino's approval ratings are most likely going to drop, unless he decisively handles reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts and humbly appeals for national unity, and forgiveness for any shortcomings.

A deeper and more nuanced analysis, however, goes beyond individual actors, instead focusing on the structural make-up of the Philippine state.

Japan may have one of the most unstable political systems, where prime ministers -- as well as cabinet members -- are frequently reshuffled before registering a mark on domestic and international politics, but a professional, capable, and powerful bureaucracy has held the country together in times of crisis, from the Second World War II to multiple natural and man-made calamities in recent decades. It was largely the same bureaucracy that took Japan to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the post-War period, unleashing a sustained phase of economic miracle until the stagflation of the 1990s kicked in. It took charismatic and strong-willed politicians such as Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) to shake up certain aspects of the bureaucracy, namely the privatization of the postal service. But the bureaucracy remains to be the pivotal organ of the Japanese society.

The Philippines, in contrast, has had a fairly stable succession of presidents, with most leaders fully serving their constitutionally-ordained term limits, while others either managed to overstay their welcome in the political office or flirted with political comeback within legal boundaries. In short, almost all Filipino presidents at least had one full term (4-6 years) to leave their mark on the country, while a few had their offspring take the same position in succeeding decades. Thus, one of the most distasteful aspects of Philippine politics is actually the unchanging make up of the political landscape, with roughly 178 families ruling 73 out of 80 provinces. The economic landscape, unsurprisingly, reflects the oligarchic nature of political institutions, since elections are as much about political influence as they are about protecting the economic interests of political dynasties and their patrons: 40 richest families control up to 76 percent of the GDP, the highest rate of wealth concentration in (a highly unequal) Asia!

The problem, it seems, isn't really the lack of stability in the political landscape, but the absence of political mobility in the contestation of elected offices. The more fundamental problem, however, is the absence of an autonomous and capable bureaucracy, which could -- and should -- ensure the efficient delivery of goods, protect the citizen's welfare, and overcome special interests and factional warfare amid a messy political scene. The Philippine state has been largely a platform for inter-elite competition, with the bureaucracy constantly reshuffled, harassed, and emasculated by a fairly stable collection of competing elite factions contesting elected offices, whether by coercion, vote buying, charisma, or media manipulation -- or a combination of all of the above.

Counterproductive Reforms

Obviously, when you lack a consolidated bureaucracy, therefore a weak state unable to address the citizens' needs in times of crisis and peace, people tend to rely on their own resources, on the civil society, and external actors. Resilience is measured by self-reliance and resourcefulness, not active state-people partnership to establish safety-nets, enhance emergency measures, and reduce risks -- simply because there is no fully functioning state to speak of.

Since the 1990s, the Philippines has undergone a process of decentralization, supposedly helping LGUs to gain more autonomy in delivering services and catering to the unique needs of their constituencies. Yet, most rural communities and provinces outside the industrialized zones in the northern island of Luzon have continued to lack access to reliable electricity and basic infrastructure.

The major pitfall of the highly laudable effort to supposedly democratize governance was that it overlooked the necessity of "centralized decentralization": Political devolution makes sense when there is a consolidated state at the center to ensure (a) basic goods, services, and rights are guaranteed to all citizens within the diverse boundaries of the nation and (b) communities are not left to the devices of local dynasties and business interests.

An efficient economy and a functioning democracy can only exist when you have a consolidated state, composed of the national government and the bureaucracy, which can mobilize its superior resources to address crises, cultivate strategic economic sectors, and protect citizens from the onslaught of local tyrants.

Hardly any Filipino president has had such bureaucracy at his/her disposal, paying the price for the political machinations of either their predecessors or the political elite collectively lording over the country. This by no means, however, absolves elected officials of their incompetence, for they have had significant policy latitude to address certain long-term structural challenges.

Yet, a look at the systemic configuration of the Philippine political system allows you to appreciate the limits of human agency on a purely individual basis. The Haiyan tragedy was a wake-up call to the increasing unsustainability of the Philippine political economy. And this underscores the importance of a concerted national effort, anchored by public consensus and constant mobilization from the bottom, to overcome a centuries-old crisis of the Philippine state.

So far, the Filipino people have got to pressure the Supreme Court to scrap the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a major source of corruption in the country, and cave the legislature into passing an anti-dynaty bill. Next stop is empowering bureaucracy. More than ever in recent memory, the country is ripe for real reform.