When I visited the Philippines recently, I noticed that in provincial roads, there were ‘road blocks’ set up in front of elementary schools. These were obviously set up to force motorists to slow down and avoid hitting children. It was literally everywhere: from Pampanga and Bataan, to Bohol, and even Sarangani. It was obviously the work of the barangays in these places.
It was not only in the case of school road blocks that the barangay fulfills a very useful function. One is its role in settling minor disputes, mostly over land. Such disputes need to be put before a barangay resolution committee (Lupon Tagapamayapa), which will try to settle the matter out of court. Only when this fails, would the case be forwarded to the courts. This has meant that the regular courts are no longer swamped with so many minor cases.
The barangay also has a role in approving permits for businesses. For the majority of applicants this is just a procedural question. Sometimes, the barangay would disapprove an application if it is to the detriment of the residents. Or, the barangay may negotiate to have the business hire a percentage of its workers from the area. Some people want to abolish barangay permits in order to streamline the procedure for setting up businesses. I think it would be better to streamline the required tax procedures, which are more meticulous (and quite useless and outdated) rather than abolishing the barangay permit.
Some barangays have gone beyond their limits in making ordinances. Barangay Ayala Alabang in 2011 made a resolution that drugstores could only sell contraceptives based on a doctor’s prescription. Other barangay councils have made resolutions against mining in their areas. These matters are properly handled by higher government bodies, at munipal, provincial or national level.
Barangays have been growing in importance, making them prime political targets. This is partly due to the Local Government Code which allots them a share of the Internal Revenue collections. In 2012, the average barangay would receive P520,000/year in assured funds as a result. Add to this the income barangays have from giving business permits etc. With the increased importance and funds, there are inevitably those who would abuse these positions. However, at the same time, more and more people are taking the barangay seriously and have campaigned to have ‘good’ people elected to the barangay councils. Also, there is an increasing expectation that the barangay will act on a host of things: from roads within the barangay, to traffic, cleanliness etc.
What many Filipinos don’t realize is that elected barangay councils are relatively rare in the world. In most countries, the lowest elected officials are city/municipal councils. In Western Europe, it seems that only Portugal has elected barangay councils (they are called ‘parish’ councils). This means that there is a democratic gap in most other countries, where municipal councils often make decisions that may not have fully considered the situation in neighborhoods or districts.
Having an elected structure at the barangay level comes in handy in many cases. During calamities, barangay officials coordinate the local response; barangays are instrumental in fighting diseases (e.g. dengue, malaria). Even in cases of armed conflict, barangays make for a coordinated evacuation of inhabitants (and are able to better arrange for relief goods).
With their growing importance, people will become more motivated to get involved in barangay politics. Barangay elections will be more contested, and people will be more demanding on the officials who are elected. And all this makes for a more participative democracy in the Philippines.