Civil Society and Social Movements in the Philippines

If political parties in the Philippines have failed to realize their primary goal of articulating and aggregating interests given the problems presented in the previous module, it is material to ask—have civil society and social movements taken the place of political parties in the prospect of development and governance? You have learned in the previous module that political parties serve as links between individuals and the government. Are civil society organizations and interest groups and movements now in the process of replacing political parties as crucial links between the government and society?

As part of the discussion on political interaction, this section presents yet another manifestation of state-society interaction, that is, the relationship between civil society and social movements, and the Philippine state. This section thus highlights another aspect of group politics, but its focus is on actors outside the government. This part assesses the roles taken by the civil society in Philippine governance and development.

Defining Civil Society

The United Nations refers to civil society as the “third sector” of the society, along with government and business. The civil society is considered a social sphere independent from both the state and the market. It comprises of civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations.

The term civil society organizations (CSOs) refers to those nonstate, nonprofit, voluntary organizations in this social sphere. Thus, CSOs include a wide array of organizations, networks, associations, groups, and movements that sometimes come together to push for the advancement of their common interests by means of collection action (WHO 2015).

Nongovernmental organizations, on the other hand, are nonprofit and voluntary citizens groups, which are organized on a local, national, or international level. They perform service and humanitarian roles, bring citizen concerns to governments, advocate and monitor policies, and encourage participation through information dissemination. Similarly, they provide analysis and expertise on specific issues on the environment, health, and human rights (NGO Global Network 2016).

The following are considered key characteristics of successful civil societies (Ghaus-Pasha 2004):

  • Separated from the state and the market
  • Formed by people who have common needs, interests, and values
  • Developed through a fundamentally endogenous and autonomous process that is not easily controlled from the outside

The civil society can have a positive influence on both the state and the market. The civil society has become increasingly important in the promotion of good governance, effectiveness, and accountability. Ghaus-Pasha (2004) highlights the ways by which the civil society can further good governance.

Role of Civil Society in Good Governance

    • Key agent in policy analysis and advocacy
    • Regulates and monitors state performance and behavior of policy officials
    • Builds social capital and enables citizens to identify and articulate their beliefs, values, and ideas
    • Mobilizes particular constituencies—especially the marginalized sectors of the masses—to participate in public and political affairs
    • Participates in development work to improve the well-being of its own and of other communities

CSOs take a variety of forms. Nonetheless, the AUGUR project, a research project co-funded by the European Commission, lists five main types of CSOs and two hybrid organizations (civil organizations but are not completely separated from states or business firms, such as business CSOs and government-oriented CSOs). While not all inclusive, the list presents a good categorization of CSOs.

Types of CSOsCharacteristics
Religious CSOsThese CSOs do not necessarily promote worship of a religion, but they are more or less linked to a given religion and they act following a religious precept. Their fields of intervention include education, health, emergency relief, and basic needs assistance (e.g., Red Cross).
Community-based CSOsThese are, most of the time, local CSOs based on solidarity, resource sharing, and community building. They are primarily focused on development (e.g., Grameen Bank), housing (e.g., the Urban Land Reform Task Force in the Philippines), social services, civil and legal assistance, and culture and recreation.
Philanthropic CSOsThese are organizations that serve a cause without any religious affiliation. They are based on values such as generosity and humanism. They include private and business foundations and independent NGOs (e.g., Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
Expert CSOsThey act in new fields that require some scientific knowledge (e.g., environment, finance). They are not exclusively composed of experts and scientists but they claim to have an expertise unit and they publish some technical reports (e.g., Greenpeace International).
Trade UnionsThese are labor and worker associations which promote workers’ interests. The Philippines is also home to trade unions. The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines is the biggest confederation of labor federations in the country, with almost 30 federations representative of sectors and industries from agriculture to manufacturing to services (
Business CSOsThese include business and industry NGOs (BINGOs) which defend a given firm’s or industry’s interests. These developed in Anglo-Saxon countries, particularly the United States. They are different from business lobby/interest groups, which generally promote employer or corporate interests. Larger corporations often have lobbyists who will monitor and promote various laws and programs for the specific interests of the corporation. Companies and organizations also come together in larger groups to work for general business interests (Boundless Political Science 2016). There are also business lobby groups in the Philippines such as those in the sugar and tobacco industries.
Government- oriented CSOsGovernment-oriented NGOs (GONGOs) are independent civil organizations, which are more or less influenced and controlled by national authorities. These developed in industrialized Asian countries, particularly in China.

Civil society organizations also employ a number of tactics and strategies in the pursuit of their interests and goals. To influence national policy formulation, CSOs use education, persuasion, collaboration, litigation, and confrontation (Covey 1994 in Ghaus-Pasha 2004). The following table summarizes the tactics and skills required in the realization of these strategies.

EducationMeetings, media, workshops, conferences, commissionsResearch, information, analysis, dissemination, communication, and articulation
CollaborationBuilding relationships, links, and cooperation with government and other CSOsCommunication, organization, mobilization, networking technical capability, transparency, openness, and effectives
PersuasionMeetings, workshops, coalition, lobbying, media, demonstrationOrganizing, communication, motivation, negotiation, commitment, and vision
LitigationUse of courtsLegislation and communication
ConfrontationDemonstration, public gatherings, speechesMobilizing, communication, motivation, and leadership

What Are Social Movements?

A social movement is a collective body that has a high level of commitment and political activism, and is not necessarily based on formal organization (Heywood 2013). Social movements are attempts to change society through collective action. They transpire when large groups of individuals or organizations work for or against change in specific political or social contexts. They are non-institutionalized, because just like CSOs, they occur outside of governmental institutions. On the other hand, new social movements (sometimes referred to as “new politics”) are those that attract the young, better-educated, and relatively affluent individuals, including the post-material orientation and commitment of these individuals to new forms of political activism (Heywood 2013). A distinction must also be made between social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs). An SMO is an organization that is or has been associated with a social movement, and which carries out the tasks necessary for any social movement to survive and be successful (Christiansen, n.d).

Aberle (1966) describes four types of social movements based on two important questions: (1) Who is the movement attempting to change? (2) How much change is being advocated? The figure below summarizes how a social movement may either be alternative, redemptive, reformative, or revolutionary based on these questions.

Types of social movements according to Aberle (1966)
Types of social movements according to Aberle (1966)

Social movements follow a process by which they emerge, coalesce, and bureaucratize. Such process leads to either the success or failure of the social movement. The stages of social movements are presented in the figure below.

Stages of social movements Adapted from Blummer (1969), Mauss (1975), and Tilly (1978)
Stages of social movements Adapted from Blummer (1969), Mauss (1975), and Tilly (1978)

Civil Society in the Philippines

According to the Asian Development Bank (2007), civil society organizations in the Philippines are seen as among the most vibrant and advanced in the world. The country has the largest number of NGOs per capita in Asia, and several key international NGOs and networks are based in the Philippines and are headed by Filipinos.

There are several types of CSOs that exist in the country, but three types are considered more important ones. The first are people’s organizations, which represent marginalized groups and are often organized based on sector, issue, or geographical area. The second are development NGOs, which are intermediate agencies that operate with a full-time staff and provide a wide array of services to primary organizations, communities, and individuals. Finally, cooperatives are an association of persons who voluntarily joined to make equitable contributions to the capital required, patronize their products and services, and accept fair share in risks and benefits of the project (ADB 2007). CSOs in the Philippines are involved in a broad range of activities, including:

  1. Education, training, and human resource development
  2. Community development
  3. Enterprise development and employment generation
  4. Health and nutrition
  5. Law, advocacy, and politics
  6. Sustainable development

The legal framework for civil society in the Philippines is provided in the 1987 Philippine Constitution, including, but not limited to:

Article II, Section 23: “The State shall encourage non-governmental, community- based, or sector organizations that promote the welfare of the nation.”

Article XIII, Section 15: “The State shall respect the role of independent people’s organizations to enable the people to pursue and protect, within the democratic framework, their legitimate and collective interests and aspirations through peaceful and lawful means. […]”

Article XIII, Section 16: “The right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making shall not be abridged. The State shall, by law, facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms.”

Apart from the constitution, the 1991 Local Government Code also provides for the importance of CSOs in local development. The code specifies the participation of CSOs in local government planning, policy making, and delivery of social services. Specifically, the code allows CSOs to participate and or be represented in various local development councils. There are various umbrella groups of CSOs in the country, but the more established networks include the following.

CSOsYear FoundedFocus
Association of Foundations (AF)1972It advocates education, culture, science and technology, governance, social development, environment, and sustainable development.
Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP)2008It promotes the practice of social accountability that capitalizes on existing in-country networks working in governance reform.
Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC)1979It is focused on food security, agrarian reform, sustainable agriculture, participatory governance, and rural development.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)1985It fights for national and social liberation against imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Bayan advocates for the nationalistic and democratic needs of the people through legal and militant forms of struggle.
Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE- NGO)1991It represents more than 1 600 development NGOs, people’s organizations, and cooperatives nationwide.
National Confederation of Cooperatives (NATCCO)1977It is composed of around 1.6 million individual members coming from several cooperative federations and around 406 rural- and urban-based cooperatives.
National Council of Social Development (NCSD)1949It was the first NGO network given license and accreditation by the government for community- based programs for children and families.
National Secretariat of Social Action-Justice and Peace (NASSA)1966Created by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), it focuses on poverty alleviation, democratic governance, ecology and integrity of creation, peace, and development.
NGO Forum on ADB1991Its goal is to make the ADB responsible and accountable for the impacts of its own projects and policies.
Philippine NGO Council on Population, Health and Welfare (PNGOC)1987It promotes reproductive health, gender equity and equality, women’s rights and development, nonformal education, sustainable development, and HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (PHILDHRRA)1983It is involved in community organization and the provision of health, education, and livelihood services to marginalized groups in the countryside.

Social Movements in the Philippines

Colas (2002, as cited in Tadem 2006) defined social movements as a “sustained and purposeful collective mobilized by an identifiable, self-organized group in confrontation with specific power structures and in the pursuit of socio-economic and political change.” This section presents the emergence of social movements during the colonial, the Martial Law, and the post-1986 periods—with emphasis on their goals, strategies, and factors that either facilitated or hindered the achievement of their objectives within the context of democratization and development.

The social movements in the country best reflect the characteristics of Philippine politics and the Filipinos’ struggle for democratization and development (Tadem 2006). These social movements can be traced as far back as the colonial period.

From Spanish Period to the 1896 Philippine Revolution

The Spanish occupation of the Philippines saw the aggravation of the socioeconomic inequalities that existed between the landed and the landless during the pre-Spanish Philippine society. Peasant agitation emerged because of the arrangements and policies of the Spaniards, which benefited a few native landed aristocracies, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Spanish nobility (Tadem 2006). The situation produced early revolts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Several more revolts would reemerge throughout history.

Halfway the Spanish colonial era, during the 18th century, came a new type of resistance. The struggle during this period was in the form of priest-led revolts and millenarian movements, which addressed the people’s problems including tribute exaction, forced labor, and friar and military abuses. Unlike the previous revolts, the resistance during the 18th century framed its issues within the context of the Catholic faith. It must be noted, however, that issues during this period were not purely religious.

There was also political resistance that emerged through the principalia class. Unlike the priest-led revolts and the millenarian movements, the principalia demanded for greater social recognition. While they were Filipino in racial origins, they were intensely colonial in thinking. Their ascendant status and the racism of Spanish feudal ideology led them to demand for greater social recognition, which also meant more political power (Tadem 2006). Unlike the previous movements, the principalia had economic and political resources that enabled them to carry out an organized resistance against the Spaniards.

Aside from these, there also was resistance through the Propaganda Movement. The ilustrados—which include the entrepreneurial class and the landed elites—framed their issues within the context of a nation and the creation of a Filipino identity. The ilustrados articulated their demands (e.g., Philippine representation in the Spanish Cortes, democratic political system) through the Propaganda Movement. Their writings later guided and inspired the Katipunan to raise arms against the Spaniards. An underground movement, the Katipunan was revolutionary, mass-based, and armed unlike the Propaganda Movement. The culmination of the 19th century movements became what was known as the 1896 Philippine Revolution, which signaled the end of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines (Tadem 2006).

The American Occupation

The American rule worsened the socioeconomic inequalities in the Philippines. The United States was not able to institute an effective land reform program that could have addressed the wide disparity between the rich and the poor. Because of the failure to address popular economic grievance, especially those of the masses, there transpired popular resistances to the American rule that were similar to those which took place during the Spanish period.

Popular movements during this time were framed in the context of socialism. It was epitomized after the emergence of Pedro Abad Santos’s Socialist Party in 1929. His party attracted tenant farmers, farmer laborers, and urban workers. The discrediting of the poor and the blatant support to the elites led to the emergence of several organizations with socialist/communist intent. Some of these were:

  • Kalipunang Pambansa ng mga Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Farmers Organization of the Philippines)
  • Aguman ding Maldang Talapagobra (League of the Poor Laborers)
  • Union Obrera Democratica (Union of Democratic Workers)
  • Congreso Obrero de Filipinas (Congress of Filipino Workers)
  • Sakdalistas
  • Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines)

The Japanese Occupation and Post-independence Period

The strength of the socialist/communist movements led to the establishment of the Hukbalahap (Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon) in March 1942. It was established by leftwing labor and peasant leaders and intellectuals. The Hukbalahap and the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas worked closely together. The Hukbalahap had been attempting to address social issues confronting Philippines society even before Japanese occupation (Tadem 2006).

The failure to address socioeconomic issues continued to breed inequality and injustice during the postcolonial period. This resulted in the upsurge of nationalist movements in the 1960s, which extended even during the period of Martial Law.

The Martial Law Period

President Ferdinand Marcos would later on use the continuing upheavals and resistance movements as a basis for the declaration of martial law, which particularly put a temporary halt to student and other forms of activism.

Military and political measures were used to crush movements similar to those used in the previous eras. The national democratic movement, the mass movement of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and anti-Marcos politicians were hardest hit by these measures (Tadem 2006). The only manifestation of strong resistance came from the broad anti-regime alliance of Muslim groups known as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded in 1974. The group’s issues on ethnicity and religion served as bases for their mobilization.

The inability of the Marcos regime to deliver its promises of social welfare— aside from the military repression and restriction of political and civil rights—furthered the democratic struggle. Such circumstances led not only to the consolidation of social movements, but also to the growth of their mass base. For instance, the CPP and its armed group, the New People’s Army (NPA) propagated further the armed struggle. Among those groups that were created or that emerged, aside from those that expanded, were the following:

  • Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), a national peasant union
  • People’s Liberation Movement
  • Khi Rho Movement, the youth arm of the Federation of Free Farmers, which the KMP replaced
  • Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, which worked closely with the peasants and workers in their struggle, and instrumental in the creation of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
  • Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which defended political detainees
  • The “Marcos Resign Movement,” which was comprised of the following, among many others:
    • Justice for Aquino, Justice for All, which used mass actions and peaceful protests
    • United Democratic Opposition, a moderate opposition
    • Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom and Democracy, a radical opposition
    • Kongreso ng Mamamayang Pilipino (KOMPIL or Congress of the Filipino People)
  • Sectoral groups also emerged:
    • Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott (WOMB)
    • General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action (GABRIELA)

Post-1986 Period

Issues of poverty, underdevelopment, social injustice, and socioeconomic inequalities justified the persistence of social movements in the Philippines after the end of Marcos’ dictatorship. This time, the issues were framed in the context of democratization and return to constitutionalism.

This period saw the rise of the independent left (leftist forces that were not part of the CPP–NPA–NDF). These include social democrats, democratic socialists, environmentalists, left-leaning nationalists, and religious activists. The independent left was comprised of the middle class and some labor leaders (Tadem and Tigno 2006).

For the first time since 1946, this period also witnessed the participation of the left in electoral politics. Among those that joined in the electoral contest was the Alliance for New Politics (an umbrella organization for the Partido ng Bayan, which was created by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan) and was joined by the Volunteers for Popular Democracy (a group of popular democrats). Thus, electoral politics was seen as an avenue for the participation, if not intervention, of social movements in governmental policymaking.

The social movements that emerged after Martial Law advocated reform, and some of them would later on become part of mainstream politics. Nonetheless, these movements targeted as beneficiaries the vulnerable and marginalized groups in the Philippine society, including, but not limited to, women, peasants, and workers (Tadem and Tigno 2006).

Issues, Prospects, and Challenges

According to ADB (2007), the strength of CSOs in the Philippines is based on their number, their extensive networking, the experience and skills from development work, the dedication and creativity of leaders and workers, and the flexibility linked to the small size of most CSOs. The coalition-building capacity of the CSOs and the formation of links with the allies in the government contributed to the success of their advocacies. The success of CSOs also allowed for the legislation of social reform policies, including the Anti-Violence against Women and Children Act, the more recent Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms Act, the Urban Development and Housing Act, and the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, among many others.

However, many CSOs (specifically NGOs) are dependent on external funding and are affected by the lack of staff and weak internal governance. While CSOs rely on volunteerism for operation, the more stable and more capable CSOs are those with paid full-time staff who can be tapped to deliver programs and services.

While the increasing number of CSOs manifests the willingness of the public to engage in development endeavors, the capacity of CSOs to deliver such must also be improved. For instance, CSOs must be trained for technical knowledge on government processes and management of funds so that they will not miss opportunities that are being offered by the government and other agencies.

As to social movements, Philippine politics after the Martial Law period remains to be characterized by a bourgeois democracy. Radicals were slowly replaced by more conservative officials, while peace talks with the leftist rebels remain a problem. Elite domination of Philippine economy still persists, which brings serious implications on agrarian reform (Tadem and Tigno 2006). Confronting poverty and socioeconomic inequalities remain to be the most formidable of challenges facing social movements.

In this context, social movements’ strategies and available resources speak volumes about their success. Today, these movements have decided to pursue development work through NGOs and POs (Tadem and Tigno 2006). Apart from this, social movements (e.g., Bayan Muna, AKBAYAN, SANLAKAS) have involved themselves in electoral politics. Acceptance of governmental positions, say in the Cabinet, has also been among the strategies, but this has depleted the source of leadership in these movements. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional means (protest politics and armed struggles) remain to be a venue for change considered by social movements.

While it is true that the challenges to social movements are defined by socioeconomic inequalities and poverty, the barriers they faced—and continue to face—do not disappoint them in their struggle toward the establishment of a Philippine society founded on social justice and equality (Tadem and Tigno 2006).