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Experts identify 5 biggest roles of barangays

Manila Standard

By Cherry Salazar / PCIJ

The barangay is the smallest political unit in the Philippines. But for Filipinos, the barangay represents more than just a government identity. It is also the smallest territorial unit that embodies a community.

These two “faces” of the barangay – being both a local government and a community – give it a distinct significance in Philippine democracy, said Michael Henry Yusingco, a lawyer and fellow of the Ateneo School of Government.

“Because of this characteristic, the barangay is supposed to be a community parliament… It is a venue or forum for regular people to engage in governance,” he told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in an interview.

The Local Government Code defines the role of barangays as the primary implementing unit of government programs, as well as a forum where people’s collective views are heard and disputes are sorted out.

It also devolved national government responsibilities such as services to local government units, including barangays.

“The idea here is that aside from implementing national programs, planning should actually emanate from the grassroots, from bottom up,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

Experts identified five biggest responsibilities of barangays:

  1. Protecting vulnerable sectors

Championing the interests of vulnerable sectors should top the list of barangays’ responsibilities. This includes enforcing ordinances to protect women and children from violence, Atienza said.

For her part, Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan, chair of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (Pahra), pointed out that cases of domestic abuse can be detected and prevented at the barangay where people know each other on a more personal level.

“Sometimes a barangay captain knows that his/her neighbor is being beaten up… yet they do not do anything about it,” Simbulan said. “The common justification is that it is a family concern. It’s something private to the couple.”

Child abuse and child labor can be monitored and curtailed within the community, she said.

Programs benefiting the elderly and persons with disabilities (PWDs), as well as the indigenous peoples (IPs) should also rank high in barangays’ priorities, Simbulan said.

On top of delivering basic services, barangays must ensure that IPs are represented in decision-making processes, she added.

In proposed projects that will affect indigenous communities, the barangay is expected to organize consultative assemblies to enable IPs to decide whether to grant free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).

  1. Peace and order

Atienza, former chair of the UP department of political science, also pointed out that peace and order can be easier addressed in the barangay.

Barangays should craft their development plan based not only on the needs of residents but on problems that disrupt peace such as petty crimes, she said. “Who often gets involved in these crimes and why?”

In the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), barangays may address issues surrounding armed violence, said Yusingco. He stressed that every barangay has diverse needs and situations.

For Simbulan, the barangay, being “the structure nearest to the people,” is also the first stop for residents seeking counsel, advice or assistance.

  1. Environment and climate resilience

Clean-up and sanitation drives are good environmental practices that ensure the protection and security of barangay residents, Atienza said.

These help prevent bigger risks like flooding and disaster preparedness, she said. “If drainage systems are in good condition, if waste is managed properly, there will be no flooding.”

“If you link simple environmental issues and clean-up with disaster management and climate change issues, then you’re already starting education, civic training, community and citizen participation,” she said.

Ateneo de Manila University sociology professor Emma Porio also pointed out that the barangay is the “first stop” for infrastructure permits.

Barangays can reject projects that would be built along fault lines or hazardous areas, have an impact on the environment and community negatively, or go against their local plans, said Porio.

  1. Health

Another area that barangays can prioritize is primary health care, with focus on preventing both common diseases and epidemics, Atienza told PCIJ.

“The last pandemic saw how weak primary and preventive health services are because the focus is on the more expensive, curative aspect like hospital care,” she said.

The UP professor said developing healthier communities and “making hospitals the last resort” would be cheaper and better in the long run.

Meanwhile, reflecting on his personal experiences in their community, Ariate said the pandemic highlighted the crucial role of the barangay in providing basic services. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)

“People joke… this is the time of collecting. We’ll remember how many kilos of rice and cans of sardines [were distributed], how the quarantine was imposed,” Ariate said.

Aside from these, barangays also monitored infected residents and their households, limited exposure to patients, trafficked the movement of people and goods, and rolled out vaccines.

  1. Human rights

The Commission on Human Rights in 1994 created the Barangay Human Rights Action Center (BHRAC). The program is supposed to bring human rights information and protection to the grassroots.

However, nearly three decades since it was implemented, not all provinces and barangays in the country have established BHRACs.

As well, many among those with BHRACs “exist only in name,” Pahra’s Simbulan told PCIJ.

Aside from human rights education work, BHRACs also act as a “complaint referral, especially in far-flung barangays if people would like to seek redress for violations of rights,” she said.

Aside from strengthening BHRACs, Simbulan also encouraged barangays to use a rights-based approach and be more transparent in their operations.

“(People) should be provided with an opportunity to raise questions to scrutinize whatever plans are formulated at the level of the barangay, including the existing budget, budget allocation, and spending,” she said.

For Yusingco, civic participation in the barangay is a microcosm of the national government.

“The barangay is a lifeline to our democracy,” he said. “If we forget what it’s for, which is for us to engage in governance, then, our democracy will die.”

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