Help for the Philippines

THE People's Power revolution of 1986 in the Philippines remains an inspiration to oppressed people around the world. The hope that was ushered in by the revolution, however, is threatened by economic stagnation and political instability. The survival of the Filipino democracy cannot be taken for granted.

Like the governments of Eastern Europe, the government of Corazon Aquino faced enormous problems, exacerbated by corruption, social division, and political fragmentation. Despite these problems, President Aquino managed to transfer power to Fidel Ramos according to the Philippine Constitution through free and fair elections. This achievement was critically important to the prospects of developing a stable democracy in the nation.

Despite the serious problems facing her government, Aquino made progress in several other areas. The percentage of Filipinos living below the poverty line decreased from 60 percent to 50 percent of the population. The Philippine economy grew at an average rate of 3.5 percent annually despite a series of devastating natural disasters and a restive military. In addition, the communist insurrection that threatened the state six years ago has been greatly reduced. President Ramos assumes office after a good start has been made, but enormous challenges remain.

The United States continues to have a major stake in the future of the Philippines. Because anti-Marcos revolution served as an inspiration to democratic movements in Eastern Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Thailand, and elsewhere, democracy's failure in the Philippines would be a major setback for democracy worldwide. It is easy to support democracy while the world's attention is riveted on the dramatic events of a revolution. But if our advocacy of democracy is to remain credible, we must continue to support nations after the glow of the revolution has faded and when the task of democracy-building is often more difficult.

This was the purpose of the Multilateral Assistance Initiative (MAI) set up to assist the Philippines. The US joined with the World Bank, Japan, and other nations in a coordinated effort to "jump start" the Filipino economy. By bringing together government and private aid from many donors, the MAI has enabled the US to leverage a relatively modest contribution into a more effective multilateral aid package. Tied to mandated economic reforms, the MAI offers the best hope that democracy can bring real econ omic benefits to the Filipino economy.

Unfortunately, American support for the MAI has been significantly less that our commitment calls for. This year the Bush administration proposed to fund only 40 percent of the US's MAI commitment, and the House-passed appropriations bill funds half of that: 20 percent.

Now that the American military bases in the Philippines are being shut down, Manila can no longer expect to receive as much assistance as in the past. Security assistance already has been reduced from $360 million last year to $70 million this year.

The MAI, however, is a commitment to democracy. Cutting the MAI at this critical juncture in the development of the Philippines is short-sighted. The government of Fidel Ramos is attempting to strengthen free-market reforms aimed at producing economic growth and development. But without international, especially American, encouragement and support, this is not likely to happen.

Cutting the MAI also sends the wrong signal to the nations that joined the aid effort. If the US lacks commitment to the Philippines, other donors are likely to follow our lead and reduce or withdraw their pledges as well. In addition, the MAI cuts also undermine the precedent of providing aid to a developing nation through a coordinated international effort that emphasizes burden sharing. Such initiatives can reduce the costs of foreign aid, while maximizing its impact.

Failure to support Philippine democracy at this time sends the wrong signal to those who are struggling to enhance freedom around the world. The US must be committed not only to the democratic revolution, but also to the difficult institutionalization of democracy which follows. We must sustain our commitments even though the unglamorous events of institution-building don't fill headlines.

We hope that the US Senate fully funds the MAI at the administration's request level. More important, we urge the continuation of the MAI until the original US commitment is attained.

Funding the MAI remains as much in the American national interest today as when a bipartisan coalition in Congress launched it a few years ago. Our funding of the MAI is not only vital to the future of the Philippines, it is central to our commitment to democracy.

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