Who are Development Workers Including Political Prisoners Benito Quilloy and Rita Espinoza?

When ASCENT Convenor and Senior Consultant Benito Quilloy and Project Staff member Rita Espinoza were illegally arrested and imprisoned on October 19, 2017, many people became curious about who development workers are and what is a job that is called development work.

Development workers are generally those who are engaged in jobs that are involved in providing social services to marginalized groups. These jobs try to address development issues such as unemployment, landlessness, hunger, urban migration, lack of access to health services, workers’ rights, child rights and child protection, disaster risk reduction and management, environmental protection and advocacy and similar concerns.

Development organizations and agencies are usually part of the government bureaucracy or of international development organizations. If one would search for “development work” or “development organization” one would come across jobs in developing countries facing grave problems including wars of aggression, poverty and social injustice and hunger and malnutrition.

Development Work in Context

In the Philippines “development work” assumes a different context as progressive non-government organizations (NGOs) referred to their staff and personnel as early as the 1980s as “development workers”. They are actually alternative development workers because the NGOs that they belong to are a significant part of the mass movement. Unlike other NGOs which are the mechanisms for corruption and self-promotion of traditional politicians or the bastion of nepotism of so-called NGO racketeers, progressive NGOs have always been part of either a sectoral mass movement (peasants, workers, urban poor, women, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk) or a national mass movement such as the movement to oust the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Progressive NGOs are also actively in support of basic masses’ organizations at different levels including in the community, provincial, regional or national level. They are established out of a social need and not out of a desire to raise funds for some vested interests. For instance, the NGO Philippine Network of Food Security Programmes (PNFSP) traces its beginnings to the gathering of regional organizations that provide support services to peasant organizations including those in socio-economic development.

In Central Luzon, there is the Alay Bayan Incorporated (ABI) which not only provides disaster response to poor rural communities but is also engaged in organizing of Disaster Management Committees for the people’s organization. In the Visayas, the Farmers Development Center (FARDEC) has been giving trainings, para-legal assistance and human rights and environmental education to peasants’ groups. And in Mindanao, the Mindanao Inter-Faith Services Foundation (MISFI) designs, plans and implements capacity building programs for indigenous peoples that include disaster risk reduction and management, health education and human rights advocacy.

These organizations are some of the oldest NGOs in their respective lines of work. Apart from their track record, they also share other similarities. For one, their service and project areas are in the far flung and least served rural communities where social services are wanting.

Sharing a Common Development Philosophy           

Progressive NGOs also share a development philosophy that starts from where the poorest of the poor are. Filipino peasants continue to be plagued by landlessness, lack of sustainable agricultural inputs, lack of market for their produce, and government policies that favor foreign transnational companies and the local ruling elite over the Filipino peasants. Workers are subjected to low wages and inhumane working conditions.

The country’s natural resources are controlled by foreign corporations. The presence of mining companies continue to result in environmental destruction.

Foreign domination of the economy, control of vast agricultural lands and plantations by big landlords and a government that has abdicated its social responsibility to give way to privatization of government services have characterized the country.

Basic masses’ organizations have identified such issues and have launched campaigns and education to address these. Progressive NGOs provide support services to basic masses’ organizations including sustainable agriculture, workers’ empowerment, appropriate technology, health education and services, disaster response, child protection and environmental protection and advocacy.

These NGOs are able to recruit staff and personnel from student organizations as well as from groups of teachers, professionals and church people. Most of them come from activist and progressive organizations but there are also a few who come from other work backgrounds and would like to take on something new and meaningful in their lives.

Being development workers in the Philippines comes with a high price. Several of their top officials have been the targets of extra-judicial killings (EJKs) including Atty. Benjamin Ramos, Executive Director of Paghidaet sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG); Willem Geertman, Executive Director of ABI; Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV); and Romeo Capalla, Executive Director of Panay Fair Trade Center (PFTC). Many others have been arrested, harassed and vilified. Among those who were arrested include Benito Quilloy and Rita Espinoza.

Apart from being victims of human rights violations (HRVs), development workers have to contend with long hours of work and extensive travel to poor rural communities. This is part of an unwritten Code of Conduct that they have committed themselves to. For example, a senior level development worker such as the 64 year old Benito Quilloy does not enjoy any savings from income, a pension plan or a retirement package. Unlike development workers from international development agencies, development workers from Philippine progressive NGOs try as hard as possible to have lifestyles that are not too different from that of the basic sectors that they work with. For to be a development worker in the country is to embrace the life of the poor and oppressed including their daily struggles. #

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AscentPH is a national alliance of development organizations determinedly working for the empowerment of the people through poverty alleviation and promoting and defending the right to development and other fundamental human rights and freedoms.

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