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By: Katrina Monica C. Gaw

Ateneo Law School

 

          The Philippines today is a paradox of wealth and poverty. For while the country enjoys riches in the form of natural resources and human capital, and has, in recent years, enjoyed the status of being one of the fastest-growing economies, many Filipinos remain marginalized, seemingly fixed in their places in the peripheries.[1] The effect is what appears to be a disconnect between economic progress and social welfare, one which may cause some to opine, “Why are we so poor? Yet we are so rich?”[2]

          These facts, however, stand in stark contrast to what the 1987 Constitution aims for Philippine society. For the Constitution envisions a country where the symbiotic relationship between economic growth and development is realized by the poorest of the poor.  It espouses as state policy the need to “promote social justice in all phases of national development.”[3] And it calls upon the Philippine government to “equitably diffus[e] wealth and political power for the common good.”[4]

          One of the reasons why realities do not reflect our constitutional ideals returns to the issue of the perceived notions of what it means to ensure national development, and what it means to protect citizen welfare and uphold human rights.

          To the typical layman, what comes to mind at the mention of “human rights” includes freedom of speech, the right to due process, the right to the presumption of innocence, and the right to information from the government. And in everyday discourse, when one speaks of the economy, they speak of doing business – of protecting the robust growth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), of valuations of publicly listed stocks, and of other matters of a commercial nature. Given these assumptions, fostering the economy and upholding human rights seem to be worlds apart from one another. These fail to capture the ways by which the two may interact and complement one another, and how combining business interests and human rights can serve as a positive tool of change for wider society, particularly in lifting those in the peripheries.

          For respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the human rights of Filipinos does not entail merely providing citizens with protections found in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights – it also entails uplifting them and giving them the full dignity that each human being deserves; it includes answering to their physical hunger, equipping them with skills they need for a sustained livelihood, granting them fair and decent wages, and educating and shaping their minds. Economic growth, on the other hand, is not merely a sum game. Economic progress can and should be a means of ensuring social development, particularly where industry players, entrepreneurs, and the government begin to perceive businesses not only as vehicles for making profit, but as, in themselves, players in the wider landscape of the Philippines, with the capacity to change the lives of those within their spheres of influence for the better, or for worse.

          This is what I envision the philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law means. It means that harmony is to be made preferred over societal divides; that unified prosperity is the ultimate aim of government; that private actors can help in resolving the problem of poverty; and that the law can be molded to empower those in the peripheries to take active part in national economic development. In a world where liberty and prosperity stand on equal footing under the rule of law, the paradox of wealth and poverty is overcome by collective action – each sector of society works in synergy with government to create a better Philippines, where true social justice is ultimately achieved.

          The philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law may appear to espouse ideals too lofty to be achieved, whether by one person or by an entire generation of believers. True, we may be lifetimes away from a Philippines which can proclaim that it has attained both liberty and prosperity for its people, through good governance and the law. However, each must play a part towards the endeavor, and it is possible, at this present stage, to begin the process of change. The catalyst can be the actions of ordinary citizens, businessmen, officials, and even law students, who believe deeply in the need for the philosophy to be achieved.

          Law school often seems a bubble, where the rigors of learning the nuances of the law overcome any sense of connection to the world outside. In this sense, some may question the possibility of espousing the philosophy within the school’s four walls. I believe, however, that avenues such as organizations allow even students like myself to promote prosperity and liberty under the rule of law.

          One example is by promoting discourse on the matter among the law school community – by publishing works in the school’s law journal, and hosting sessions for discussion. As a Member of the Board of Editors of the Ateneo Law Journal, I am witness and proof of the ability of legal discourse to shape minds and better connect classroom learning with matters in the wider world. Through Articles and Essays on the law, students are able to understand how every aspect of society relies, for functionality, in an underlying legal framework – whether this be the banking system, government food aid programs, foreign investment and incentives, or dispute resolution mechanisms, the law always maps out the rights and obligations of all parties involved, and the rules which will ensure proper order. Knowledge of the pervasiveness of the law then allows students to consider the law in its role as a societal tool – how it molds expectations, frames responsibilities, and provides the scope and limitations of the exercise of granted powers. And attaining this enlightenment allows the student to envision, with his or her mind and heart, not only on what the law is, but also, what he or she hopes it to be.

          Law students, however, should not limit their discourse to the confines of their respective law schools; in fact, they should not presume themselves incapable of reaching out to the wider world.  Students can also take the initiative to create projects which will allow them to impart their knowledge of the law, and, by extension, to empower fellow Filipinos. I have had an opportunity to do this, through the Ateneo Law Business Association (ALBA)’s flagship project, the “Kasosyo sa Negosyo Seminar: Practical Approaches to Doing Business.”

          As a student of the law, one gains insights into the legal and regulatory aspects of doing business which often escape the minds of SME owners. In my own case, since freshman year, friends who have chosen to open up their own startups would send me texts, asking for advice on matters relating to their business’ labor, intellectual property, and customs concerns. Borrowing from this insight, and aware that many smaller businesses would not have the opportunity to seek advice for their legal concerns, I and the rest of the ALBA Project Committee team organized ALBA’s very first, “Kasosyo sa Negosyo Seminar,” an event which served as ALBA’s flagship project for the year. In coordination with the City of Mandaluyong, we invited micro-small-medium enterprise (MSME) owners from the city’s various barangays to attend and seek advice for legal problems they face while conducting their businesses. To aid them in their understanding of the law, we prepared a presentation simplifying basic principles of corporate law, tax law, and labor law, as well as a primer booklet the entrepreneurs could take home. To answer their in-depth, specialized questions, we invited a panel of lawyers, including officials of the City of Mandaluyong, representatives from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), tax practitioners from SGV, and practicing faculty members of the Ateneo Law School. The seminar was sponsored by both ALBA and the local government, and was therefore free for attendees.

          The event proved a success, with more than 100 entrepreneurs in attendance, engaged in all forms of businesses – while some businessmen who had come were members of their local chambers of commerce, others owned sari-sari stores, small computer shops, and online shops. The seminar had to be extended by an hour owing to the overwhelming amount of questions asked by the attendants. And ALBA was thereafter approached by non-government organizations (NGOs) and the City of Mandaluyong’s office for promoting entrepreneurship for similar endeavors in the future. The seminar also subsequently won “Project of the Year” at the end-of-the-year organization awards of the Ateneo Law School’s Council of Organizations.

          Reflecting on the “Kasosyo sa Negosyo Seminar” has given me two primary epiphanies.

The first is that knowledge of the law is not only useful for law students and legal practitioners – it can also serve as one of many links between empowering those in the peripheries and fostering economic development. Many Filipino MSME owners who attended precisely sought the chance to better understand the law; in particular, they wanted to know how it helps them navigate the competitive landscape of doing business in the Philippines. They wanted to understand how the law incentivizes them, protects them, and also, what they are expected by law to do in return. If more Filipino MSME business owners had the opportunity to learn nuances of the law specifically applicable to them, they could use the law to their advantage, and avail of incentives, exemptions, and programs designed primarily to benefit them.

          The second is that the law has, in many ways, been designed by government to benefit those who most need it. This is true for aspects of law which deal with incubating micro- and small enterprises such as the sari-sari store owner, or with supplemental feeding programs of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) which aim to address the malnourishment of children. Indeed, it cannot be said that the government has not been making attempts to uplift those in deep poverty, nor that it has been completely blind to their plight. Whether or not the best methods have been achieved, and whether or not programs have been fully implemented, are separate questions entirely, but at the bottom-line, the basic outline for addressing the concerns of the peripheries has been set in place. The larger issue, therefore, may not be within the law, but without it – in societal attitudes towards addressing poverty at large, and how these link back to the actions of private citizens. Where government fails to uphold its obligations and commitments made, and where it makes promises and does no follow-ups, who will then uphold the philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law?

          It is here that citizens like myself can play a part, and it is here that lawyers can make a difference. Where a lawyer knows the law, and how it interacts with larger Philippine society, as well as where the law as it is succeeds and fails, he or she is able to do two things: (1) to make recommendations that will allow government to better fulfill its mandates under the Constitution, and (2) pending future changes, to advise other private actors in larger society to contribute to ensuring that economic progress is achieved symbiotically with social development, particularly for those with the least in society.

          My big dream is to one day become a corporate lawyer, one who advocates a harmonious balance between business and human rights. I come from a family of businessmen, and in many ways, entrepreneurship, for me, captures best the story of the little man, trekking the rough, uphill climb from the bottom to the top. It is in the world of business that some of the best stories of the victorious underdog arise. Unfortunately, it is here, too, that tales of “corporate evil” proliferate – some companies are infamous for their treatment of laborers, for example, or for their disregard for environmental and human rights concerns. I want to advocate for a business world which accommodates, addresses, and contributes to solving human rights concerns, particularly those relating to socio-economic development. I want to stand by businesses and businessmen who believe in integrating social thrusts into their businesses. And I want to continue empowering MSME owners in the Philippines, by volunteering for or initiating programs similar to the “Kasosyo sa Negosyo” seminar. Imparting knowledge to them equips them with the tools they need to help themselves, and to help others along the way.

          It is my belief that human rights concerns relating to safeguarding liberty and nurturing prosperity under the rule of law cannot be achieved by government acting alone. Rather, private individuals and corporate citizens have to play their part. They have to contribute to the collective welfare, instead of focusing on self-enrichment. They have to align business practices with ensuring that the country’s economic wealth does not come at the expense of the poor. And, in my belief, it is possible for them to do all this and still succeed in business.

          This vision of my future career appears ambitious, and a change in traditional attitudes dichotomizing economic development and human rights concerns is not easy to achieve. Indeed, some may see the effort as futile. But at day’s end, those who hope to rid the Philippines of its problematic paradox must do so with the faith that their actions will ripple past their lifetimes, and, in consonance with others sharing the same mindset, will be just enough to tip the scales, ever so slightly, towards social justice. For ultimately, those who espouse the philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law rely on collective societal effort as the means to their shared end. As was once opined, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”[5]

 

[1] Despite a growth rate of 6.5% in the country’s GDP last 2016, As of 2017, 21.6% Filipinos live below the poverty line. See Asian Development Bank, Poverty in the Philippines, available at https://www.adb.org/countries/philippines/poverty (last accessed Aug. 31, 2017).

[2] This was the question posited in the 2014 Southern African Development Community summit in relation to Africa’s continuing poverty, despite its wealth of natural resources. And though Africa is miles away, this might as well have been addressed to the leaders of the Philippines, where poverty is a continuing problem for many. Briggs Bomba, Africa: Why Are We So Poor? Yet We Are So Rich?, available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201408120664.html (last accessed Aug. 13, 2017).

[3] Phil. Const. art. II, § 10.

[4] Phil. Const. art. XIII, § 1.

[5] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004).