April 3, 2019

Why Nations Fail?

"There are undoubtedly cultural differences between the Filipinos and the Japanese, for instance. But the striking thing about Japan is how it modernized while preserving its rich and unique culture. Our guess is that the Philippines can do the same." (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012)

Having read that final part of Acemoglu and Robinson's 2012 article "A Damaged Culture?" made me very emotional, I had to pause for a good five minutes. We are a land of cultures, a melting pot as they say. But we have been so diverse even before migration took us to stronger and richer nations like the United States and Canada. We have been so diverse as a nation, strong and distinct diversity of people from island to island fortified by a rich and abundant ecosystem. But why is it that these differences became a hindrance for development rather than an asset for success through diversity? Is the problem plainly just culture? or is it perhaps the absence of strong and developmental institutions "that permit or encourage investment and growth" (Acemoglu, 2010). Should we really say absent, or must I use the term dormant or passive? What I personally think about this is, with a strong regard to a selfish mindset, Filipinos chose the easier way for most of us have this "dependent" mindset that everything must be for the benefit of one's self. For survival, we really do need to put one's self first, always. But being a part of a larger society, such institutions are existing to provide guidance as to how the "rules of the games" should be imposed. (Acemoglu, 2010). Acemoglu and Robinson's comparison of our country to our regional neighbors with respect to James Fallows' 1987 The Atlantic article is very timely and rampant even up to this date. Culture may be a power player as to a country's development but sets of institutions are key as to how a country will truly prosper economically. If you talk about embracing of these institutions, there can also be an institution that will be responsible in promoting it.

A strong component of this article which I found very relevant was about dependency. I felt a little estranged when I passed by Acemoglu's words "Yet it is a bit of a mystery how exactly dependence is related to the family-centric behavior he [James Fallows] noted above." Being family-centric makes us all very dependent. We can always not work because our family is there, we can go straight home after work because my mother already prepared dinner at the table. But when it comes to that sense of nationalism that Farrows expounded that we lack of, I would have to agree with that. As territorial as we are as I see through issues on social media as citizens, there is a stronger account that we Filipinos are very much fragmented even in our own land. Regionalism is still rampant in the negative sense that instead of working together as a nation, as a big, large family, we tend to get too competitive to our own countrymen. As much as we have this culture of hospitality to other people, especially to visitors from other nations, the crabmentality mindset is still on its peak everyday, everywhere in our country. I can see this as something detrimental to the success of institutions. My paternal grandfather was a Chinese Immigrant who sailed all the way from southern China to Singapore and to the Philippines during the late 30's. He was part of a community of people who build each other up and look after each other even beyond their southern seas. Even until his last years, I can see how tight their bonds were with these men who helped and grew a brotherhood of themselves. When he passed away, I visited his hometown in Fujian and there I saw schools and gates and public buildings with the similar Chinese characters which my dad explained me were through the efforts of the community who have lived in the Philippines. A nation or a society is only as strong as a progressive bond between its people is, fortified with a desire to rise not on their own but as a community. Without institutions, will all of those be possible?

"On Vote Buying and Reciprocity" and "The Politics of Utang na Loob" (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012), both have shown strong points that presents a trade-off between culture and institutions in a success or deterioration of a nation. We are all naturally reciprocal, it's not just we have been raised through that mindset but it's just something that I personally think we are all accountable for. As Acemoglu emphasized, "being reciprocal is critical for building cooperation, trust, and a well-functioning society." And then he adds the interrogative "Could it be that Filipinos are just insufficiently reciprocal?". Of course, the answer is No (which they subtly concluded at the end through a question as well). Having this reciprocity can be a positive thing not just through the bigger picture but even to personal relationships. But going beyond it shows negative effects. Acemoglu and Robinson presented that this culture of excessive reciprocity is being exploited by politicians so that they can gain the positions they are vying for. It's very risky to just hand out bribes to the voters due to possibility of public exposure but since we have this strong regard to 'utang na loob' concocted by extreme dependence to easy money due to poverty or personal gain, we tend to cast our vote that way even if there is, as Acemoglu and Robinson presented, an effective secret ballot.

Looking at this 'utang na loob' on another view, away from the voters, I would like to point out the issue with regards to Former Senator Manny Villar and President Rodrigo Duterte. The president last Thursday, February 14th, on a proclamation rally in SJDM, Bulacan revealed that before he ran for president, he went to dinner with Senator Villar. the president revealed "Nag-dinner kami. Nagdala siya ng pera sa bag. Sabi niya, 'Pang-umpisa mo lang kung gusto mo lang tumakbo. 'Pag hindi, iyo na ‘yan.'" he said. With that money, let's call, encouragement gift, the President will surely be indebted to the Senator through whatever that amount is, thus a play of utang na loob. How will the President reciprocate to that, or should I say how had he reciprocated to it, we'll never really know the details unless he expounds more in the coming days. What can the senator gain with providing such 'gifts' to the leading presidential candidate? He is already rich and able, very rich and very able should I say? let me just close this paragraph by quoting "political institutions are extremely important for economic growth in low-income countries" (Pereira and Teles, 2011)

We are a country of so much potential, so much potential that even if decades and decades of depletion, we still have that fire that burns hope every single time. But is that hope enough to make us stand and leave that sense of "dependency"? Time can only tell. Will it be easy to shift our mindsets to embrace better and more developmental institutions as soon as possible? Not really. Since following the social conflict view (which I personally think is what's evident in the Philippines for the past decades), wherein institutions are not chosen by the whole society but by the groups that control political power at that time (Acemoglu, 2010).

But the question is, with the existing set of cultures and the inactivity of more developmental institutions in our country, will it be possible to attain progress that will be felt even to the poorest of the poor? As resilient as we are, Yes.


Acemoglu, D. (2010). Chapter 1. General Issues. Political Economy Lecture Notes.

Teles, V. & Pereira, C. (2011). Political Institutions, Economic Growth, and Democracy: The Substitute Effect.

Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J. (2012). Damaged Culture? Retrieved from http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/12/13/a-damaged-culture.html

Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J. (2012). Good Culture? On vote buying and reciprocity. Retrieved from http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/12/18/good-culture-on-vote-buying-and-reciprocity.html

Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J. (2012). The Politics of Utang na Loob. Retrieved from http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/12/20/the-politics-of-utang-na-loob.html

"Nagdala Siya Ng Pera Sa Bag": Duterte vows support if Villar runs for president anew. (2019, Feb 16) Retrieved from https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/02/15/19/nagdala-siya-ng-pera-sa-bag-duterte-vows-support-if-villar-runs-for-president-anew

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