The Threefold Nature of Social Life

social life

Any discussion of development at the paradigmatic or framework level presupposes a model of society. Past models of societal development have emphasized economic and political development. The United States, for example, emphasizes economic growth. In this model, the function of the State is to defend the interests of business, domestically and internationally. In Japan, it is the opposite; the State defines the tone and direction of development. Business is the instrument for the realization of the State’s goals. It is important to note that voluntary citizen action, even if they exist in both countries, conceptually has no role to play in total development process. Thus these existing models of development can be described as implicitly advancing a two-fold model of society.

For many, the collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled the “end of history” where market capitalism has triumphed over state-controlled capitalism as found in communist and socialist countries. This event triggered the massive exodus of countries into the umbrella of the World Trade Organization (WTO), as the bullet train to economic growth and salvation. In effect, these events reflect the growing imposition of single-fold model of society, where economics reigns supreme. Under this ideology, the State is to interfere less and less with the “free market.” Citizens and their culture have to be molded to serve the ends of business and economics. The economy becomes a parasite on society, transforming all development conversations and debates into economic discourse.

In recent years, however, the single-fold and the two-fold models of society have increasingly come into serious question. Fifty years of conventional economic and political modernization after World War II have brought about mixed results. Economic growth and political modernization were attained but at the expense of the environment, people, and society.

Thus many international summits were convened to address this problem of the political economy of growth at the expense of the social, human and environmental disintegration. The Earth Summit in Rio tried to work out the connection between environment and development. The Social Development Summit in Copenhagen tackled the impacts of economic modernization on social cohesion, poverty, and unemployment. The Population Summit in Cairo addressed the challenge of rapid population growth in a finite and inequitable planet. And the Women’s Summit in Beijing debated the marginalization and the role of women in the process of economic modernization and development. And recently, the Habitat Summit in Istanbul addressed the impacts of urbanization on a range of development issues.

In all these Summits, new approaches to development were increasingly being advocated, but without much clarity. The strong influence of both the two-fold and single-fold models of society distorted the form of the new model of society and development that wanted to come out.

Nevertheless something extraordinary began to emerge in all these Summits and debates on development paradigm around the world. Among others, one feature stood out in all these Summits: the emergence and active participation of civil society in the complex debates around economic growth, governance, development, environment, social harmony, population, women, and urbanization.

The coming of age of civil society vis-à-vis the state and government on one side and business and the economy on the other side signaled the re-emergence in the world arena of values and cultural power. Citizens who voluntarily gathered together and fought for the public interest were giving a signal that, from now on, culture—the dynamic repository of societal worldviews, values, and morality, can no longer take a back seat to both politics and economics in setting the development agenda of the world. Civil society understood that culture held the power to bestow legitimacy on the government and business and it wanted both to be transparent and accountable to the public interest, especially the poor and others who are marginalized.

What was true in the global arena was also true for the Philippines. Civil society organizations (CSO) in the Philippines not only participated in all these Summits. Philippine civil society organizations played a prominent and even a leadership role in many of them. The active participation of Philippine civil society in the international arena was but a logical extension of its relatively extensive work in the Philippines.

With the emergence of civil society as the key “actor” in the realm of culture, the formulators of the Philippine’s Blueprint for Sustainable Development—Philippine Agenda 21 (PA21), began to see an extraordinary way out of the problems imposed by a two-fold and single fold model of society. The architects of PA21 saw that, in reality, Philippine society and a significant number of countries around the world are either already functionally differentiated or striving to differentiate into three autonomous but interdependent realms: the economy, polity, and culture.

This new model appreciates the cognitive and normative contributions of the cultural sphere in contradistinction to the direct governance by the state in the political sphere, and the direct activities of business in the economic sphere.

PA21 therefore had to build upon a threefold image of society in the formulation of the definition and substance of sustainable development. It acknowledges that true development can only occur if civil society, government, and business (including labor) agree on a unified frame of reference for sustainable development and then enter into critical and principled partnerships to make sustainable development a reality. These partnerships are also known as threefolding stakeholdership or tri-sector partnerships.

The pursuit of meaningful alternatives to elite globalization, therefore, also means the forging, where appropriate, of these aforementioned strategic partnerships between civil society, government, and business. Threefolding including tri-sector partnerships can thus be viewed as essential in advancing new ways for nations to develop and for the different nations to chart a different kind of globalization.

Increasingly, intuitive, innovative and diverse tri-sector developments are taking place in different parts of the world. One of the most prominent symptoms of this new development is Philippine Agenda 21 (PA21). At the prodding of its civil society, the Philippine government adopted PA21 as its highest development policy. Business subsequently formulated its Business Agenda 21 as a further elaboration of PA21. Local governments and community based civil society organizations and some businesses are starting to implement PA21 in a significant number of areas in the Philippines through local threefolding processes including tri-sector partnerships.

Despite these promising developments, tri-sector partnerships are relatively new. Therefore the full potential of the concept and the approach is not yet fully understood by all institutions active within the three sectors. In addition, suspicions and misunderstandings also exist, potentially undermining the usefulness of tri-sector or threefolding approaches in addressing global problems and advancing human, social, ecological, and spiritual aspirations.

Herein lies one of the most important innovations of PA21, an innovation that is starting to find resonance all over the world.