Monday, December 16, 2013

Under the watch of citizens

published 15 December 2013, MST 

In the last month or so, the Philippines has received overwhelming sympathy and support from the rest of the world. These are through kind words, prayers and donations meant for the survivors of super typhoon Yolanda.

The numbers are online, the Budget Department says. Anybody can easily go to www.faith.gov.ph – the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub. Aggregate amounts are posted on the right side of the site, broken down into cash and non-cash donations.

As of Saturday, 14 December, pledges amounted to P23 billion while foreign aid received amounted to P593 million.

If you scroll down, you can also view the figures per donor-country.

This is just one way of keeping track. “It's our moral obligation to help ensure things don't go missing, get stolen, or wasted,” according to Rorie Fajardo, program manager of the Citizens Action Network for Accountability, which on December 5 held a forum called “Watching Where the Aid Goes.”
Other organizations that participated in the forum were Blog Watch, #AidMonitorPH and Disaster Risk Reduction Network Philippines.

An invitation was sent to President Aquino's choice for “rehabilitation czar,” Panfilo Lacson, to talk about the government's plan, but he declined. At that time he was still awaiting his appointment papers and preferred to “quietly organize, plan and do some networking with the stakeholders.”

The forum highlighted that there are many ways for citizens to participate in watching the funds meant to help the victims of disasters – in this case, super typhoon Yolanda. There were several social media tools available, said Blog Watch co-founder Noemi Rivera, to ensure that the outpouring of financial aid “translates to immediate relief on the ground.” DRRNetPhils convenor Malu Cagay pushed for a more forward-looking move – the use of funds not only for recovery but also to build disaster resilience of communities. Red Batario of the Center for Community Journalism and Development had this practical advice to citizens and the media: Follow the trail; follow the smell of the money.

In the open forum that followed, the following issues also arose. Aid with “strings attached” – i.e., those that come with interest or meant to make us forget about the donor's human rights violations must be rejected.

Participants in the forum were also reminded that the implementing rules and regulations of the People's Survival Fund law had not been acted upn. “In fact, the IRR is sitting on the President's desk and we don't know what he is waiting for,” said a representative from Aksyon Klima. The law sets aside P1 billion every year for the fund from the time of enactment (2012). Nothing is happening here.

Advocates also demanded that part of the funds be allocated to establish safe spaces for women and children, amid reports of sexual abuse and exploitation in typhoon-ravaged areas.

Finally, the audience was reminded to demand to see what is contained in the much-touted rehabilitation plan, so that it would be easier to track actual progress against promises made.

**

Former National Treasurer and Social Watch Philippines lead convenor Leonor Briones gave the concluding remarks, and she made two powerful appeals to those present.

First, while attention to foreign aid is important, we should also keep track of how funds already here are being channeled and spent. Whatever foreign aid there is can easily be matched by money that's already available in our budget. The problem arises from misuse and abuse of these funds by the officials who are supposed to safeguard them in the first place.

Second, discussions of this kind and the actual tracking of relief and rehabilitation funds must not be limited to the academe, media, civil society leaders – or else, “tayo-tayo lang uli ang mangyayari (it's going to be exclusive to us, too.)” The order of the day is to bring the information to those who have the most at stake – the people who are the intended beneficiaries of the funds, whose lives the funds aim to improve and empower.

The information has to be accessible and understandable, to every Filipino – even to those who do not have access to or know how to navigate the Internet.

“It has been a challenging year for the Philippines,” Briones said. “The country has been one big disaster area. But it has also seen love and hope.” And for that, what goes on is worth watching.

We should go beyond keeping track of how much has actually been donated. We should demand more ways to know how the money is actually channeled so that it reaches the people. Which agencies are handling how much of the funds? How is the money being spent, exactly? How are these delivered physically to the people? Does the help reach everybody who needs it? What is the accountability of officials with access to the funds?

We should not allow the bungling, the political bickering, even allegations of pilferage, to frustrate us and make us stop watching. Monitoring is best when done in a concerted fashion, so those whom we are watching would know we are serious.


adellechua@gmail.com  

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