True north

published 21 Sept 2015, The Standard
Pura Sumangil was having lunch with some civil society colleagues at the Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas compound when she was asked to retell the beginnings of the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government, which she serves as chairman.
It was just two days after the CCAGG received the first Citizenship Award by the Galing Pook Foundation, alongside two other organizations from Mindanao. She came to Manila to accept the recognition.
The 74-year-old Manang Pura gladly obliged to the request. She hurriedly finished her meal and sat at an outside table, recounting how the organization began in the days after the Edsa Revolution.
“We metamorphosed from Namfrel. After our group’s participation in the 1986 elections, we did not want to stop our involvement. We also wanted to participate in the development of Abra, which was a very poor province at that time.”
And indeed in the 1980s, Abra was included as priority for integrated area development because of its low level of resource utilization, social amenities, infrastructure development and popular participation which had resulted in apathy and political unrest.
In 1987, the newly installed administration of Corazon Aquino launched the Community Employment and Development Program to pump prime the economy. With a budget of P3.9 billion, it financed small-scale, labor-intensive infrastructure projects. The idea was to employ project beneficiaries so they could augment their farming income.
A unique aspect of the project was the involvement of a non-government organization to monitor the program’s implementation.
For Abra, CCAGG was that group. In January 1987, it signed a tripartite agreement with the National Economic and Development Authority and the then-Ministry of Budget and Management.
“The change was euphoric at that time,” Sumangil recalled. “It was like people had new lenses.”
CCAGG’s members looked at their participation as a challenge, an opportunity to fight graft and corruption which they felt was causing poverty in their province. They looked at the financial and physical implementation of the project but also at the benefits derived by the community. They engaged a local radio station and a community newspaper for disseminating information.
But the Ministry of Public Works and Highways put up some resistance, dismissing the group as “simply laymen who did not understand technical matters.” Programs of work were difficult to obtain. The members were met with indifference, at best, when they raised concerns. Some local officials said they only caused destabilization and disunity, and hindered development.
All too soon, the MPWH in Abra said that projects being monitored in the province were already finished. The CCAGG was aghast; many of the projects had not been even started yet.
They wrote a letter to then-Minister Vicente Jayme who received them warmly and committed to send an audit team to inspect the projects in the province. The team was able to gather documents and interview residents before receiving death threats—bullets in their service vehicles.
The team’s findings resulted in administrative charges against several members of the province’s engineering district. As the cases were being heard, smear campaigns and physical threats on the lives of CCAGG personalities were noted. There was also intervention by powerful politicians. But there was also tremendous support from the people and the church.
Because of the relentless attention by the CCAGG, the MPWH decided to establish an office called the Complaints and Action Center. In February 1988, the decision on the administrative cases was handed down, finding the 11 officials guilty of falsifying certificates of completion and suspending them as a result of their conduct.
Three weeks after, President Corazon Aquino presented to CCAGG the Presidential Plaque of Appreciation for Outstanding Community Service.
Since then, the CCAGG has kept at its mission. In 2002, it partnered with the Commission on Audit for a reform project which involved citizens in the audit of government projects, specifically road projects of the DPWH and the DENR. This project, generically called “participatory audit,” gave way to Citizen Participatory Audit project that was begun again in earnest under the administration of former chairperson Maria Gracia Pulido Tan.
The CPA eventually gained for the Philippines the Bright Spots Award in the 2013 Open Government Partnership forum in London.
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Soon, Manang Pura said she had better get back to her colleagues. They would be returning to Abra that afternoon, and it looked like it was going to rain. One wondered where a woman of her age gets the energy and the enthusiasm to plod through from day to day, traveling great distances, meeting with people from all levels and working up the gumption to do the same thing all over again.
She seemed a lot less eager to talk about herself as she was about talking of CCAGG. Few would know, for instance, that in 2005 she was one of 1,000 women worldwide nominated by the Nobel Committee in recognition of their efforts to build peace in the homes, communities and countries. She holds a masters degree in development management and has presented papers at international governance conferences.
Then again, that may be how it is with genuine leaders. It’s not about their own person. It’s the people they move their peers to become, the causes they inspire them to champion—and yes, the results they make happen.