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11:36 PM July 13th, 2013

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By: Rina Jimenez-David, July 13th, 2013 11:36 PM

It isn’t the first time—nor will it be the last, I’m afraid—that shenanigans in the distribution of public funds, or even foreign development assistance, have been brought to light.

The ongoing inquiry by the National Bureau of Investigation into allegations of how government money, including funds earmarked for projects of legislators (more commonly known as “pork barrel”) had been “misdirected” by the firm JLN Corp. has once more brought to the limelight the collusion between government officials and private persons bent on defrauding the people.

What makes the case even more alarming is that JLN, named after its founder and head, Janet Lim-Napoles, not only was supposedly able to get its hands on P10 billion over the past decade, but also that it did so by “earmarking” the amounts for ghost projects channeled through fictitious NGOs (nongovernment organizations).

The story is convoluted and appears to involve even personalities at the very top of the Aquino administration (Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa’s law firm, from which he is on leave, represented Napoles). But worse, the tales of fund misuse, coercion, intimidation and even kidnapping, all done seemingly under the very noses of our officials and legislators, can only boost the suspicions of foreign governments. It seems that foreign money donated for development projects out of their governments’ own foreign-policy priorities, if not their hearts, is being siphoned off by criminals in and out of government.

Adding fuel to the fire is that many NGOs are supposedly involved in these scams, casting a cloud over the nongovernment community here. The Philippines has long been known as the “NGO capital” of the world, owing to the large number of groups addressing a myriad of concerns, and the very dynamic and prominent nature of many such organizations and coalitions. Now come concerns that many of these NGOs are simply fronts for politicians or for criminal activity—which in the context of the JLN case seem to be one and the same thing.

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Some time back, the French government said it had blacklisted the Philippines and 16 other countries because their governments were doing little, if anything, to investigate foreign aid fraud. It mattered little that, as deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said, the Philippines was “in the company of Switzerland and Brunei, among others.”

So what was she trying to say? That “exalted” company somehow mitigates our culpability?

No wonder some NGOs working in the field of children’s and women’s rights, or at least those who have gained a lot of credibility through decades of work and results, are sounding the alarm over the situation. (They spoke out even before the “JLN scam” hit the front page.)

In an invitation letter to a roundtable discussion next week, the NGOs said “recent events and news about alleged serious violations of ethical standards … have challenged the credibility of the NGO community.” Thus, they said, “we strongly feel the need to gather opinions, constructive feedback and suggestions about how we may learn from these disturbing developments and muster a common agenda that will further promote our commitment to uphold children and women’s rights… We feel we should not be silent while our credibility and reputation are put in question.”

Those interested may want to take part in the discussion (or cover it) on Thursday, July 18, at the meeting room of the Commission on Human Rights.

Here’s hoping the discussion doesn’t end with mere breast-beating and denunciations, but with concrete steps to protect genuine development NGOs from criminals hiding behind the skirts of civil society.

* * *

Moving on to quite another sphere…

At a recent lunch at Flavors, the all-day dining restaurant of Holiday Inn and Suites in Makati, we found an entire station devoted to children—or at least to “kid cuisine.” Star of the station was an entire hot dog corner, complete with the meaty dogs, buns, and all manner of fixings.

Definitely a “costar” in my book was the “Mac and Cheese,” which I had coincidentally been craving for just before our visit to the Holiday Inn.

It isn’t every day, after all, that one finds comfort food—much less food that reminds one of childhood—in a hotel buffet, but as Teri Flores, the hotel’s PR and marketing manager, declares: “We take pride in offering family-friendly accommodations in every Holiday Inn.”

The hotel’s Sunday brunch offering is particularly geared toward family fun, with food and activities for children and the whole family. And true to its name, “Flavors” organizes its buffet according to five flavors: spicy, sweet, creamy, fresh and savory.

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Also banking on the comforts of the familiar are the guest bedrooms in the Holiday Inn, the first purpose-built Holiday Inn in the country (previous incarnations made use of existing properties). The beds, mattresses, pillows and other amenities can be found in all other Holiday Inn properties around the world. Making sure, it seems, that guests feel welcome wherever they are in the world.

And it seems the complimentary toiletries, which many guests ignore, are quite in demand, too. Flores says guests express appreciation for finding the same brands available in other Holiday Inns, another hallmark of the familiar.

The new Holiday Inn has another ace up its sleeve: It’s located right next to Glorietta 2, the newly rebuilt section of the Glorietta mall. Guests, many of them  balikbayan  or out-of-towners, can shop to their heart’s fulfillment while having a place nearby to park their tired bodies after a long day of trawling the shops.

And there’s always the hot dogs and mac-and-cheese for comfort and familiarity!

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