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10:15 PM July 24th, 2013

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By: Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, July 24th, 2013 10:15 PM

Last year I wrote a column piece, “Corruption in NGOs” (Opinion, 9/12/12), after the Inquirer ran a banner story on the alleged mishandling of funds by a nongovernment organization working against the trafficking of women and girls. I mentioned that a couple of years before then, I wrote a cover story on that NGO for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine after it won an international award.

How would I have known then that not long after, trouble of the financial kind would erupt with no less than USAid seeking explanations for the use of the funds it had channeled through that NGO? If I am not mistaken, a case is now pending in court. So I withhold my final judgment.

Not a few, myself included, were shocked by the alleged mishandling of funds. But I did hear a few comments from NGO veterans that it was only a matter of time before such malpractice would be laid bare.

Little did I know that the piece I wrote last year would disturb some NGO workers. I was told only recently that a reaction letter to that piece had been written but was never sent because of certain considerations. Was it the right time? Was the tone of the letter right? What good would it serve?

With the controversy erupting recently over the alleged P10-billion scam involving fake NGOs as channels of the pork barrel funds of certain lawmakers, NGOs of good standing are again aghast that their sector is being tainted.

And so a well-attended roundtable discussion of about 50 NGO representatives was held last week. I was among the invited and, to my surprise, was even cited as among the inciters that led to the gathering.

The letter that was not sent to me in 2012 was finally sent weeks ago, a way to invite me to the discussions. It was signed by Amihan Abueva, a former regional coordinator of Asia Against Child Trafficking.

Some points from Abueva: “The problem that has surfaced is not a new one. As early as 2006, a funding agency discovered irregularities wherein the same expenses for the same project had been charged to another funding agency as well. Although this information was shared with some NGO partners, that funding agency decided not to file a case, fearing that this may generate skepticism and distrust of NGOs.”

Abueva cites some problems in confronting corruption in NGOs. She says that for some funding agencies, confronting corruption will mean acknowledging their own mistakes in granting funds to an NGO where there is corruption. This will subsequently mean losing credibility when they raise funds from their own governments or the public.

Funding agencies are also in competition with one another, do not often share information with one another, and so miss the chance to verify their partners’ credibility and thus avoid “double funding of the same projects.”

Another concern is that there is no clear venue where NGO workers can raise concerns about malpractice and their fear that they may be sanctioned. It seems the only option for a would-be whistle-blower is to resign.

There is the issue of the lifestyle of NGO personalities, and whether raising concerns may be misconstrued as a case of sour grapes.

Abueva finds issue with what I wrote about “executive directors who are busy with project implementation and do not know what is happening in the finance department.” Very unlikely, she protests. Hello? I saw this firsthand in an NGO, now defunct, meant to help grassroots NGOs in their communication skills and founded by no less than Inquirer star columnist Conrad de Quiros. I was among those invited to be in the board, along with other media persons and a topnotch lawyer, and to give occasional lectures and workshops (with gasoline money for remuneration).

Well, more than P1 million went to the pockets of some staffers, a messenger among them (in cahoots with a bank teller?), and the (stupid/clever?) executive director said she knew nothing about it. I was so incensed that when it was my turn to speak at a confrontational meeting with the staff, I began by cursing in Filipino. A case is pending in court. Never again, I swore.

Last week I did soften up and said yes when I was invited to be in the board of the Office of Women and Gender Concerns of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines.

Abueva is concerned about the media’s tendency to look for “heroes” who highlight their own “personal story.” Says she: “Social development should really be more about how people in difficult situations can change their own lives.”

Damned if the media do heroes, damned if the media do villains.

But I take issue when Abueva cites “another disturbing practice [of] NGOs to pay or provide gifts to journalists in exchange for favorable coverage of their NGO or NGO personality, thus assuring that NGO of placement of those stories in the front page or prominent placement of the story.” Where did she get this idea? Is she presuming that prominently placed stories on inspiring NGOs are paid for under the table, that the writer is on the take? I am pissed.

It’s a case of shooting the messenger, even of good news. Writing for a book project—especially an inspiring  one—is a different story and is very satisfying for a writer.

As far as I am concerned, all I have received from NGOs during Christmas are calendars, a business card holder, a fruitcake, an umbrella, homemade sardines, a candle. No one—NGO or not—has dared or tried to bribe me.

At the discussions I did raise the issue of relatively low NGO salaries and said with sarcasm and humor that an NGO worker should either have a vow of poverty or be independently wealthy.

More next time.

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