Last week I wrote about nongovernment organizations coming together to address alleged corruption in their sector. In attendance were 50 NGO/civil society representatives concerned about the recent exposés of lawmakers’ pork barrel funds being channeled into bogus NGOs. The exposés have badly smeared the NGO/CS sector.
The founders of bogus and fly-by-night NGOs who pocketed the people’s money should be lined up against the wall, but there are also legitimate NGOs that are problematic in the financial accountability and transparency department. The former are really the devil’s to start with, but the latter that are legit and were founded for noble reasons can also fall into a pit because they are run by human beings with frailties and inordinate wants, or because not enough preventive mechanisms have been put in place.
One reader wrote: “NGOs, for some time now, have been perceived as money machines. You don’t even have to put anything in. Just accredit an NGO and voila… They invented NGOs for their funds to have a semblance of legitimacy when disbursed. The [pork barrel] is the root of all these. Funds have to go somewhere and it does not matter where. One source of corruption among funding and implementing organizations is the specter of underspending. Funding agencies, you see, have a specific amount to [disburse] to qualified implementing organizations for a given year. For example, USAid has to distribute the money or else it will be reprimanded by the financial bigwigs of the US State Department.
“The implementing NGOs, in turn, have to spend the money within a limited time, say, one year, or else they will be blacklisted by the funder. But there is a delay in the NGOs’ recruitment of additional staff, [procurement of] vehicles, supplies, medicines… Delay here, delay there. In the end, the directors and managers will spend the money on something else and produce bogus receipts. The devil is called underspending and money is burned in the process.”
Here’s a reaction from a former NGO worker whom I know: “Cynic that I now am, most NGOs just want to dissociate themselves from any wrongdoing, remain credible, especially to present and any potential partners-funders, and continue to exist and provide jobs and salaries.
“I was a whistle-blower, and harassed for doing what I thought was right—that is, to conduct myself with integrity, uphold the NGO’s vision and mission, and make sure the rights of the staff members were protected/promoted. I resigned from my job in said NGO. Some members of the board/staff filed a criminal case against me as a retaliation for exposing to the funder factional struggles inside the NGO and some questionable practices pertaining to finance, verbal and emotional abuse of staff by board members, false/doctored reports to government, and the like. My case was dismissed from fiscal level to the Department of Justice…
“Years ago, NGO funds were already being channeled and generally used to support [communist] underground organizing and other work. Looking back I cannot and do not defend the practice. Now, it seems there are increasing cases of funding benefiting individuals and groups [instead of the intended beneficiaries]. I remember one case where the ‘team leader’ was receiving a budget meant for three people (him plus two other organizers). Turned out there were no other organizers. This was discovered when leaders from the community visited the office in Manila. In another case a local NGO signed papers that it had received about P500,000 from their national office, when they did not.
“Some NGOs may be ‘clean’ but don’t want to rock the boat; they keep quiet on irregularities that they know about in other NGOs. Or they may hide their own cases of corruption and abuse, and deal with them internally, keeping these things hidden from funders and those supposed to benefit from their programs. Transparency? Accountability? We demand these things from government but we should do the same for NGOs.
“The irony is that there are well-funded NGOs that have nothing to show in accomplishments. Like organizing work that has not increased the number of the organized, organizers who are always in the office instead of in the [field], facilities and staff that would not pass the standards required by law. How do we correct these if there is no transparency, no accountability?
“You have barely scratched the surface. You’ll create a lot of enemies but also, a few, honorable friends.”
“Cynic” seems pleasantly surprised that there are NGOs that are eager for transparency. “Really?” Cynic exclaims.
Well, I have with me a copy of the minutes of the first roundtable discussions of NGO reps. First on the list is the need “to clean our own house” even while protecting/serving the beneficiaries. Other issues discussed: standardization of salaries, peer evaluation, mechanisms for “policing the ranks,” donor-NGO relations, internal and external audit, accreditation/regulation system, what to do with NGOs that give the NGO community a bad name.
Transparency International and U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center have come up with an 11-page paper titled “Developing a Code of Conduct for NGOs” (http://www.u4.no/publications/developing-a-code-of-conduct-for-ngos/) that tackle transparency, accountability and legitimacy.
“The nonprofit sector,” the paper says, “is now valued at over $1 trillion a year globally and attracts growing attention in the international community… As with greater influence comes greater scrutiny and responsibility, NGO accountability has become an issue of major attention, to ensure both the legitimacy and effectiveness of their operations.”
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