How it is to be a committed NGO worker
For many, working with nongovernment organizations is a matter of principle, idealism and self-fulfillment. It comes with the denial of material comforts that are enjoyed by people who have taken a career path in the corporate world. That is why the formation of truly committed NGO workers usually passes through several necessary stages, so they can fully embrace a life characterized by volunteerism, delayed pay, a modest lifestyle, and a political romanticism based on the notion that one can love freely only under utopia-like social conditions.
Hence, being single, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word, is an unwritten commandment when one entertains such a crazy idea as working with an NGO.
NGO workers usually come from the same breed of people who attended campus teach-ins during their college days, as well as those who find comfort in singing Joey Ayala’s “Walang Hanggang Paalam” when they break up with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Some decide altogether to leave formal schooling to become full-time revolutionaries. Then they realize that the streets have become less significant in the fight for reforms, so they marry activism with advocacy work and become developmental workers with an NGO. These individuals find adventure in the unique task of organizing communities, implementing development projects, mobilizing people to march in front of government offices, demanding that government officials listen to their grievances. Their projects and operations are entirely dependent on funds from government agencies and foreign institutions in “First World” countries. To work with an NGO, therefore, is to deprive oneself of the material privileges that one may find somewhere else. One’s only luxury may be a pack of cigarettes and an occasional drink while staying up at night preparing reports on a computer.
As president of an NGO, I feel lucky because my wife and I do not have to go through the daily rigors of trying to make both ends meet. Not having children to fend for, we can pay for our cars’ mortgages, dine in fancy restaurants, and travel occasionally. My wife has a full-time job as a political science professor at the University of the Philippines; I maintain an active career as consultant in human resources. My wife being the elder of only two children, we live in her parents’ house in Quezon City. I myself do not have siblings; I stay at my parents’ house whenever I am in the province (Quezon).
One finds it dismaying, therefore, to see how a clever businesswoman and her corrupt cohorts have made NGO work and the noble impressions attached to it a milking cow to fund their lavish lifestyles. While community organizers of NGOs have to make do with minimum salaries that are delayed more often than not, enough is never enough to people like Janet Lim Napoles and her friends in Congress. While legitimate NGOs struggle to satisfy the unreasonable methods with which they are required to liquidate government funds, which turn out to be only a drop in the bucket, Jeane Napoles would rub elbows with Justin Bieber and other celebrities and show off the most unthinkable luxuries. While legitimate development workers take long delays on their salaries in between projects, Janet Napoles’ cash is reportedly so voluminous that it takes a bathtub to hold it.
I think it is precisely the nature of NGOs as nonprofit entities that moved operators like Napoles to devise pork barrel schemes. After all, legitimate NGOs with integrity attached to their members are the least to be suspected of diverting public money into private pockets.
How does one make sure that taxpayer money in whatever form will serve the interests of our people in the remotest areas in the archipelago? While the pork barrel system was intended to help in the development of rural areas that have traditionally been left out in the priority of the national government, the disbursement should be a bottom-up process, where the intended beneficiaries can participate in decision-making and identify the projects they urgently need for implementation and funding. The development of the basic sectors should be the priority, and the projects and transactions should be open to public scrutiny and evaluation. Monitoring should also involve the civil society, to ensure that projects get implemented as intended.
We must begin to learn how to do away with rent-seeking and patronage mindsets that have, for so long, corrupted our political system. The pork barrel scandal is a painful experience that should shake up our political system enough for it to break from a spiral of self-interests.
Joseph Jadway “JJ” Marasigan ([email protected]) chairs the Quezon Association for Rural Development and Democratization Services Inc., a nongovernment organization that helps farmers take up issues of land-tenure improvement and increased agricultural production.
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