What went wrong?
For the second time in two years, the Department of Social Welfare and Development is the subject of an adverse report by the Commission on Audit on the mismanagement of relief goods and funds.
In its 2014 report released last Sept. 10, the COA said P382.072 million in local and foreign cash donations for the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” was kept idle and locked in DSWD bank accounts. The amount, according to the state auditor, is one-third of the P1.151 billion that the DSWD received during the period November 2013-December 2014—unused funds that could have been maximized to cover the survivors’ immediate needs.
The COA noted as well that the DSWD had as much as P141.084 million worth of undistributed, expired, or about-to-expire family food packs consisting of rice, canned goods, instant noodles and coffee.
The audit report posed questions: How could the DSWD continue to procure and accept relief goods without taking into consideration the capacity and condition of its warehousing facilities and personnel? How could it not take into account the shelf life or expiry dates of donated food?
In the case of Bicol residents displaced by Mayon Volcano’s eruptions, the lack of warehousing facilities and the failure to repack and distribute relief packages resulted in half a million noodle packs shipped out a mere two months before their expiry date. And some of the canned goods had expired, were mislabeled, or were dented or rusting, while the careless stockpiling of rice and other perishable goods resulted in spoilage.
In its report released in September 2014, the COA also called out the DSWD for wasting a total of 7,527 family food packs worth P2.7 million for Yolanda relief operations, including 95,472 assorted canned goods and rice that spoiled due to improper handling.
Responding to the latest COA report in a radio interview, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman said the food packs had gotten wet while in transit from Cebu City to Tacloban City. The lack of transport facilities, the nonexistent road system in the wake of Yolanda, the lack of personnel on the ground who were themselves affected by the typhoon, and the absent infrastructure for distribution were also cited as factors in the spoilage of relief goods.
These unfortunate circumstances might be excusable in the aftermath of Yolanda in 2013, the first time a typhoon of such destructive proportions ever hit land. But making the same mistakes in 2014, as reflected in the COA 2015 report? What went wrong this time?
According to Soliman, the COA report was just part of government routine meant to enhance operations, and no actual irregularities occurred. But that is not the point. Damage control after the fact is hardly acceptable. How could the oversight have happened a second time? Given the unpredictable situation and the limited options after Yolanda, the DSWD could have gleaned practical lessons from that disaster and applied these to subsequent catastrophes.
The lessons include making arrangements with parishes so they can serve as drop-off points for relief goods until local government units become functional again. Other viable options are ongoing registration of families in each barangay to help identify supply needs and make for more orderly distribution, instead of having helter-skelter queues that favor the strong over the weak, and tapping reputable private groups and agencies (Caritas and the Philippine Red Cross come to mind), to ensure that local officials do not make political hay of disasters.
A memorandum of agreement can also be signed with the Air Force and the Navy for transport priority given to DSWD goods and supplies in order to do away with bureaucratic red tape that leads to delays and spoilage of relief goods.
And, instead of unspent donations being reverted to the national treasury, can procedural arrangements be made with the COA so that the funds can be used to identify, build and retrofit warehousing facilities with the necessary equipment for the proper storage of food packs? Aside from barangay officials and social workers, volunteers and paramedical teams can be identified and registered this early as well, so they can be trained in helping people cope with disasters—including responding to emergency medical needs, helping victims cope with posttraumatic stress disorder, weeding out spoiled relief goods and managing donations, and maintaining order in evacuation centers.
With at least 20 typhoons pummeling the country in a year, on top of quakes and volcanic eruptions, there is just no reason to be caught off-guard and ready only with excuses.
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