Awash in idle funds
That the road to hell is often paved with good intentions is once again displayed in the case of the unspent disaster funds under the Aquino administration.
Perhaps bent on proving its hands clean and stung by criticism over its Disbursement Acceleration Program, portions of which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, the administration has minced its way around the P15-billion disaster relief funds. As a result, more than 60 percent, or as much as P10.28 billion of the total available moneys, remain unused, on top of the P5.458 billion in Quick Relief Funds (QRF) for 2015 that are untouched out of a total allocation of P6.7 billion.
In all, Sen. Loren Legarda has estimated, as much as 81 percent of available relief funds have not been used and are probably growing fat with interest in banks. Now imagine displaced families waiting for years for promised housing, and disaster survivors grown emaciated with hunger as relief goods sit rotting in warehouses.
While bureaucrats dawdle over balance sheets, disaster survivors languish in makeshift shelters with deplorable unhygienic conditions and appalling lack of privacy that has in some instances resulted in the sexual abuse of women and children. Just how temporary is temporary housing meant to be, survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” the Zamboanga siege, and the Cebu and Bohol quakes may well ask.
As Legarda has observed, the relief funds meant to help disaster survivors get back on their feet ironically threaten to make them victims twice over—of “natural calamity and manmade calamity, which is government inaction,” she said. “The latter is the worst.”
Of the QRF in 2015, the Department of Education received P1 billion; Department of Health, P500 million; Department of National Defense-Office of Civil Defense, P530 million; DND-Office of the Secretary, P352.5 million; Department of Agriculture-National Irrigation Administration, P500 million; DA-Office of the Secretary, P500 million; Department of Social Welfare and Development, P1.325 billion; Department of Transportation and Communications, P1 billion; and Department of Public Works and Highways, P1 billion.
And yet, despite the availability of these large sums, teachers continue to hold classes under trees, farmers still turn to shadow bankers and loan sharks for much needed capital to replace crops destroyed by typhoons, and children balance books and clothes on their heads while fording chest-deep rivers to get to school because of the absence of roads and bridges in their area.
In its 2014 annual report, the Commission on Audit criticized the Office of Civil Defense for its inability to maximize the use of the QRF, as well as of donations for disaster victims.
State auditors said the unused QRF allocated to the OCD had ballooned to P923 million as of last December, while only 17 percent, or P81 million, has been used of the P466 million in foreign and local donations received by the national disaster and relief agency for various calamities since 2008.
The government’s lethargy in moving disaster and relief funds where these are most needed gives the lie to the intention of the law when it comes to declaring disaster-hit provinces in a state of calamity. Aside from imposing price controls and ceilings on basic goods and commodities and granting interest-free loans by government financing or lending institutions, the declaration also allows for the programming or reprogramming of funds for the repair and safety upgrade of public infrastructures and facilities. Also allowed is the automatic appropriation for unforeseen expenditures arising from calamities, and the enactment of “a supplemental budget for supplies, materials, and payment of services to prevent danger to or loss of life or property.”
Clearly then, there is no lack of law to justify the prompt release of funds in times of calamity, nor is there a dearth of immediate needs where relief funds can be quickly absorbed and maximized, and allowed to do some good.
The government being awash in idle funds, what is urgently needed is compassion and a sense of empathy for those who need urgent action for their very survival. It’s barely six months to go before Election Day and already, disaster survivors are yesterday’s news to most politicians. Government officials must muster a maverick mindset that would leapfrog over bureaucratic red tape in order to quickly address the yawning gaps in public service, as their positions demand of them.
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