Thursday, September 20, 2012

Corruption in NGOs

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma.Ceres P. Doyo

What a shock it was to read that a much-awarded, much-funded nongovernment organization (NGO) is being investigated for fund anomalies. It was front-page news (reported by Nancy C. Carvajal) in the Inquirer last Sept. 14, and the day’s banner story no less. 

The headline: “US sues top NGO execs.” The subhead: “P210-million aid unaccounted for.” The lead paragraph: “The US government has accused the founder and president of Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI), a group that has won international accolades for its campaign against human trafficking, of failing to account for P210 million in US aid, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) said.” 

That the NBI is investigating means that this case is not a small one. NBI antifraud chief Rachel Marfil-Angeles said charges of falsification of documents were filed against VFFI respondents. This was based on the complaint of USAID official Daniel Altman and the testimonies of two whistle-blowers and boxes of falsified documents seized in a raid on the VFFI Quezon City office.  

This case is sure to rock the NGO world not just in the Philippines but in Asia. The Philippines is teeming with international and national NGOs into which a lot of foreign funding has been plowed (for development and varied advocacies) over several decades, resulting in donor fatigue. Now this. 
 The VFFI officers will question the NBI’s findings and the whistle-blowers’ allegations in court. I withhold my judgment until the final verdict is out. 

In 2006 I wrote a cover story for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine on VFFI founder Cecile Oebanda, who is at the center of the current probe. She was suddenly catapulted to the NGO firmament around that time, having won for VFFI a string of international awards. 

Oebanda also has a storybook, for-the-movies kind of background—born poor, did well in school, was a catechist, joined the armed communist resistance (she was known as Commander Liway), and figured in bloody battles, imprisoned wife and mother, solo parent, NGO worker. 

The first paragraphs of my 2006 feature story: The first Sunkist orange that she ever tasted she found in the garbage dump. At a very young age of five she was already hawking fish. Buyers would say, “Dance, little girl, dance, and we’ll buy what you sell.” She would oblige, sell, and move on, with the basket of fish on her head and fishy water streaming down her neck and shoulders. The dump and the streets could not even be her playground as there was no time for play. It was where she clawed her way to survive. That landscape haunts her to this day, as do the sounds, the slights, and most of all, the filthy smell of her lost childhood. 

 Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, 47, looks back and declares that her family was among the poorest of the poor. If her life were a movie, it would start off as a four-hankie melodrama progressing in a Brockaesque pace toward a defiant denouement. It’s been a long and winding road from there to here. Two months ago, on Nov. 29 (2005), Cecil, executive director of Visayan Forum Foundation, received the 2005 Anti-Slavery Award in London “for her outstanding and innovative work in the Philippines and surrounding regions, particularly in the area of child domestic work.” 

You can search online and read the whole article. 

 This needs to be said: While NGO work is synonymous with selfless service for the poor and oppressed, NGOs are not entirely made up of saintly people who are beyond temptation. You’ll be amazed at how those who hold the purse strings can navigate their way around and end up with their hands in the cookie jar. Some get caught early on, others get caught when it’s too late. 

I know first-hand of a case where the finance officer was in cahoots with the messenger assigned to transact with the bank teller. The triumvirate did something about the dollar exchange and funneled the excess amounts into their pockets. By the end of the year around P1 million had been lost. The executive director said she knew nothing and found out too late. She can tell that to her lola. The case is still pending in court. 

Some NGOs have board members that are not always involved. They just say yes (e.g., to exorbitant salaries and freebies) and sign papers shoved before them. Or executive directors are so busy with project implementation that they do not know what is going on in the finance department. 

There are NGO officers who deliberately commit fraud. I have heard of fake “official receipts” bought in Divisoria for ghost purchases. I have heard of seminars with ghost participants. I have heard of ghost beneficiaries and scholars. 

They sure can produce genuine receipts for purchases (groceries, school supplies) that they will take home for their own personal use. Or order much too much food for a meeting and take home the “excess.” They go on R and R (“out-of-town” meetings) and shop using NGO money. This is also a practice in the government bureaucracy, I am told. 

There are those who put up so-called service-oriented NGOs (even foundations) from which their families can draw salaries, that is, as their family’s “livelihood” program. 

I say this with contempt: Those who put up foundations should have personal wealth to donate to the foundations; they should not make foundations their cash cows. And yes, I am scandalized when I learn of an NGO headed by or employing a conjugal team—husband and wife, that is. 

Funding agencies are stricter now but the corrupt are wilier, too. Are Left-leaning NGOs still able to funnel funds to the communist underground?