Casualties of ‘pork’

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Together with Congress, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are among the emerging casualties of the pork barrel outrage, which involves the loss of billions in public funds through, among other subterfuges, non-existent and/or non-functioning NGOs. As in the case of the party list system, it’s one more demonstration of the truth that in these isles of unlimited opportunity for a few, you can always depend on the politicians and their partners in crime to transform even the best into its opposite.

NGOs or “non-profits” are organizations that are not part of either the family or government, but may work with government in furtherance of “looking after people, their health, and their rights.”

These characteristics, however, are shared by a universe of organizations, such as, for example, churches and charitable organizations, although churches are not usually described as NGOs, and neither are charitable organizations. Neither are businesses NGOs, the key difference between NGOs and corporations being the latter’s focus on profit-making.

While NGOs have common characteristics worldwide, the Philippine experience with NGOs has its unique characteristics. The term NGO came into public prominence only in the 1970s, during the martial law period when the number of Philippine NGOs surged, among other reasons because of the legal impediments to the formation of sectoral (for example, labor unions) and mass organizations.

The scope of activities of Philippine NGOs has since ranged from such advocacies as protecting the environment; defending women and children; combating human trafficking; advancing the rights of indigenous peoples; monitoring governance for the sake of transparency, accountability and development; human rights protection and defense; providing, through alternative media, information missing in the dominant press; etc.

Many of the martial law era NGOs had reformist, even radical agendas focused on exposing the failures and crimes of the Marcos dictatorship and creating the conditions for the making of an alternative State and society. Absent other means of bringing people together both for the sake of advancing these advocacies as well as for mobilizing citizens for the anti-dictatorship resistance, the NGOs played an important role during the period of dictatorship by, among other achievements, exposing human rights violations, the destruction of the environment, and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Equally important, they also chronicled the resistance of various sectors and groups to government abuse.

But because most of them were supported by foreign funding agencies sympathetic to their advocacies, opportunists of various stripes including former and would-be politicians organized their own NGOs in the wake of the collapse of the Marcos regime to cash in on whatever funds from both foreign and domestic sources they could access.

The threat of imprisonment and even murder many NGO personalities faced during the martial law period abated somewhat during the transition administration of Corazon Aquino, but the opportunists who managed to access both domestic as well as foreign sources of funding not only made NGO work a career; within the “democratic space” the restoration of democratic institutions provided after 1986, they also grew fat from their claimed advocacies. In an environment of “normality,” NGO work had become in some — perhaps in many — cases less of an advocacy and more of a career path.

It is inevitable that today, in the mind of a furious public, the exposure of the pork barrel scam and the use of bogus NGOs in the plunder of the treasury should make all NGOs seem like partners in a vast conspiracy. And yet NGOs have not only been recognized in the laws of many States as concrete expressions of the right to association, but beyond that, have also come about because of perceived deficiencies in the functioning of society, to remedy which NGOs could mobilize citizens for civil action, and create the means through which governments and corporations (the market) may be called to account by the citizenry. Mostly unremarked today is the role NGOs played in engaging the citizenry in the campaign to defend human rights, and to expose the brutality of military rule during the long years of dictatorship.

The tendency to dismiss all NGOs as no more than fictitious constructs by crooks and charlatans in connivance with corrupt politicians is evident in House of Representatives Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s public vow never to involve NGOs henceforth in government projects, despite the fact that practically every agency of government, whether in education, health, labor, social welfare, etc., is in partnership with an NGO, and despite the NGOs’ being the organizational expressions of civil society engagement.

The variety of their advocacies and activities and their often complex and varied relationships with government notwithstanding, NGOs, if a generalization has to be made, are inevitably reformist. But their existence and proliferation is at the same time an indication of the many deficiencies in society and governance as well as of increasing citizen empowerment. They are in that sense both a democratic imperative as well as a democratizing power, despite the skepticism with which some government officials now say they regard them as a result of the continuing exposure of the web of corruption involving the misuse of pork barrel funds.

But can an imperfect State and society such as the Philippines live and flourish without the expressions of civil society commitment to reform that most, not all, NGOs are? The passions of the moment are being fanned by media organizations focused on the sensational aspects of the current scandal. They have neither bothered to explain what NGOs are nor to distinguish between the bogus and the authentic. Public outrage should be balanced by the awareness that, whatever the malevolent uses to which pretend-NGOs have been put, many NGOs have exposed precisely the gross corruption evident today in the pork barrel scam as part of their commitment to transparency and to holding government accountable.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
August 29, 2013

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