WHEN President Benigno Aquino 3rd visits Europe and the United States this September (Sept.13-24), it would be wise for him to bring along a competent, credible and coherent report on international assistance and aid extended to the Philippines and Haiyan (Yolanda) victims by foreign governments and international organizations and charities, and of course a report as well on the progress of recovery and reconstrruction in the affected regions and communities. He can present these along with our people’s thanks to the foreign heads of state and heads of organizations who will host or receive him.
Ten months after Haiyan’s landfall in East Visayas (“11/8” in my nomenclature to underscore the date), and with just two months to go before we mark the first anniversary of the perfect storm, a report to donors is clearly overdue and fitting.
Assistance to match Haiyan’s scale
Just as Haiyan and its trail of devastation had no precedents in history, so were the compassion and kindness that poured from the family of nations and large segments of all humanity unprecedented in scope and scale.
Europe and the United States were two of the biggest donors of assistance, in cash and kind, at the height of the calamity and in its aftermath.
America, ever reliable in times of war and peace, took a leading role in the rescue, relief, recovery and reconstruction effort, fielding no less than a thousand troops at one point during the crisis.
Aquino’s first stops in his journey—Spain, France, Germany, and Belgium (seat of the European Union)—are among our closest allies and partners, with whom we maintain ties of great depth and meaning.
Aquino’s visit is designed to drum up new investments in what is now acknowledged as our rapidly growing and more competitive economy. There will be keen interest in what he can report on his program in the closing chapter of his presidency.
Audit of international assistance
With respect to Haiyan, it clearly won’t be enough for Aquino to simply recite numbers or statistics. Donors want to know whether their acts of compassion made a difference in the lives of victims and their communities. And how in tandem with our government, they contributed to the emergence of new life and new hope in the areas laid waste by Haiyan.
We are a people who do not forget acts of kindness towards us, and who strive, so far as we are able, to repay debts of gratitude.
This audit of international assistance would be easy if our government has been running a continuous and updated record of such assistance with respect to Haiyan. Sadly, there is reason to worry that those in charge have not kept such a record competently and scrupulously.
Foreign Aid Transparency Hub
To the Aquino government’s credit, it has put up the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAITH), an online information portal that records and tabulates all the foreign aid pledged and received by the government and the victims of Yolanda.
The web portal enables donors to gain a broad perspective on the total aid effort, and to track their respective donations and to check whether they are accurately recorded.
I waded through FAITH to get a feel and some information on the scale and provenance of Haiyan assistance, but I quickly got lost in the maze of numbers loaded on the site, and the lack of explanatory text to guide the reader.
Unlike UN reports, with which I am fairly familiar, FAITH appears to be still a work in progress.
President Aquino will need more than faith to come up with a competent, credible and coherent report on Haiyan assistance.
There are now official reports questioning the handling of Haiyan assistance and the reliability of official records.
Senate committee report: No one knows
In an official committee report, the Senate Finance committee under chairman Chiz Escudero, following a series of hearings and technical working group (TWG) meetings, came up with the finding that “there is no single agency in the government that has possession and knowledge of the total amount of local and foreign donations for the victims of super typhoon Yolanda.”
The lapse is so glaring that the committee has recommended that the Senate direct the Commission on Audit (CoA) to conduct a special audit on the donations received by the government, which are estimated to be in the billions of pesos or even dollars.
Escudero’s committee is also considering the crafting of a bill that would institute a mechanism for the receipt, accounting and monitoring of foreign and local donations to the government for various calamities that hit the country.
Escudero says: “The findings indicate the need to institutionalize, preferably through legislation, a mechanism for the monitoring and accounting of all foreign and local donations for natural and man-made calamities.”
Aquino’s pledge of transparency and efficiency
At the launching of FAITH on November 18, 2013, just ten days after Haiyan battered the Visayas, President Aquino extolled the work of the portal as follows:
“Not only will FAITH contain detailed information on the help that has been given to us from our friends and partners abroad; it will also track how these donations are used, if assistance is to be coursed through government agencies. And I take this opportunity to invite—and to encourage—international and local nongovernment organizations and groups to use FAITH, and stand with us in this effort to maximize the transparency and efficiency of our collective efforts.”
Four months later, in April 2014, the government announced a major update and redesign of FAITH, in order to provide clearer, more detailed and accurate information on how much foreign aid has been given by foreign governments and where these were channeled.
With version two of the website, members of the diplomatic corps were given access to the site so they can input the amount of donations they have given and whether it was given directly to local government units, government agencies, or to non-government organizations.
Representatives of the various foreign governments were also asked to put a value on their non-cash donations, such as medical assistance, to ensure that all foreign aid are accurately reflected.
The new site also lists down the amounts the government has received and coursed through the different agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Health (DOH), Office of Civil Defense (OCD), and especially aid given directly to Local Government Units (LGUs).
Even so, problems remain. I seriously wonder whether the people behind FAITH can handle the task of providing the “competent, credible and coherent report on Haiyan assistance” that would be useful for President Aquino’s visit to Europe and the United States.
No one knows how long the COA audit will take. And nobody believes the auditing office can finish a report by the time of the first anniversary of Haiyan on November 8.
The only defense I can think of for this incompetence in handling foreign assistance is to declare that it is better to be swamped by an avalanche of donations than to receive none at all.