JUST when we thought no misstep of our government could ever appall us anymore, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) admitted last week that up to P165 million in cash donations for Typhoon Yolanda relief and recovery efforts are still gathering dust in DSWD bank accounts, because the donors failed to identify themselves.
According to a DSWD spokesman last Friday, a government regulation requiring the identification and acknowl-edgment of donors prevents the department from using the funds. As the DSWD explained, deviating from very strict rules on accounting for and handling fund transfers could lead to disallowances by the Commission on Audit (COA), and that could mean penalties on concerned government officers.
In the interest of “transparency” – a word that has been rendered all but meaningless by the frequency with which it appears in government statements and the public conversation only AFTER a large anomaly is discovered – we should point out that, at least according to official data provided by the DSWD, about 86 percent, or nearly P1 bil-lion of the P1.15 billion in cash donations received were disbursed for relief and recovery programs. And we cannot fault the DSWD for having a sincere intention to follow legally-established procedures, although the indicated mo-tivation for doing so – the “concerned government officers’” sense of self-preservation – does not impress us at all.
Good intentions, however, do not absolve utter stupidity.
P165 million is a large amount of money; while it is all well and good that the DSWD disbursed most of the cash do-nations, it does not make P165 million a smaller number. The mandate of the DSWD is to provide social services, a mandate we daresay is much greater than any demanding a slavish adherence to accounting procedures, or any that suggests the responsibility for the proper use of donated funds actually lies with the donor, not the recipient agency.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people affected by Typhoon Yolanda have been made to wait for 18 months and counting for the vast amount of assistance P165 million can buy, all because of a procedural dilemma. That is stu-pid. Prolonging the suffering of displaced typhoon victims is the result, and that is criminal. It does not make any difference whatsoever that the neglect was the result of easily-avoidable institutional fumbling rather than bad intentions; the outcome is the same either way.
The inability of the DSWD to grasp the simple logic of the obvious solution to anonymous donations is mind-boggling, and while there is nothing to suggest that the funds were in any way mishandled apart from being al-lowed to slumber in a deposit account, it is understandable if the whole issue would raise suspicions of corruption. The DSWD’s responsibility for donated funds begins when they are received, not before; properly accounting for their receipt and subsequent disposal satisfies that responsibility. If “guidelines and regulations” are hampering the DSWD’s fulfillment of that responsibility in any way, then the matter should be raised and a solution or ac-ceptable work-around found immediately, not 18 months later.
It is certainly good practice on the part of donors to monitor the application of their contributions, but the choice is theirs; choosing to remain anonymous should not make their donations automatically suspect. We expect our pub-lic servants to be able to exercise better judgment, and demand that they do so. They can start by immediately spending the stranded funds for their intended purpose, and correcting the rules to prevent a similar situation in the future.