• NEDA on foreign aid: Right idea, wrong context

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    A few days before Typhoon Glenda flailed Luzon, National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Director-General Arsenio Balisacan made some rather timely comments at a meeting of the UN-sponsored Development Cooperation Forum in New York.

    For the efficient use of foreign humanitarian and development aid, Balisacan said it is critical that it be “coordinated” with the national government.

    “Bypassing country systems and not coordinating with government tend to overburden local units tapped by development partners to carry out tasks. It unduly competes with government over needed manpower and other logistical resources,” Balisacan explained. “This undermines the ownership and accountability of government. It also results in inefficiency; as such external resources may not be aligned with government priorities. Moreover, it tends to defeat efforts to build domestic capacity to effectively address disasters by weakening rather than strengthening local institutional arrangements and initiatives.”

    Taken at face value, Balisacan’s comments are absolutely valid. A centrally-managed framework for relief and redevelopment working according to a single, comprehensive plan is the most efficient paradigm, and there are enough real-life examples of such systems that the concept is above debate. The system in Japan is perhaps the best-known; a little closer to home, the remarkable ability of the Province of Albay under Governor Joey Salceda to shake off frequent calamities is held up as the example worth emulating.

    Of course, Balisacan may have been preaching to the choir. His audience at the Development Cooperation Forum comprised the frequent contributors to disaster relief and reconstruction here in the Philippines—which has been a beneficiary of foreign assistance since time immemorial—and elsewhere throughout the world. They certainly understand what works and what doesn’t, which is why hearing it from an official of the Philippine government might have elicited reactions a little more skeptical than the quiet nods of agreement the statement would otherwise deserve.

    That is because what would have been fresh in that particular audience’s memory is the last major catastrophe to strike their speaker’s home country, and the dubious outcomes global efforts to aid in the recovery suffered precisely because of “coordinating” with the Philippines “country systems,” such as they are. Balisacan—in his role as Economic Planning Secretary—cannot possibly be ignorant of the controversies that erupted in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda specifically, and have since overwhelmed the Philippine government in general, and we must be concerned whether his comments to the UN gathering were perceived as an example of “do as I say, not as I do.”

    In both the Bohol earthquake and the Typhoon Yolanda recovery, relief benefactors encountered a fragmented, highly-politicized, execrably slow-moving bureaucratic approach on the part of the Philippine government. Even under ideal circumstances—that is, without incidents of mishandling relief goods and funds for reasons of greed, petty political partisanship, or simple incompetence—getting aid to people who needed it was very nearly a Sisyphean effort for foreign donors. The tales of relief-related woe from either of those two disasters late in 2013 could easily fill this entire paper, and in the case of Typhoon Yolanda, a disaster of the sort of epic scale that attracts intense global attention for a time, the utter inability of the Philippines’ “country systems” to even contribute to the recovery effort, let alone actually manage it, became an international issue.

    As an academic notion, Secretary Balisacan’s insistence that aid should be coursed through a centralized system managed by the national government is axiomatic. Coming from a representative of a government the world now knows cannot efficiently handle even the most basic relief tasks and is under grave suspicion for mishandling public funds on a massive scale, however, and the assertion comes across as disingenuous at best.

    Balisacan’s comments will be a public service if they rekindle the conversation in this country—a conversation which always seems to be revisited when it is too late, after a major calamity has already struck—about the need for a serious overhaul of the approach to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. That will begin with the formation of a dedicated, full-time agency to replace the chaotic, ad hoc “committee” approach embodied in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (and preferably, the replacement would have a less unwieldy acronym than “NDRRMC” as well). Previous efforts to do so, most recently with a bill filed in the Senate shortly after Typhoon Yolanda’s onslaught, have come to naught; let’s hope it doesn’t take the international community finally getting frustrated enough to turn its back on the Philippines to compel the country’s leadership to make some real changes.

    * * *

    A new observation about the rapidly-deteriorating credibility of the Aquino Administration’s claim to “good faith” in distributing funds through the now-condemned DAP: Apart from the news that broke over the weekend that DAP money was (allegedly) used to reimburse President Aquino’s own family for Hacienda Luisita land parceled out to farmers under the agrarian reform program, well in excess of the amount directed by the Supreme Court—something that, if true, would be the epitome of a “smoking gun”—questions have arisen about the legitimacy of a P150 million DAP allotment in 2011 to “fund the acquisition” (the exact words used in the government list of DAP projects) of three Doppler weather radars, one of the beneficial projects cited by President B.S. Aquino 3rd and members of the Administration in defending the condemned program.

    The three radar installations in question (in Aparri, Cagayan, Virac, Catanduanes, and Guiuan, Samar) were actually provided by a P1.7 billion (3.35 billion yen) grant from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in November 2009; the Virac and Aparri installations were completed in March or April 2012, while the Guiuan facility (later wrecked by Typhoon Yolanda) was completed in March 2013. A JICA press release about the project can be found here: http://www.jica.go.jp/philippine/english/office/topics/news/091104_01.html.

    Someone needs to explain where P150 million went.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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    2 Comments

    1. You cant blame foriegn donors to bypass national policy on calamity response, its a reverse perception of “PERCIEVE NOT BEING CORRUPT” can you blame them?

    2. If “efficient” means cost-efficient, it misses the point that relief, especially food and shelter, should be timely. (The secondary stage, recovery, may put more weight on cost-effectiveness.)

      Much of he immediate Yolanda aid was sent in by **airfreight** — tents, blankets, generators, entire field hospitals, and even high-energy biscuits. That shows the donors prizing timeliness over cost.

      It is true that direct foreign aid has an undermining tendency to the central government. The end justifying the means again?

      About the 3 Doppler radars, my sense is that P150 million cannot cover acquisition and installation, so it could be counterpart funds. I doubt JICA would pay for everything down to the concrete foundations, fencing, electrical hookups, and staffing.