In pork barrel issue, legit NGOs become collateral damage

Throughout his 17 years working for a non-government organization (NGO) in Iloilo, Boyet Areño was used to being perceived as the good guy, reaching out to out-of-school youth and communities too distant for the government to reach.

Things changed, however, during the past weeks, courtesy of Janet Lim-Napoles.

Areño said the scandal involving Napoles, accused of masterminding a racket that involves the funneling of P10 billion from pork barrel funds to bogus NGOs, has put him and other civil society workers in bad light.

"Unfair sa NGOs 'yang ginawa ni Napoles,” Areño told GMA News Online by phone. “Naapektuhan kaming NGOs na good deliverers naman. May mga general statements na parang lahat ng NGOs napepeke."

Areño added said his group, the Iloilo Caucus of Development NGOs (ICODE), already found it difficult transacting with implementing agencies ever since the pork barrel scandal broke out.

ICODE, an NGO network accredited by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), was tapped by Iloilo City Rep. Jerry Treñas in 2010 to implement a livelihood program for out-of-school youth. It received P750,000 from the lawmaker's pork barrel funds.

ICODE implemented the project through the National Livelihood Development Corporation (NLDC), one of the implementing agencies identified in a recent Commission on Audit report to have allocated public funds to questionable NGOs.

Areño said his NGO complied with all the requirements set by the COA, including a memorandum of agreement with the implementing agency, a project proposal, and a liquidation report after the livelihood program was carried out.

For Areño, however, this will be the "first and last time" his group will be involved in implementing a government-funded project, due to the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucracy.

"Ang tagal magproseso ng papers hanggang ma-aapprove. Ang tagal ng proseso. Pabalik-balik ang mga papeles. Tapos ngayon lalong naghigpit pa," he said.

"Sa issue na ito, I think the blame shouldn't be resting on good NGOs. Collateral damage lang kami rito. They have to strengthen government processes," he added.

Napoles, who turned herself over to President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday night, is currently detained at the Makati City Jail over a serious illegal detention case. She has yet to be charged in connection with the alleged pork barrel scam.

Int'l perception

Joy Lascano, an official of a Quezon City-based NGO that promotes the welfare of internally displaced persons and torture survivors, meanwhile said that the Napoles scandal may also affect how the international community perceives civil society groups in the Philippines.

Lascano, who works for the Balay Rehabilitation Center, noted how most NGOs rely on international funding for their projects.

"It really pains us, not only the negative perception of ordinary Filipinos, but also of the international community. The international community may think that all NGOs in the Philippines are corrupt because of what happened," she said in a separate phone interview.

The NGO leader added that she agrees with Aquino's decision not to allow civil society groups access to pork barrel funds.

"Mas mabuti iyon. Alam mo, ang NGOs hindi naman talaga dapat ine-encourage na mag-access ng government funds. You are supposed to do advocating, kung baga sasabihin mo sa gobyerno kung saan mas kapaki-pakinabang gamitin ang pondo. Hindi ka kukuha ng pondo," she said.

Lascano also appealed to the media to be more careful in its depiction of NGOs.

"Not all NGOs are illegal. We take our roots from change. We want change. Nagamit lang ang ilang NGOs as self corporations," she said.

“Major pity”

For his part, Senator Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aquino III, a former civil society worker, said NGOs may need "some time" to recover from the impact of the Napoles scandal.

"This is a major pity because legitimate NGOs are necessary partners in the development of our country. Nadadamay sila sa mga fake NGO, and it will take some time before the reputation of the sector is repaired," the neophyte senator said in text message.

The senator encouraged legitimate NGOs "to continue doing their service as they have over the years" to be able to change the current negative perception of civil society groups.

Areño, meanwhile, said that in the aftermath of the Napoles scandal, NGOs should insulate themselves from politics and not the government.

"NGOs and the government have to maintain a certain ethical relationship. We have shared values, and that is where we cooperate. We can be partners for development, but one cannot be dependent on the other. NGOs still need to be autonomous," he said.

Areño added that civil society groups should just continue doing their advocacy works and their projects for communities to show that there are still good NGOs in the Philippines.

"We have to work hard and improve ourselves. We have to maintain our image. Image na nga lang ang buhay ng maliliit na NGOs. Paano na kami kung mawawala pa iyon?" he said. — KBK, GMA News