Monday, September 11, 2006

A world without NGOs

The following is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today:

DEVelopment is such a complicated issue, to say the least. There are “hard” indicators of development manifested in the numbers and figures that government agencies churn out and bandy about to justify and glorify their existence. And then there are the “soft” measures reflected in the joys and pains of ordinary people, particularly those who exist in the margins of society. For many years now, the latter has been the domain of nongovernment organizations—nonprofit institutions that carry on the arduous task of addressing gaps in the system. The relationship between government and NGOs used to be adversarial in the past but has thankfully evolved into some kind of collaborative partnership in recent years.

NGOs in our country have been doing an exemplary and yet often thankless job of raising awareness on critical issues and in providing the necessary services that are often neglected by government. Such services run the whole gamut of development issues and concerns, mostly of marginalized and stigmatized communities and people that desperately and rightfully need to be championed because they reflect on the state of a country’s collective soul. Very often, these causes tend to be unpopular and controversial and therefore require a particular expertise and commitment. But NGOs have proven invaluable in mobilizing communities, engendering grassroots participation in development issues and programs, and in acting as watchdogs of government and private institutions and as humanity’s collective conscience. There is therefore an imperative need to ensure that NGOs, notably those that embrace critical mandates are nurtured.

It is therefore sad that many nongovernment organizations in this country are now in the throes of death. The cause of the massacre: funds for development programs, particularly those that address controversial causes, have become more and more scarce each year. Thus, funds for HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive health, water and sanitation, malaria, tuberculosis, etc., are now very hard to come by and the many NGOs that address these concerns are gasping for dear life.

Before I go any further, I would like to make a full disclosure for the sake of transparency. I am president of the board of trustees of a nongovernment organization providing care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS and working on HIV/AIDS prevention. This disclosure is meant to highlight two things. First, I am basing my observations on first-hand information. Second, I am speaking from an admittedly subjective perspective —that of NGOs suffering from the shift in the priorities of donors. The latter is important to point out because it must be noted that, in contrast, other NGOs, specifically those that are working on “popular” and “generally safe” advocacies such as housing for the poor, are generally enjoying a surfeit of grants both from international as well as local donors.

It is both ironic and alarming that the sources of funds for unpopular causes such as HIV/AIDS prevention are drying up at a time when indications point to a resurgence of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases in the country. Without trying to be alarmist about it, the national registry for HIV/AIDS cases in the country has been reporting a three-fold increase in new reported incidences of HIV/AIDS infections in the last three months.

In the last 10 years, the country has seen a rather slow progression in the number of infections, hovering around 10 reported infections each month. Thus, the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country has been described as “low and slow” in the past. Studies, however, have pointed out that the infection rates do not reflect the real picture. It was hypothesized that for every reported infection, there are hundreds of other cases that are not detected. Thus, the description has since then been changed to “hidden and growing.” However, since May of this year, the national registry has been reporting at least 30 cases of new infections each month, representing a sudden upsurge in new HIV/AIDS cases. Clearly, hidden and growing just does not capture the urgency and the real extent of the problem anymore.

To be fair, our statistics still pale in comparison with those of our neighboring countries. HIV/AIDS cases in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, to cite a few, are in the millions. The attention being given to these countries by international donor agencies may be understandable given this context. However, the resulting laxity towards countries like the Philippines is a serious cause for alarm because the vectors that have been empirically proven to contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS are also found in our country. These include active migration (we have millions of overseas Filipino workers), increasing incidence of injecting drug use, and rising occurrence of unsafe sexual practices.

The dearth of funding for development programs such as those for HIV/AIDS prevention is attributed to many factors. First, funding for development programs to Third World countries has been diverted to programs aimed at counterterrorism. Thus, even funding that has already been previously committed towards social programs (such those that target children and families) has been significantly cut.

Second, our supposed economic recovery has resulted in the exclusion of the country from the priority list of the major donor agencies. For example, Ford Foundation has already closed its operations in the Philippines. It is ironic that this supposed (and misleading) bit of good news has dampened parallel development efforts. Thus, many international donor agencies have shifted their attention to other countries that are supposedly more deserving of the assistance.

The government’s efforts to empower local government units have also inadvertently added layers to the bureaucratic red tape. And as we all know, bureaucracy does tangle up efforts and resources. Today, many NGOs are forced to deal with LGUs, resulting not only in frayed nerves but significant delays in the delivery of needed services. Let’s call a spade a dirty shovel and admit that more bureaucratic layers require higher administrative costs. Even granting that there is no direct corruption in the form of commissions and kickbacks, the sheer number of people who need to be wined and dined increases. This spells trouble with a capital T.

Of course, it can not be discounted that given the current political problems, there is a pervading climate of mistrust towards NGOs, reinforced by public criticism of government particularly by advocacy NGOs. But such is precisely the role of NGOs and government should not lose sight of the larger value that NGOs contribute to development. It would be such a waste if NGOs in the Philippines are left to fend for themselves and suffer a slow death. Already, many local social development experts connected with local NGOs are being enticed by other countries. In fact, the reality is that any regional gathering of social development experts inevitably becomes a reunion of erstwhile Filipino NGO workers.

A world without NGOs is unthinkable. It is tantamount to committing national suicide. Government and the private sector must save Philippine NGOs before it is too late.


Jerome aka Bridget Jones said...

oh god, bong. i have a long essay in my mind about NGO's and government and where should responsibilities and tasks begin and end. or is the private sector currently the sole engine for growth? sigh. we are currently handling three projects involving government agencies and...ugh.

but what you said is is good that the NGO's are there to fill the gap in government's programming.

i'll email you separately for opportunities if you want. :-)

god speed, bro!

Anthony Scalia said...

NGOs are the unsung heroes in the march to progress and development.

Someone has said basic education is too big to be left alone to government. Well, Philippine economic progress is also too big to be left to government. That is where the NGOs come in.

BongA said...

thanks for the comments. the column actually started as a rant against the apathy of the private sector towards NGO work that has very little media potential. Kasi nga puro na lang GK ang ginagawa ngayon. sigh. Not to downgrade what GK is about though, it is just that it can not be the only program that private sector should be supporting. anyway, yeah please send us the opportunities - we might be able to use them.



BongA said...

exaclty! thanks for dropping by again.