The Long View
In defense of Esperanza Cabral
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:49:00 10/26/2009
Is criticism tantamount to subversion, and is asking questions treason? Opinion ends up deeply divided on these matters during times of national emergency or crisis. Two examples will suffice.
In the frantic days immediately after Typhoon “Ondoy,” there were instances in which Richard Gordon was criticized because Red Cross volunteers were kept waiting for what turned out to be a photo opportunity that never took place, because Gordon didn’t turn up. Gordon is in a particularly sensitive position when it comes to these things, because of the nonpartisan nature of the Red Cross, and his partisan identity as both a senator and presidential aspirant, an unprecedented situation for a chairman of the PNRC.
But in typical Gordon fashion he faced the situation squarely enough, explaining the photo-op scheme wasn’t his, and furthermore, vowing no such thing would ever happen again. While some of his admirers continue to have ruffled feathers over criticism having been ventured in the first place, the chairman himself did the right thing: there is no such thing as lèse majesté when it comes to the elected head of a humanitarian organization who also happens to be an elected official – and who has to finely balance the at times contradictory duties of the offices he holds.
When Typhoon “Pepeng” struck, the President ordered the Mansion House in Baguio opened to the public as an emergency shelter. Three busloads of students from Taguig were allowed to park in the premises that night, although the students weren’t allowed to alight from their buses. The next morning, when the President went to Baguio, the buses were asked to leave. Everyone in Baguio City knew what happened, and how a humanitarian order by the President ended up thwarted by her flunkies. This only goes to show that even the best-intentioned policies can be ruined by crude or contradictory implementation.
The twin tragedies of Ondoy and Pepeng brought out the best in so many people, but also exposed the shortcomings of the public and private sector when it comes to providing relief and rehabilitation assistance. The biggest shortcoming of all, in terms of officialdom, is that it enjoys very little public trust. As government tried to manage the outpouring of support from people overseas for typhoon victims here at home, quite a bit of nudging had to take place for officials to realize that they had to go the extra mile in terms of explaining existing regulations and to offer reassurances that aid would go where it was intended.
Secretary Esperanza Cabral of the DSWD has been, on the whole, patient and committed to the utmost transparency and accountability in the handling of donations, while taking pains to explain what her department is doing – and how it pains the rank and file to operate under a climate of mistrust born, not of her current handling of the twin crises, but of the mishandling of previous ones.
In recent days Cabral’s been upset over a blogger asking some pretty pointed questions based on her experience as a volunteer in the DSWD warehouse in Pasay City. The issue, shorn of all the emotionalism that’s come to surround it, is simply this: Is the DSWD moving fast enough in dispatching donated relief goods, considering the continuing need of so many citizens for relief?
The blunt answer is, the DSWD could be moving faster, and it took the public outcry caused by the blog for the government to start sounding a call for more volunteers, which sidesteps the question of whether it’s a wise or even necessary policy to rely on volunteers for a line agency to fulfill its functions. The DSWD has done a lot, as it is; so the public interest lies in figuring out how it could do better – which it can’t do, without the public participating by means of criticism and helping in problem-solving.
What struck me immediately about the controversial blog entry was that the problems the public has come to associate with officialdom and relief were notably absent. There was no pilfering, no looting, no diversion of relief to line official pockets. This, in itself, is a colossal achievement: the warehouses are secure, items are tidily kept and they presumably end up where they should. Another thing that struck me was that the secretary has proven true to her pledge to be transparent and accountable about donations: they are publicly available, on line, listing monetary donations, and donations in kind, and the disbursement of relief goods.
Some things could stand improvement, in terms of the record-keeping of the DSWD, for example in terms of donations being recorded in one manner, but recorded, in the disbursements, in another: canned goods recorded by the box upon receipt, but sent out in batches of actual cans, for example. This makes for a confusing, not to mention untidy, inventory system that leaves too many gray areas when the time comes to reconcile inventory received and dispatched. Or take items having to stay in the pipeline until a monetary value can be assigned: either a more comprehensive database of values can be created, or donors urged to provide this information.
When the whole issue was at its most ferocious, some people expressed uneasiness about the repercussions of questioning the DSWD and its methods. This is an unwarranted fear; the DSWD has come to realize it has to explain its policies and methods to the public; and it has armed the public with facts that confirm its assertions. On the whole it has been a healthy exercise in accountability that should reassure foreign donors and the citizenry that, ultimately, Cabral serves.
* * *
THE column included the following note: READERS are invited to visit http://blogs.inquirer.net/current/ to see relevant readings on the issue of the DSWD warehouse, to see eyewitness accounts, the departmentâ€™s accounting of donations and how the system can be improved.
* * *
HERE is what was published on Inquirer Current (since many readers seem to miss clicking the link above):
Yesterday, the Inquirer’s editorial, Turtle-paced relief, looked at the controversy caused by a blog entry that questioned the speed at which donated relief goods made it out the door and into the hands of intended aid recipients. The editorial gave DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral’s response to the questions raised in the blog entry, but also pointed out that the DSWD’s own records showed a senator, congressmen, and cabinet members intervened in the release of relief goods, contradicting Secretary Cabral’s own policy of making relief and rehabilitation “politico-proof.”
The editorial also mentioned the 2006 South Leyte Mudslide, which had relief efforts marred by officials plundering relief goods and sending often inedible goods to the victims (Stella Arnaldo in her blog, points out the deterioration of the DSWD and corruption in its ranks dates back to the Marcos administration; the Guinsaugon tragedy took place under the current administration’s watch and partially explains the climate of hostility or suspicion that surrounds government relief).
By way of Cabral’s pointing out that the DSWD and government has to attend not just to relief, but rehabilitation, the problems involved, in the context of the 2006 tragedy, are illustrated by this detailed report, CDRC reports on Guinsaugon relief, circa 2007. There is great frustration over the seemingly-insurmountable problems our country faces, and how even people who want to help, sometimes find their efforts met with official hostility, or indifference, or even when embraced, ends up appearing to be too little too late: I tackled this in a previous entry, Republic of Sisyphus.
Today, my column, In defense of Esperanza Cabral, looks at the same issue: it essentially distills the findings I discussed at length in my blog entry, Flooded with relief. There were two incidents I mentioned by way of illustrating an ongoing debate on whether it is healthy or productive to question how officials go about their duties in times of emergency. The first concerns PNRC Chairman Richard Gordon and incidents such as the one chronicled in Urban Hermitage and in the blog of Faith Salazar, the response of the PNRC Chairman was to vow that no such things would happen again. Absolutely the correct response, considering an unusual burden Gordon has to bear, as the elected Chairman of a neutral humanitarian organization, while being, at the same time, an elected senator and presidential aspirant: balancing all these is something no previous chairman has had to contend with.
For readers who want to come to grips with the issue, here are some relevant readings.
The whole controversy was sparked by a blog entry titled Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? (A special report from a volunteer) on October 21 (a timeline of the issue can be found in Bayanihan Online). There was a Philippine News story on October 23. The DSWD Secretary responded with a statement, as follows: Statement of Dr. Esperanza Cabral on the issue of relief goods in the DSWD Warehouse. In a response to the Secretary, Beting Dolor of the Philippine News boils down the issue and public opinion on the matter:
In times like these, I expect the DSWD to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The DSWD says there are not enough volunteers. I disagree. There are tens of thousands of Filipinos willing to help. The DSWD should have gone to the schools to ask for volunteers. There are countless employees in the private sector willing to help. The DSWD could have asked the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police to help. I expect the department to take a more pro-active rather than a reactive stance. I expect the secretary to DEMAND that everyone help out. Lest we forget, human lives are at stake.
The value of the public fuss lies in the Secretary responding to the issues raised, by asking for help, which she did by contacting Gang Badoy, who has taken it upon herself to muster volunteers to help the DSWD (the only inaccuracy in the Secretary’s statement is that they are operating around-the-clock, which is not true in terms of the DSWD Relief Operations Center in Pasay: both in terms of the duty hours Cabral recommended to Badoy, 3-11 PM, which if true, meant that when we went we should have seen things winding down, or if round-the-clock as Cabral said, then certainly there would have been more activity than the sleeping guard and fluffy white dog we encountered: and that, incidentally, was the purpose of checking by going to Church Street that night). Another problem is that the relief effort, even if government-sponsored, relies on volunteer manpower and the DSWD did not make calls for volunteers until it was faced with questions raised by the blogger. One lingering problem, too, is that the DSWD, when presented with volunteers, has told some that they’re not needed; but if volunteers are persistent and say they want to help with UNICEF, then they’re allowed in -to the same compound. Please take time to read Been there done that DSWD! in Deviliscious’s Blog, which clarifies the issues quite thoroughly, and deserves being quoted at length:
There are 5 (if my memory doesn’t fail me this time) huge warehouses. 1 warehouse housed the goods from UNICEF. The rest housed rice and other food stuff. The UNICEF goods are packed as starter packs for those families who have been relocated due to the floods. A starter pack consists of cooking pot stuffed with towels, bath soap, laundry detergent, water jug stuffed with 4 blankets, 2 plastic mats. These are then picked up by trucks and supposed to be delivered to the relocation centers. The rest of the warehouses pack food and snack packs, as far as I know because I did not actually pack one. Distribution is centralized through DSWD.
Those are the facts as I’ve seen them.
The blog that started it all, after checking the posted pics and what I actually saw, referred to the UNICEF warehouse. Is there corruption? I don’t think there is. At least not at the warehouse packing stages. Ensha and the volunteers seem intent only on the job at hand. (Bless you guys!)Security seems strict and I see no signs of pilferage. I’m not sure what happens after the goods leave the warehouse. I just hope they get to their supposed destinations. Someone needs to check on that.
Is there intentional hoarding? I don’t think there is either.
Goods are just moving slow. I posit 2 reasons:
1. There are not enough volunteers. Ms. Fabian says that on weekdays they only get around 40 volunteers. When I came there, there were not more than 15 working on a Saturday even when I posted on my FB page with my 1800 “FB friends”, several FB groups totaling around 400 members, twittered it, and SMSed to 20 buddies. 15/2000 is not a good ratio. Gang, I hope you are more successful. No volunteers.
2. Limits set by the management. When I was told that DSWD is no longer accepting volunteers for the weekend because there were already a lot of volunteers from UPS. I don’t have the exact count but I saw several hundreds. However, after 2 hours of work, I noticed that the other warehouses were empty. I strongly think the 5 huge warehouses could accomodate and harness at least 1000 per warehouse. When we were repacking at Red Cross Rizal in a 40sqm room, we had 600 volunteers at some points and managed to release 1000-2000 packs per mission and we ran several missions per day. The DSWD warehouses should be able to improve their output. They could run 24/7 on continous shifts when volunteers and managers (from DSWD, UNICEF, or volunteers) running the packing lines. In business, we call this a good problem. It is a scale problem.
- Train more packing line managers from staff and volunteers.
- Run the lines as a 24/7 operation with your trained line managers.
- Make the schedules public. Use social media, the internet, radio, whatever. (I know of some who volunteered but returned home when they were told they need no more volunteers. If I, myself, [emphasis mine] did not ask for UNICEF, the peeps at the DSWD office wouldn’t have volunteered the info. Clearly, we have communication problem here.)
- Get more volunteers.
Those are my recommendations to the people in charge of the warehouses.
And there’s also this informative video by the same blogger, which was uploaded to YouTube:
Now early on it became clear that the climate of suspicion concerning the DSWD and all officials engaged in relief, is the sad history of previous relief efforts being marred by controversy. Combined with the wounded amor propio of DSWD officials and employees, you have a case of official denial combined with hostility aimed at all criticism and reaching for the bureaucratic equivalent of a gun to silence dissent (talk of the DSWD mulling filing libel suits against the offending blogger).
The thing is that the DSWD from its Secretary on down, can only be accused of working at government speed, when the public demands working at the double -a clash of cultures.
On the other hand, as I pointed out in my column, the DSWD can take pride in it opening up its activities to greater scrutiny than perhaps ever before, which is both good and bad. Good in that it proves that even if it’s doing its work more slowly (the DSWD could’ve easily said, but at least more methodically) than the public might desire, it can claim it’s being a good steward of the relief goods entrusted to it.
Consider the records that represent full disclosure the department’s prepared and put on line.
The DSWD has published its list of Cash Donations Received online. It has also put up, online, its List of Donations Received, and the NROC (National Relief Operations Center) Summary of Releases.These are official documents, the public record, and as I mentioned in my column, fully in keeping with Secretary Cabral’s pledge to be transparent and accountable for the aid and assistance given the Philippine government by public and private donors, here and abroad.
There are many ways to look at these documents to see what information they provide. Here are some that I attempted.
For example, you can look at the documents to see whether, in the face of the Secretary’s pledge to make the distribution of donated relief goods “politico-proof,” whether her pledge was carried out to the letter:
Based on the information above, provided by the DSWD itself, it’s clear that much as Secretary Cabral wanted to keep relief efforts “politico-proof,” goods were released to administration officials: the Vice-President, three cabinet members (Bello, Reyes, and Gonzales), a senator (Revilla, member of the ruling coalition), two congressmen related to cabinet officials (Reps. Puno and Ermita-Buhain), and other congressmen affiliated with, or considered friendly to, the administration: friendlies include Reps. Abayon, Arquiza and Pizarro who are party-list representatives that accompanied the President on her USA trip, while Antonino and Crisologo (listed on his biodata as NP but on the roster of Lakas-Kampi), are partymates of the President.This is a detail of public interest not just because of the Secretary’s pledge, but because even if one assumes good faith on the part of the officials concerned, the impression that relief was released by means of the intervention of these officials -all of whom are affiliated with the administration- makes suspicions of partisanship unavoidable because reasonable.
Or, you can take a look and see which goods were sent to the Relief Operations Center established in the Presidential Palace:
This is of public interest, because early on during the Ondoy relief efforts, the Palace center found itself with no goods to repack; it had to ask for relief goods from the Ateneo de Manila University’s relief operations.This is a detail of public interest because it raises the question of whether this was the most efficient allocation of relief goods, considering relief goods were also being donated directly to the Palace for volunteers to repack and distribute.Here’s another way to look at the public records provided by the DSWD. I decided to collate the donations made by the “big” donors, specifically international organizations such as the World Food Program and Unicef, foreign governments and related agencies such as the governments and embassies of Spain, France, Jordan, the Peace Corps, and large domestic corporations such as San Miguel Corporation and the Coca-Cola company:
Recall that one of the causes for the furor over the blog entry on the DSWD warehouse, was frustration with what was perceived to be the less-than-optimal speed at which foreign-donated goods were being distributed; there were even questions raised, by some, concerning whether or not foreign-donated goods were being set aside and only domestically-produced items sent out.What do the DSWD’s own documents tell us, is what I wanted to know.In the first place, the question of foreign-donated goods being set aside raised a red flag, in the context of previous disasters, when officials kept foreign goodies for themselves and sent domestic products (sometimes past their shelf life) on to actual disaster victims.
There have also been many cases, formally and informally reported, of relief goods being sold on the black market for the private gain of officials and their friends. On the other hand, no one -not the original blogger who raised questions about the DSWD warehouse, or people who have gone there since- said any actual pilfering was going on.
Would the records bear this out? Because, as I said in my column, it’s a remarkable achievement in itself, for the DSWD warehouse to be secure, the donated goods intact, and no cases of pilfering reported.
The records, on the whole, to my mind, bears out the assertion of the Secretary of the DSWD that they are taking care of donations, and that they’re getting out the warehouses in relief packs. However, it’s extremely difficult to prove this conclusively, simply because of one thing: the manner in which inventory was received, is not the same as the manner in which inventory is reported as having been dispatched.
Consider this effort, which I began and which some other online volunteers participated in:
It proved extremely difficult to match many items. The official list of donations received often listed inventory in a manner that was not retained in the list of inventory released. This is an inventory record-keeping problem that can be solved by adopting methods used in big grocery chains, and maintaining a consistent reporting system throughout, from the arrival of goods, to their being loaded on the trucks.Basically, it would seem one method was used to keep one list, and another to report what was sent out, with no attempt being made to establish common parameters to make reconciling the two lists easy.The result is that there appears to be more rice sent out than was released, and a discrepancy in the number of blankets received and sent out. Even figuring out whether as many 1.5 liter bottles of Coca-Cola were sent out as were received, or the same number of boxes of bananas donated were sent out, and the time that elapsed between receiving donations and dispatching them, is difficult.
Another effort, also by an online volunteer, this time focused on summarizing the items released, based on the items themselves and their reported unit cost:
A subsequent effort was this one, undertaken by an online volunteer, who tried to approach the problem by sorting the goods by kind and then reconciling the numbers received and number sent out: Releases Donations Thru NROC-1
There’s a need for additional data, too: for example, are family food packs composed of items taken from various sets of donations? If so, since the food packs are, presumably, standard sets, they’d represent standard deductions of inventory from other pooled items, so it should be possible to quickly calculate and report where inventory ended up, even if piecemeal.In addition, I have permission from the creator of the following three documents to share with you that volunteer’s efforts to sort the data provided by the DSWD to see what patterns might emerge.As the volunteer explained it, what was attempted was to generate new report views using MySQL database. The data from donation list and released summaries of the NROC were downloaded . Three report views were generated. Original DSWD Data for NROC
The first (above) is ORIGINAL DSWD DATA FOR NROC: a compilation of 2 dataset (donations and released items via NROC). This is basically the set of data used for the next two report views. Caveat: this needs to be double-checked against published data of DSWD just to be sure there aren’t any inadvertent discrepancies.
DSWD DATA FOR NROC – SORTED BY DATE,INOUT (above) in which the combined dataset by DATE and according to flow of donation (Is it a donation entry or is it a release entry) was sorted. This gives a general idea of the flow of activity regarding donations via NROC. First items out the door were door were blankets, clothing, baby supplies, food packs, noodles, water, water jugs, toiletries, etc.While donated pretty early on, medicines continue to remain in storage.As the volunteer who prepared this document pointed out,
Unilab donated as early as Sept. 29 various medicines. Donations of medicine and medicine supplies from Kingdom of Jordan came in by Oct. 06. Donations of medicines from Phap Cares came in by Oct. 06 and Oct. 08. Donations of medicine from PNOC came in by Oct 10. There is one instance of UNICEF food & non food family kit (3,000 Pesos/pack) and several UNICEF Pabaon Packs (3,000 Pesos/pack) released on several dates. They may or may not contain medicines at all. One odd thing here is if these packs are from the UNICEF warehouse or not. I think someone who is familiar with medicines needs to review the list. It’s important to know if the medicines donated are of non-prescription type.
DSWD DATA FOR NROC – SORTED BY ITEM NAME, DATE, IN OUT (above) in which what was sorted was the combined dataset by ITEM and then the flow of goods in chronological order. This is only partially useful since the item names caused some discrepancies in the display.All these unofficial, partial, volunteer, efforts are simply attempts to look closely at the information government provides, and to see whether the documents bear out government’s assertions.On the whole, the documents are step in the right direction. Their usefulness, however, is compromised by some flaws in methodology that are obvious from the moment one tries to sort the data and compare lists. These flaws can be rectified, and should be rectified, because they prevent the records from serving their true purpose, which is to provide a clear, transparent, accountable reference system for the goods entrusted to government for the benefit of the people.
Personally, I don’t see how the government or its officials was hurt by questions being raised. In the few days since the whole issue came to the fore, consider what was achieved:
- The DSWD finally seized the opportunity to call for volunteers, and the private sector responded.
- The DSWD was able to inform the public, foreign and domestic, about how it goes about utilizing foreign and domestic relief donations.
- The public was accorded ample opportunity to scrutinize the records of the DSWD, which it has been providing all along, and furthermore, the public was able to propose improvements to the manner in which donations are recorded as having been received, and then dispatched.
The sound and fury along the way is a small price for the good that was achieved, and more so, if the DSWD decided to implement and adopt some of the recommendations made by a public every bit as concerned as the DSWD is, to bring relief to typhoon victims. It would be a terrible mistake, simply from a public-relations perspective, for the DSWD to attempt to file lawsuits against the blogger who dared to ask questions: it would only fortify, in the public’s mind, that the DSWD was caught going about its business in a lackadaisical manner, and only tried to look busy afterwards.
As if things didn’t need to be more confusing, there is another, official, list of donations received by the DSWD, aside from the other one linked to, above! I am reproducing it and related documents here, simply for completeness and in case interested readers want to examine and compare the documents.
Here is the one I linked to, above, saved online as a Scribd document, and which was the basis of the various exercises shown above:
And here is the other one, brought to my attention only after I’d written my column, and which was not used in the various exercises shown above:DWSD NROC Donations Received as of 01 Oct 2009 0500H
And here is the official list of disbursements (releases),also saved as a Scribd document:DSWD NROC Summary of Releases
And, just for archiving purposes, a copy of the DSWD list of monetary donations received:DSWD Statement on Cash Donations as of 23 Oct 2009 1645H
Concerning this list, the comments of a volunteer might be of interest to readers:
I like the way DSWD tallied the monetary donations.
They even included if the monetary donation was provided with an Official Receipt or not. The thing is, while that was good, something else was missing. There is no indication at all if any of these funds have been used already.
Currently, all people are focused on the actual goods for repacking and distribution but there is a large pie of the entire donations thatis not yet being moved it seem. That is, if we take the lack activity when it comes to monetary donations. I personally think, not only the slow movement of the relief goods should be given importance or highlight. A question should be raised if the fund was already used.
Look at this figure based on DSWD’s documents:
DOLLAR CASH DONATION (as of 23 Oct 2009) —- US$ 212,508.57equivalent to 9,562,885.65 pesos (when using conservative Forex rate$1 = 45pesos)
PESOS CASH DONATION (as of 23 Oct 2009) —- PhP103,799,354.06
TOTAL CASH DONATION IN PESOS —— 113,362,239.71 pesos
DONATIONS VIA NROC (as of 24 Oct 2009) — PhP 59,426,418.75 (thereare entries w/o monetary values yet)
DONATIONS VIA CO (as of 16 Oct 2009) — (no total figures were provided but there is a monetized value which I did not compute anymore) TRUCKING SERVICE (as of 01 Oct 2009) – (no monetary figure was provided at all)
TOTAL DONATION (CASH + GOODS + SERVICES) ———– 172,788,658.46 pesos
RELEASED DONATIONS (as of 24 Oct 2009) — Php 45,263,281.28 (thereare entries w/o monetary values yet)
% OF RELEASED vs IN-KIND DONATIONS = 76.1669% was only released = 45,263,281.28/59,426,418.75
% OF RELEASED vs TOTAL DONATIONS = 39.928% was only released = 45,263,281.28/113,362,239.71
I suddenly remember visiting one website before who raised funds online.
The site owner/blogger even received a cash donation personally. She disclosed online how the money was spent. Can’t remember exact details but I remember the blogger mentioned that sheshared a portion of the cash to a person/group who were in need of funds for their relief effort. Then In addition to that, the shopping expenditures (for the relief goods her own group planned to distribute) was even provided and any cash leftover was even mentioned.