Government News Analysis

Commission of Disappointment

Judy Taguiwalo, Philippines' DSWD Secretary

On Christmas Day when super-typhoon Nina rampaged through the Philippines’ Bicol Region – packing wind speeds of 110 miles an hour and displacing some 250,000 families in the process – the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) swung into action with similar force. With little fanfare, it helped execute one of the archipelago’s most-efficient disaster-relief operations ever. At the helm of the DSWD effort was its secretary, Judy Taguiwalo.

Now, all that’s a distant memory – at least for members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) which persists in delaying her confirmation as DSWD secretary and possibly wants to reject it. If it was up to Nina’s victims, you can be sure she’d have been confirmed months ago. But then what would they know. Right?

The point is, it’s the job of the CA to weed out bad nominations; those who are either dishonest – as was the case of former Foreign Affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr who lied about his citizenship status – or who’re totally unqualified and hopelessly out of their depth, as was the case with former Environment and Natural Resources secretary, Gina Lopez. In those two instances the CA proved its worth as an effective check and balance.

Taguiwalo, however, hasn’t been found dishonest and she’s plainly very good at her job. She’s also extremely dedicated to alleviating the scandalous level of poverty in the country – something that seems to grow despite the endless anti-poverty rhetoric that’s constantly bellowed out of every Congress.

Of course, the CA is right to have concerns about Taguiwalo’s Hard Left political background – but she’s never made any pretence about that. Certainly she’s never tried to conceal it. In fact she’s always been open and honest about the fact. But the Philippines is a democracy, which means she’s entitled to her political views and under the principles of a democracy she can no more be excluded from office for those views than she can for her religious beliefs. If she were, that would make a mockery of democracy.

If her views hamper her ability to do her job, however, that’s another matter. That was clearly the case with Gina Lopez, for example; she was motivated solely by an eco-war agenda that sought to disband all mining in the Philippines. But Taguiwalo has already proved – supremely so and under extreme conditions – her effectiveness in delivering social welfare to despairing citizens. Unlike Lopez, her ability to do the job wasn’t in any way clouded by some extreme political ideology.

These are government agencies administering the public purse; they’re not meant to be the private banks of congressmen.
So what’s behind the moves to stymie her appointment? Well, as they say in all the crime novels: “Follow the money”. On 1 August, Taguiwalo issued ‘Memorandum Circular 9’ – “to guide implementation of the agency’s Protective Services Program (PSP)”.

What that did was to halt the extraordinary practice by which members of Congress gain favoured projects from her agency. Her circular stated that referral letters from public officials were no longer integral to the implementation of the PSP and not binding on DSWD personnel. In short it gave her agency the sole authority to determine the beneficiaries of its own projects.

What had inspired Circular 9 were requests from lawmakers – including a number no longer in Congress – for cash balances held by the DSWD to which they claimed to be entitled. That in itself is a scandal. And if that was happening at the DSWD, how many other departments is it presently happening at? And where’s the transparency, the public accountability?

These are government agencies administering the public purse; they’re not meant to be the private banks of congressmen. This shouldn’t have been a DSWD circular; it should have been an Executive Order from the Office of the President. It’s precisely the sort of patronage politics which the Filipino public wants eradicated; to clean-up all that was why they elected Duterte.

But anyway, you’d think after the horrendous Pork Barrel Scandal – the 2013 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam which defrauded the public of PHP10 billion and embroiled the entire legislature in sleaze – that the lawmakers, given the public’s anger over that, would be applauding Taguiwalo.

What happened with the PDAF – a discretionary fund which annually doled out PHP70 million for each member of the House of Representatives and PHP200 million for every senator, ostensibly for priority projects in their constituencies – was that a considerable amount of the allocations ended up in lawmakers’ pockets. What was to stop exactly the same thing happening with the arrangements lawmakers had with the DSWD? What’s to stop it still happening with other agencies where members of Congress might still have a similar cozy arrangement? If ever there’s a government-stamped licenced facility for kickbacks, this is it.

Surely, the job of the lawmakers is to make laws; not to decide who the beneficiaries of a department’s projects should be. If the Social Welfare Department needs to order a consignment of condoms for its birth-control programme, for example, is it really expected to consider the cousin of some legislator who’s got shares in a latex factory in Malaysia?

Frankly, the issuing of Circular 9 would be a good reason to make sure Taguiwalo is appointed. In fact, Senator Panfilo Lacson has made that very point. “That’s compelling reason enough not to oppose your confirmation,” he said during her first appearance before the CA in May. And Senator Lacson certainly has no communist inclinations.

Wide ideological differences, however, will also be playing into the present impasse surrounding this appointment. For evidence of that, look no further than the irrepressible anti-Duterte campaigner, two-time failed coup leader, Senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV.

With his customary dramatics, he’s claiming that government departments have become Trojan horses for communist infiltrators. In a scenario that sounds like something right out of The Simpsons cartoon sitcom, he says “hundreds of cadres” of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) are now picking up government paychecks while – presumably – they plot the take over of the country.

“Moreover, these communists are using the resources from these government offices to stockpile arms and ammunition, which they will use later on against our soldiers,” he said.

We’ve long suspected that Trillanes is delusional, but that statement virtually confirms it. He offers no evidence for any of those allegations; we’re supposed to take his word for it like we were for every other outrageous allegation he’s made against President Rodrigo Duterte and members of his Cabinet. If he has concrete proof of this, he should hand it over to the police.

So this is just Sonny being Sonny. His purpose, as usual, is to frustrate Duterte by adding weight to what looks like a mounting movement in the Senate to have Taguiwalo’s appointment, and those of two other Cabinet members, rejected by the CA. For, coincidentally, it’s their departments – the DSWD, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) – along with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), where the ‘Reds’ are now “officially employed,” according to Trillanes.

Here’s a useful simple rule of thumb though – anything which Trillanes regards as a bad idea is usually a good idea, and anything Trillanes regards as a good idea is usually a bad idea.

The Liberal clique will also be gunning for Taguiwalo – for one reason she embarrassed their queen, the country’s vice president, Liberal Party chairman Leni Robredo.
The three department secretaries who were nominated by Duterte – Taguiwalo; Rafael Mariano, DAR; Liza Maza, NAPC – all come from the Hard Left of the political spectrum. Taguiwalo and Mariano were suggested for inclusion in the Cabinet by the National Democratic Front (NDF) – the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist grouping which embraced the CPP, its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro Resistance and Liberation Organization  Mara represents the socialist-feminist Gabriela Women’s Party.

Duterte’s involvement of the Hard Left – specifically the NDF – even before being sworn into office, was a bold effort to recalibrate peace talks between the government and communist rebels. At the time he was charged with being an appeaser of the NPA. However, given his expanded military operations against the NPA, following its reluctance to observe ceasefire arrangements, no one would suggest that today – not even Trillanes.

The Liberal clique will also be gunning for Taguiwalo – for one reason she embarrassed their queen, the country’s vice president, Liberal Party chairman Leni Robredo. In fact though, it was Robredo who embarrassed herself. During Typhoon Yolanda the vice president, a Bicol native, was spending Christmas with family and friends in the United States and was heavily criticised for her absence from the country at such a critical time.

As Taguiwalo maintained a calm professionalism, attending to the immediate care of the typhoon’s victims, Robredo threw her damage-control effort into overdrive and endeavoured to grab the headlines with claims that she was coordinating her own relief operations on the ground via her VP Office in Manila. Naturally, no one outside her own small circle bought any of that and Robredo was left looking like she’d got the part of one of the Ugly Sisters in the Christmas panto while Taguiwalo had got the role of Cinderella.

But that was no flash in the pan. This year, when a 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit Surigao City in north eastern Mindanao on 10 February and a 6.5 quake shook Ormoc City in Leyte, Eastern Visayas on 6 July, among the first on the scene were DSWD staff from the agency’s regional field offices who dispensed food packages as well as mats, blankets and tents to tens of thousands of people who’d been driven from their homes. Response was swift; the operations were skillfully coordinated.

Marshalling all that and making sure no victims slipped through the net was Judy Taguiwalo (photo, with Ormoc quake refugees). Her helmsmanship not only dealt with the immediate effects of these disasters it also ensured programme of aftercare continued until an adequate level of normalcy had been restored to these communities.

What seems clear though is that Taguiwalo is extremely popular in the country – a popularity she’s earned among the people. What’s also clear is that to date she’s proved her worth as a Social Welfare secretary – certainly more so than the previous incumbent of that office, the CA-approved Corazon “Dinky” Soliman whose handling of the devastating super-typhoon Yolanda which struck the Philippines in November 2013 left a great deal to be desired. In fact, the lingering aftermath of that is just one of the jobs that Taguiwalo’s department is now handling.

At the height of the Yolanda relief effort, PHP2.7 million worth of food packs – 7,000 of them – destined for typhoon victims, ended up getting spoiled through improper handling. They became unfit for human consumption and had to be destroyed.

The purpose of social welfare is to solve problems such as homelessness, not sweep them under the carpet or treat them as an embarrassment. 
Then, in January 2015, there were the 100 homeless families, among them some 500 children, peeled off the streets of Pasay City, Metro Manila and dispatched to a resort in Batangas to attend a “Family Camping Workshop” – some sort of orientation seminar – while Pope Francis was in town. Apparently, those members of life’s unfortunates weren’t among the sights Soliman wanted the pope to see.

They also weren’t among the sights she wanted delegates to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit to see 10 months later in November; but on that occasion “Only 77 families were reached out [to] by the City of Manila” – in other words, peeled off the streets – according to Soliman.

The purpose of social welfare is to solve problems such as homelessness, not sweep them under the carpet or treat them as an embarrassment.

And then there’s former CA-approved DSWD secretary, Esperanza Cabral, who served in the post from 2005 to 2009 under then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In January, the Ombudsman ordered the filing of charges against her over her alleged involvement in the Pork Barrel scam. In addition to offences under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the Revised Penal Code, she’s also ordered to be charged with the malversation of public funds through falsification of public documents.

Perhaps while we’re waiting for that, someone could look into how DSWD projects were being awarded during her four-year tenure.

The point is, the onus is on the CA to confirm the best people they can for the job. It’s not their role to approve or disapprove of a nominee’s political persuasion per se. That’s not part of the criteria. It’s actually very simple; all they have to establish is: (a) are they honest; (b) can they do the job.

Taguiwalo is unquestionably an accomplished woman who is well capable of handling the role for which Duterte picked her. And while her politics may not be to everyone’s taste – they’re certainly not to ours for a start – the sincerity of her commitment to helping the poor is beyond doubt.

Taguiwalo is genuinely humble and hardworking – qualities sadly lacking to any substantial degree among Congress’s membership. This is a woman, who at 67, is putting in 10 and 12 hour workdays. On top of that – and actually because of that – she enjoys a great deal of support within the country. For those reasons, The VolatilianTM believes the CA should confirm her. In the people’s eyes, not to do so could turn the Commission on Appointments into the Commission of Disappointment.

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