Opinion Today May 18, 2002

This is to comment on the CODE-NGO / PEACe bonds issue and Today’s bad news (May 7 issue, frontpage) that the “good fortune” of CODE-NGO is “alsopossible for other NGOs.”

The “good fortune” of CODE-NGO is as much about the Camacho connection and the Arroyo government’s debtor mentality (so what else is new) as it is about CODE-NGO and whether it deserves to call itself an NGO in the light of its strikingly profitable relationship with government.

What’s in a name? In this case, plenty. Historically and ideologically, “non-governmental” in NGO means precisely that: not governmental, or distinct / different from government, and, even, critical of government (from Macapagal to Arroyo) for economic policies and development programs that over the decades have not brought the promised prosperity but instead have wrought widespread and worsening poverty along with environmental decay.

NGOs did not just crop up with the Aquino administration, as many columnists and the new breed of NGOs such as CODE-NGO seem to think. NGOs have been around since the martial law period when they were known as cause-oriented groups. Their leaders and members were mostly activists and oppositionists who, rather than collaborate with the dictator, went underground, but not to jointhe armed revolution and die for Joma Sison, rather, to do grassroots work, stepping in to deliver basic services where government was absent or to compensate for failed development programs, and help ease rising poverty in the countryside.

Unlike social workers of the fifties and sixties who were into dole-outs (that is, the immediate if short-term relief of food, water, clothing, and health needs of poor communities), cause-oriented groups of the seventies (who were either hippies or activists in the sixties) were into long-term goals – they did not want just to dole out fish, as a Chinese sage advised, they wanted to teach people how to fish – and they were guided by ecological principles, in step with the global movement for environmental protection.

Also, Filipino NGOs tried to get to the root of the problem of poverty. How can a country so rich in natural resources fail to feed, shelter, and nurture its people? Research by thinktanks revealed that the rising poverty (20 million “poorest of the poor” then, 40 million now) was / is the consequence of years, decades, of rampant logging and dynamite fishing, mining and quarrying – among other destructive commercial operations sanctioned by the government for the benefit of the local elite and multinational corporations – that continue to destroy our archipelago’s ecological systems and deprive increasing millions of kaingin farmers and fisherfolk and indigenous tribes of vital resources and life-support systems.

Do-gooders indeed, NGOs started out spending their own money (and later the money of like-minded donor friends and foundations) for the cause of the poor. Without thought of personal monetary gain, NGOs shelled out for consciousness-raising workshops, community organizing, networking, and livelihood projects meant to empower people in communities to become the stewards of their own environment and the engines of their own development. The peaceful revolution of 1986 which saw the ouster of the martial law government was a combined effort of these activists in “rainbow coalition” with leftists and Coryistas. At least this is what I gathered from the sidelines in1984 to 2001, as editor of the journals and papers of the late environmentalist and original NGO volunteer Maximo “Junie” Kalaw on NGOs and the movement for sustainable development.

With the ousting of the dictator in 1986 and the rise of environmental criteria in the public realm, NGOs multiplied even more rapidly, as did NGO funding from many international aid groups eager to help the fledgling Aquino administration. Unfortunately, much of the money came with strings attached. Too soon Kalaw was saying no to millions of dollars in U.S. aid. and being accused of blocking development.

The particular aid package had two components: $20 million for NGO environmental projects, and $75 million for government to create a National Resource Management Program that would more efficiently open up the forestry sector to more foreign investors. For Kalaw, going along with the two-handed scheme would have meant that Haribon Foundation (the first and largest environmental NGO) and Green-Forum Philippines (the largest umbrella organization of NGOs in the eighties), both of which he led, not only would be condoning government’s unsustainable development strategies; worse, it would mean changing identity from a purely non-government to a government organization (GO) or, at best, NGO ng GO, or NGONGO, how freaky.

The same conflicted situation obtains in the case of CODE-NGO’s Peace bonds. Certainly it was a remarkably creative capitalist coup, the way Marissa Camacho et al, using their connections, managed to exploit the government treasury and the banking system to make more than a billion pesos out of thin air for poverty alleviation. But there is nothing heroic or evolutionary about it because it changes nothing in the long-term. Bottom line is, it is just another two-handed scheme of the rich – helping the poor and, at the same time, shafting them by helping get government even more deeply into debt that eventually the poor will be made to pay. Fact is, the rich in this country, including the church, have long been mired in (as Kalaw put it) “the internal contradiction of donating to the poor with one hand and contributing to their poverty with the other.”

But had the intrepid Camacho spared government and fixed her sights instead on the ruling class (her own class) for funding – had she worked on the richest of the rich families, the oligarchy that pushes government around and controls the country’s resources – now THAT would have been really radical. And had she managed to convincethem, NGO-style (like, you know, consciousness-raising), that there is simply no two ways about it: one way or another, it’s time to share the wealth, if not by paying higher wages and investing in the domestic economy, at the very least by coughing up substantial sums to NGOs for poverty alleviation (also known as damage control), now THAT would have been awesome and she would deserve canonization – Santa Marissa, patron saint of NGO volunteers, heroine of the poor, mabuhay ka!

Unfortunately it’s not going to happen. Not while the civil society movement is disparaged and dismissed as “uncivil” and/or “evil” by Erap forces. And surely not until the NGOs that lead the civil society movement get their act together and get back not only on the non-government but on the non-profit non-elitist track.