A How-to-Guide to Citizen Action for Accountability - the WATCH-North Cotabato Experience

By Abner Francisco

SUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS TO COMBAT CORRUPTION and build accountability demand an informed and collective community effort. The more different groups and interests can come together at the community level and the more there can be identification and agreement over common and key issues affecting us all – the more we ordinary people can impact and change local government for the better. While the role played by honest and upstanding members of Local Government Units are critical – by themselves they are never enough: while local media can be play a very powerful role, by itself it is not enough: And similarly, while NGO or religious pressure for greater accountability is very important, by themselves they are not enough – and finally, while government and constitutional checks and balances like the Commission on Audit and the Ombudsman’s Office are very important, by themselves they are never enough. Only when all these different interests and groups come together at the local level in an organised and focused way will we start to see real measurable change in terms of accountability and performance – this at least is the direct experience of WATCH North Cotabato these past few years. 

All previous attempts to set up community watchdog efforts to combat corruption failed because they failed to incorporate and engage these different sectors and groups. It is as the old saying goes: United we stand, divided we fall – and fail.

We have proven that the most reliable tipsters are actually people from the government. Aside from giving us the information and documents, they were the ones who told us how some illegal activities are done by whom.

Take the case of the illegal collection of arcabala (space rentals) in Kidapawan City. Two employees of the city government of Kidapawan are faced with an Illegal Exaction case after their colleagues reported to the media their alleged illegal collection of arcabala on stalls and spaces. After the media aired the issue, a sidewalk vendor came out and confirmed the issue. She did not only divulge the alleged illegal collection activities, she went on to file the case before the Office of the Ombudsman. The issue became an eye opener to the City Government. They reviewed their policies and instituted some reforms. Since then, only the City Treasurers Office is authorized to collect arcabala and the issuance of acknowledgement receipt was totally prohibited. After three months, the collected arcabala increased by 700 per cent. That is a simple show of collective citizen action working together to increase the level of public money available for spending on our community. All it required was information, understanding and teamwork: Different groups and people coming together for the interests of all.

The same thing happened in the case of an indigenous people’s village in the city. Icdang Village is inhabited by people who belong to the Manobo tribe. Theirs is also another case of a successful citizen-media engagement in pursuing accountability in the government office. They complained of an abandoned government project that was supposed to be completed in 40 calendar days. Six months have passed but there was no word on whether the contractor would still implement the 120 meter road concreting project.

They asked their village officials but did not get any assurance on whether the project would still be implemented. Every time they pass by the big project signage they were reminded that there was a fund intended for their road: They decided against giving up, closing their eyes: They refused to believe nothing could be done to change things.

Mrs. Rosenda Bagayan, an officer of the tribal women village association led the residents in their plan to demand the implementation of the project. She wrote a petition letter in the local dialect and had it signed by her neighbors. Mrs. Bagayan brought the petition letter to WATCH North Cotabato and we made sure the issue was aired on the local radio stations that very day. She told the listeners that should somebody file a case against the contractor the whole community would be willing to sign the complaint affidavit as well as testify in court.

WATCH North Cotabato wasted no time to investigate the identity of the project contractor and the data obtained from the website of the Philippine Contractors Accreditation Board (PCAB) is a big help. The contractor was identified as JJAL Construction Incorporated under the name of Antonio Quijano. Mr. Quijano told DXCA Charm Radio that the people need not worry as they paid the required Liquidated Damages. Liquidated Damages is a fine imposed upon contractors for the delayed implementation of government projects.

The group also investigated the issue by asking the City Treasurer if the contractor had paid the required Liquidated Damages and the reply said there was no payment made. The contractor was caught lying through his teeth. WATCH North Cotabato instructed the residents to report to the office of our volunteer lawyer for the preparation of the complaint affidavit. Little did we know that while we are about to prepare our complaint affidavit, the contractor immediately started the construction of the said project. They started working at 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon and finished it at 1:00 o’clock midnight. The contractors and the alleged sub-contractors were seen supervising the “midnight “construction activity”. Early in the morning the next day, the residents were shocked to see that the concreting of their road is already finished. They cannot seem to believe that what the contractor failed to implement in more than half a year was finished in just a matter of eight hours.

Upon seeing the hastily constructed road Mrs Bagayan commented “Murag magic kaya raman diay humanon sulod sa walo ka oras nganong gidelay pa man ni ug sobra unom ka bulan naperhuwisyo na kaayo mi” (Its like a magic, they were able to finished it in eight hours why was it delayed for six months. It has brought us so much inconvenience already.)

Seeing the names and faces of politicians in the government projects is a common sight. One government official justified this as a necessary thing to do as people might think they have not implemented any project if they will not put their names to the projects implemented during their term. In North Cotabato you can find them in the buildings, bridges, basketball courts, vehicles, business permits and other government projects. Despite the Memorandum Order from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) many government officials still cannot prevent themselves from taking credit for the projects funded from the people’s taxes.

Patients at New Cebu District Hospital in the town of President Roxas, a government owned hospital were shocked to see the face of North Cotabato Second District Congresswoman Nancy Catamco pasted on the bottles of dextrose. The photo with complete logo of the Office of the House of Representatives almost covers one side of the dextrose making it impossible to read the instructions and and al the texts written on it. Concerned citizens find it very improper and unethical for any politician to display their names and faces in the medical supplies such as dextrose, a very essential nutrient replenisher available in the hospitals.

“It’s a bad decision, if they used the printing cost of that sticker in buying more medical supplies we could have more medicines and more poor people could have benefitted from it” said Sister Lalyn Macahilo, of the Oblates of the Notre Dame (OND) an active member of WATCH North Cotabato said the decision.

When reached for comment Congresswoman Catamco said in a text message” I’ll check it, I have no idea about that and I don’t even have the instruction to do it”.

The issue became a hot item in local radio stations’ programs and the lady congresswoman was forced to order the immediate removal of her photo in the dextrose of the government hospital.

How to start a local accountability group – the experience of WATCH North Cotabato:

  1. Local media should be unified and take an active role in the crusade against corruption.
  2. Peoples organization, non-government organizations should be involved in the planning and discussion of issues
  3. It would be of great help if members are highly respected and credible personalities such as priests, nuns, teachers, lawyers.
  4. Maintain a reliable network of tipsters in the government offices
  5. Invite more volunteers especially lawyers, accountants, engineers, IT experts
  6. Support local whistleblowers
  7. Learn to draft judicial affidavits
  8. Intensify campaign to make people aware of the groups existence through radio interviews, spots, print ads ,placards and signages
  9. Maximize online sourcing of information especially the following websites: COA, DPWH, Ombudsman, PCAB and other government websites
  10. Study Anti Graft Practices Act and Procurement Act including its IRR
  11. Take note of all the unfinished projects and ask the treasurer’s office if Liquidated Damages are paid by the contractors