Visayan Forum ‘betrayed’ by USAid case-A A +A
Saturday, September 15, 2012
CEBU CITY -- They helped work on ordinances to protect domestic workers in two cities of Metro Cebu. They also trained local lawyers to help them fight human trafficking.
Now, the Visayan Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI) has to save itself from allegations it has failed to account for P210 million in aid from the United States Government.
“We are shocked by the malicious attack to our reputation -- built for 20 years with sweat and tears. This is part of a demolition job that undermines our credibility and integrity as the leading NGO (non-government organization) fighting human trafficking in the Philippines,” the group’s founder, Ma. Cecilia Flores Oebanda, said in a press statement.
In the meantime, the Cebu Provincial Women’s Commission and a local chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) will keep working with VFFI.
Vic Abadesco, regional coordinator of the VFFI, downplayed the effect of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAid) lawsuit on the group’s projects in Cebu.
In an interview with Sun.Star Cebu, Abadesco said there are individuals “working out a grand evil plan” against the organization.
He said that VFFI programs in Cebu are funded mostly by the International Children’s Trust Fund and Anti-Slavery International, which are London-based agencies.
“Maliit lang ang USAid support sa Cebu (USAid’s support for projects in Cebu is minimal),” he said.
In Cebu, the VFFI focuses on protecting the rights of domestic workers. The group was instrumental in the passing of Kasambahay Ordinances in the cities of Lapu-Lapu and Cebu City.
Some 2,000 child domestic helpers in Cebu have benefited from their projects, Abadesco said.
The USAid complained against VFFI president and executive director Oebanda for allegedly failing to account for P210 million in aid and submitting fake receipts. She has denied the allegations and blamed a former bookkeeper.
According to the NBI, VFFI received P300 million from the USAid and that receipts for P41 million had been faked. The NBI raided the VFFI office in Quezon City and found boxes of allegedly falsified documents on August 31.
The NBI also gathered testimonies from a former bookkeeper of VFFI and an auditor hired by the USAid.
It recommended the prosecution of Oebanda in the Department of Justice, and the filing of charges against VFFI directors, finance officers, bookkeepers and other employees.
Abadesco said that the projects funded by USAid are still ongoing, so they cannot fully liquidate the funds yet.
Body of work
In a statement, Oebanda said: “We feel betrayed by the lack of due process.”
She said the final audit findings were not presented to them and they were not given an opportunity to explain their side.
Oebanda said the VFFI “will staunchly defend our integrity in court.” The VFFI has won international awards for its campaign against human trafficking.
She said that evaluations of their projects will contradict the accusations.
“The body of our work speaks for itself -- from lobbying of Batas Kasambahay and the ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention for Domestic Workers, to fighting trafficking syndicates in airports and ports, and rescuing victims from exploitation,” she said.
Oebanda urged the public not to prejudge the organization.
“Our conscience is clear. We have nothing to hide. Our commitment is solid! We will continue to stand our ground, provide services to victims and fight traffickers,” she said.
Rachel Marfil Angeles, one of the investigators, was quoted in an Associated Press report that the findings were backed by external auditors hired by USAid, which checked disbursements to the foundation from 2005 to 2011.
Established in 1991, the foundation had been considered the leading Philippine group in the fight against human trafficking.
It had also received financial support from international companies Starbucks and Microsoft.
Oebanda has also been tapped as an adviser to the Philippine Government as it seeks removal from an international watchlist of countries where human trafficking remains rampant.
The Cebu Provincial Women’s Commission (PWC) has no “money dealings” with VFFI, said Vice Governor Agnes Magpale, the PWC’s co-chairperson.
In a dyLA interview, she said the PWC will continue their partnership with the group, unless they are proven guilty of the accusation.
“They have an accreditation with the Province,” she said, adding the foundation deserves at least a chance to answer USAid’s charges.
While the commission has worked closely with VFFI, their arrangement did not include funding, Magpale said.
“Ang programa nila haum man sab sa programa namo (Their programs complement our programs),” she said, referring to the efforts against human trafficking.
The vice governor has also asked for the VFFI’s assistance when the PWC organized volunteer groups in the transport sector.
Magpale said she will check if there was an instance that VFFI used Cebu Province in the alleged irregularity.
Meanwhile, IBP-Cebu City chapter president Earl Bonachita said their partnership with the VFFI is not affected by the allegations.
“We will continue with our advocacy,” said Bonachita in a separate radio dyLA interview.
Bonchita said the IBP has an existing memorandum of agreement with VFFI to train lawyers for anti-human trafficking advocacy. About 10 lawyers from IBP-Cebu City chapter had already attended three trainings to prepare them to help victims, he said. The group shouldered the training expenses.
“It is important because not many lawyers are into the advocacy against human trafficking,” he said.
He said the USAid case is an “an internal thing” for VFFI and involves only its office in Manila.
“They are not using us,” said Bonachita. (With Oscar C. Pineda and Kevin A. Lagunda of Sun.Star Cebu/AP)
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 15, 2012.