Q and A: An interview with Donna Gasgonia
by Gina Mission

Woman of the hour: Presidential Assistant Donna Gasgonia

When Joseph Estrada won the presidency in May last year, many Filipinos pinned their hopes on his slogan, Erap para sa Mahirap, expecting him to make the alleviation of poverty one of his administration’s top priorities.

However, early in Estrada’s term, his flagship program for the reduction of poverty started to spring leaks. In February, CyberDyaryo reported on how the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), the coordinating and advisory body of Estrada’s poverty eradication program, was being "dismantled" by his administration.

Now, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) appears to be headed for a similar fate. This, despite the President’s assertion in his speech on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that he intends to "…Ensure the strict implementation of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, so that our 10 million tribal people as well as our Muslim brothers and sisters are assured of their rights to their ancestral lands and self-governance. Ancestral domain titles will be awarded to them covering 2.5 million hectares of their own land strictly delineated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources."

Described by some quarters as the "repository of the presidential pork," the NAPC has some P2.5 billion for Poverty Alleviation and P4.5 billion for a People’s Development Trust Fund to dispose of annually. The NCIP, on the other hand, has an annual budget of P371.9 million.

A key figure in both the NAPC and the NCIP controversies is Donna Gasgonia, 42, a lawyer who was executive director of the Foundation for Philippine Environment (FPE) prior to her appointment as Presidential Assistant. She was Estrada’s chief of staff when he was a member of the Senate, and, according to various sources, she was vital in organizing the coalition of NGOs that now makes up the President’s support in civil society.

You seem to be very "popular" in some quarters, especially the NAPC, NCIP, and the PCUP. Would you like to tell us why?

As Presidential Assistant for Poverty Eradication, I was also given the responsibility to coordinate with several councils and commissions, including the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor (PCUP), the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).
But these are not the only commissions and councils that I coordinate. I also coordinate the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development and the Coordinating Council of the Philippine Assistance Program (CCPAP) and such other councils and committees that may be created that would have an impact on poverty eradication. That is my major responsibility as Presidential Assistant (PA).

What does your work as PCUP chair involve?

As PCUP chair, I had to review the office basically, which included determining whether that commission should be abolished, retained or strengthened. If we feel, after a year’s study, that the commission is really not helping the poor, then we should be true to our commitment and recommend the abolition of the PCUP.

What about NAPC?

As PCUP chair, I am a member of the NAPC. After several months when things were not happening as they should, I was eventually given the vacant position of vice-chair of the government sector of the NAPC – work which I was already doing as PA. As PA, I would already work with Cabinet secretaries on matters that the President feels should have special attention, and NAPC was one of those.
The work is still the same - to coordinate offices of the NAPC. But in addition to that, I had to be responsible for the output. As PA, I was not responsible for the output of the council. I was there to remind them, to find out if I can assist them on things that they need. But now as NAPC chair, as PCUP chair, I am responsible for the output of both.

What has been happening to the NCIP and what’s your role in it?

On the NCIP, that’s again one of those commissions that I was coordinating early on, and unfortunately the commissioners there have graft and corruption charges against them and are being investigated by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The charges are related to the project funds of the former bodies, the Office of Northern Cultural Communities (ONCC) and the Office of Southern Cultural Communities (OSCC).
There were unliquidated cash advances so we decided that with the doubtful performance of these people who are there, the government should not release project funds. We are releasing operational funds - rents, salaries, but not projects funds because until they liquidate their cash advances that are supposedly for the projects that they were supposed to have implemented, we don’t think that it’s prudent at all to do so. In fact, it borders on gross negligence to continue releasing the funds to them.
However, we did not want the indigenous communities to suffer the consequences because definitely the result was that there were no projects for the IPs. And the DENR, which could have filled in the gap, had some difficulty because of the IPRA law, although this is being questioned in the Supreme Court.
With this legal problem, it was decided to create a presidential task force on ancestral domains. We’re happy with the results that they’re coming up with an inventory of all the CADC applications, CADC issuances, and the ancestral domains management plans. In fact, we will have a meeting with UNDP to determine whether project funds can already be released to those deserving communities that have submitted their requirements prior to the controversy at NCIP.

On poverty alleviation as the flagship program of the Estrada administration, some NGOs find it ironic that NAPC, the recognized vehicle for poverty reduction has been "dismantled", that legitimate NGOs are not represented, and that there has not been transparency in the selection of the NGOs who now sit in the Commission.

Let’s put everything in context. The Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute and the National Peace Conference are the same group, headed by Ms. Teresita Deles. She was very much involved during the Ramos administration, in fact, in setting up the Social Reform Agenda and also with the Presidential Commission to Fight Poverty (PCFP) headed by Maria Tagoco.
So she was working closely with Maria Tagoco of PCFP, she was closely working with Ernie Garilao, who was then the Secretary of Agrarian Reform, for the Social Reform Agenda. So when these two bodies were abolished (PCPF and SRA), it was the same people that were in the Ramos administration who worked for this law, RA 8425 (or the NAPC).
I feel they felt ownership of the law. In fact it is to their credit that the law was passed. It is but natural for them to expect that when the law is implemented, since they were the ones who started the PCFP and the SRA, and they even worked for the law – that they also should be the ones who will run the program that resulted from that law.

So what’s the present status of NAPC’s membership?

At the moment we already have 195 sectoral council members – which is in compliance with the IRR. That’s about 15 sectoral councils for 13 sectors. But we could not release the Lingap Funds – the poverty alleviation funds – until we convened the NAPC, which we did last week.

What transpired during the meeting?

In that meeting, the mechanics for targeting the beneficiaries were discussed, the departments were identified - who were in charge of what, tasking was done and we were given two months by the President to prove that we are able to assist already at least the first group of families that can be identified.

So it is not true that NAPC has been ‘crippled’.

It is not true. The same group, the GZO group, were also very close to the former secretariats of the three commissions: PCFP, SRA and the Presidential Council for Countryside Development. These three bodies were all political appointees and the secretariats of all the bodies were also all political appointees, basically.
They wanted all three secretariats to form the secretariat of NAPC. That will mean about 65 people. NAPC is composed of only 31 members. You would have a secretariat that is more than what is needed by the NAPC.
In fact, the proposal of this group was to create a NAPC secretariat that will put up offices in the regional level – and the long term plan, I think, is to put up offices even in the provincial level. But if you read the law, it says that the NAPC is just an oversight policy coordinating advisory body so when that proposal was reviewed, basically the cabinet secretaries involved agreed that is not what the law has envisioned.

Do you agree with the proposal?

The commission should have a small but very efficient secretariat because implementation will be done by the departments, not the NAPC. So there’s no need for NAPC to set up offices in the provinces and in the regions but instead, it should go through the appropriate departments. So the final secretariat was between 15-25; we reduced the number of people in the secretariat. That is probably how they interpret it - that we have crippled the NAPC. But we did not. Because we actually strengthened it in the sense that now the departments are the ones that choose the number of secretariat so that we can concentrate on just coordination, monitoring, oversight.

Not implementation?

Implementation definitely is done by the departments. We are actually dependent on the departments for implementation. These, as I said, actually strengthened the NAPC because now there is very close coordination among the department secretaries and they met for the first time the private sector. The nice thing about the NAPC or the uniqueness of the NAPC - that’s why it’s very important – is, here is a body, a cabinet level body, that interacts with civil society. It’s like an institutionalization of civil society-GO partnership. We’ll have to see how this will be realized but it’s there. We just have to implement the vision of real partnership.

How transparent are the proceedings of NAPC? How transparent was last Friday’s meeting?

Since it was internal, media people were not allowed to witness the meeting itself but all the members of NAPC got copies of all the documents that were passed around. There were discussions, although as you know, an hour’s meeting does not discuss details. What happened was, the day before the NAPC meeting, the private sector representatives met the technical people of government where they threshed out all the issues and prepared for the next day’s meeting.

Will copies of the proceedings be made available to whoever requests it?

There will be minutes which will reflect the major highlights of the meeting but all documents are actually available at the NAPC secretariat.

How long do you expect for the administrative proceedings against the NCIP commissioners to last?

We had hoped that by the end of February, the DOJ would have made a final decision on the investigation. The latest that we have is that Secretary Cuevas is already reviewing the recommendation of the technical people and if he signs that. then we will know exactly whether charges should be filed against these commissioners before the Ombudsman, or if there is really no basis for the graft and corruption charges.

Don’t you think that it’s such a waste for NCIP to be there and yet it cannot do what it’s supposed to do?

It’s true. In fact that’s why we keep on insisting that they set up the consultative body. The reason is this: The former employees, according to our interpretation, are on hold-over capacity but Daoas did not recognize that. What he did was to immediately appoint his own people to the regional offices and even created new offices which are not even mentioned in the IPRA law. He created offices and according to him, he consulted with the other commissioners. But we’re saying that even the commission en banc cannot create new offices.

Daoas did something not allowed by law?

The law says ‘as they may see fit’ but you’re just starting and you’re already creating an office that is not even in the law. So we supposed that there was really some kind of intramurals in that sense and that’s why we had to create the presidential task force because we could not wait for the NCIP to correct all its mistakes. They refused to recognize that there are mistakes.

Critics are saying that the task force is a preparation for the eventual dissolution of the present NCIP.

Well, there are two scenarios. If the DOJ says that the charges are baseless, then we will be working with NCIP. What happens is that the task force turns over all these CADCs to NCIP and then we will expect them to tell us which one should be implemented and then they will be given full authority to run the commission.
The other scenario is when the DOJ tells us, "let’s file cases against these commissioners", we have to search for a group of leaders who will fill in the gap. And it’s true, these people at the task force, we have tailored them in such a way that they represent the ethnographic regions of the commissioners. The reason for that is because we are implementing IPRA. Every move that we make is still based on IPRA.
It is true that these people will be in contention for the positions if indeed these positions are declared vacant.

Commissioner Saway was saying that the task force is actually confusing the IPs. They don’t know whom to follow, the task force or the NCIP commissioners.

If they want their CADCs acted upon, they should work with the task force. But if they are asking for say, a scholarship, they’ll still work with NCIP, except that they won’t get any scholarship funds because we’re not releasing project funds. The task force cannot handle anything but the ancestral domains.

If the task force is supposed to "fill in the gap" as you said, why is it only tasked to handle ancestral domains? Why not require them to work on the other responsibilities of the NCIP commissioners?

That’s the major issue. We think that there is one issue that cannot wait, in so far as the IPs are concerned, and that is the ancestral domains issue. Therefore, never mind the scholarships, never mind the other concerns of the NCIP. In relation to ancestral domains, immediately, projects should go to the people and if we can do that through a different body but still with NCIP, then we will do that.

There have been reports that NPA is recruiting the IPs and what’s happening now with the NCIP makes them vulnerable to such recruitment activities.

We will try to prevent that, in fact, that’s why we created the task force. We look at the track record of NGOs who are helping us in the task force and we are confident that they will help us in the grassroots. We have one person in the task force who represents an NGO, who’s connected with the Panagtagbo, a people’s organization based in Davao.
The others also have their own NGOs and in fact have a network of NGOs behind them. That is how this task force is working, except that we have limited their work to just ancestral domains and the inventory.

Commissioner Mai Tuan said that IPs from his community are getting impatient over this internal squabble at the NCIP. Based on the experience of the task force when its members go to the communities, how are the IPs treating this factionalism?

Well of course there is some division among IPs because these commissioners have also their own followers.

Critics say that the commissioners are just victims of political harassment.

If they do not have any legal liability, then they should not have a problem.

In one of the consultations, you were quoted to have asked those present why people are complaining against Sulong only.

Sulong is included in the DOJ investigation. If you want to compare the amount of money involved in the investigation, Sulong’s would, I think, amount to P11,000, another one for P3,000, another one I think for P30,000. But he doesn’t even exceed P50,000. I can’t remember, I really didn’t go into the details.
And yet people were zeroing in on him. On the other hand, nobody would complain openly against Daoas, and yet on record it’s already there in the COA report that he has unliquidated cash advances.
You question a man who may be guilty of withholding a relatively small amount of money and yet you don’t say anything against a man whose official record shows there is much more money missing. I don’t think I got an answer, but what I remember is that after that meeting, I did receive confidential reports, this time giving me the details of the irregularities committed by chairman Daoas and those papers I forwarded to the DOJ.

People at the NCIP are saying that they were "martial-lawed" by you on September 21, 1998 with Memorandum Order 21.

In the sense that we stopped the release of funds, yes. Why? Because when we released funds to them, immediately the report is that there will be a consultation and P1 million is needed per consultation and we found that to be standard operating procedure for them.
In fact, we did have a workshop sponsored by this office and it cost us a little over P100,000, and we got a very good showing nationwide, and it was I think a two-day workshop. Now here they are they give us a report of the consultation where they spent millions of pesos, for what? So we said, why are expenditures this way?
Another thing is that internally, administratively, there’s something wrong and we cannot allow the use of public funds for questionable activities. For example, look at their scholarship funds. The scholarships for ONCC, for example, is something like P70 million; P45 million goes to only one province and it’s Daoas’ province, the Mt. Province. I think there’s something irregular already.

What can the IPs as well as the NAPC expect from the Estrada administration under your direction?

We are focusing on the CADCs that are ready for implementation. We think we have enough funds to at least start implementation. So immediately we are doing that. And we are definitely dependent on NGOs. NCIP will be there. We hope they can really set up according to law so that we will not have a problem.
In NAPC, on the other hand, we are focusing on the poorest families already. In fact, we have to implement where we can implement so long as the criteria are met.

Can you guarantee that the people, no matter who’s there and as long as you’re the PA, will get what’s legally theirs?

What I want is that the people in charge be the recognized and the respected leaders - whether they be Ramos’ or Estrada’s. They should be recognized and respected by their own sectors. And in fact, they should really have a track record that they don’t engage in milking the government.
Because these people they serve are the poorest. The IPs most especially are the most marginalized. People who don’t have the conscience, even use government funds for their own interest instead of the real beneficiaries getting what they are supposed to be given. That is what we are after, that we should get government service, government funds, to the correct people, instead of these ending up in just anybody’s pocket.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.04.29