Q and A: An
interview with Donna Gasgonia
by Gina Mission
Woman of the hour: Presidential Assistant Donna
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 administrations top priorities.
However, early in Estradas 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 Estradas 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
Presidents 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
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 Peoples
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 Estradas
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 Presidents support in civil
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 years 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 whats your
role in it?
- On the NCIP, thats 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 dont
think that its 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. Were
happy with the results that theyre 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.
- Lets 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
- 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 whats the present status of NAPCs
- At the moment we already have 195 sectoral council
members which is in compliance with the IRR.
Thats 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
- 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 theres 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,
- 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 - thats why
its very important is, here is a body, a
cabinet level body, that interacts with civil society.
Its like an institutionalization of civil
society-GO partnership. Well have to see how this
will be realized but its there. We just have to
implement the vision of real partnership.
How transparent are the proceedings of NAPC? How
transparent was last Fridays 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
hours 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 days 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.
Dont you think that its such a waste for
NCIP to be there and yet it cannot do what its supposed to
- Its true. In fact thats 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 were
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
youre just starting and youre 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 thats 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,
"lets file cases against these
commissioners", we have to search for a group of
leaders who will fill in the gap. And its 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
Commissioner Saway was saying that the task force is
actually confusing the IPs. They dont 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, theyll still work with NCIP, except
that they wont get any scholarship funds because
were 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?
- Thats 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 whats happening now with the NCIP makes them vulnerable
to such recruitment activities.
- We will try to prevent that, in fact, thats 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,
whos connected with the Panagtagbo, a peoples
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
- 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
- Sulong is included in the DOJ investigation. If you want
to compare the amount of money involved in the
investigation, Sulongs would, I think, amount to
P11,000, another one for P3,000, another one I think for
P30,000. But he doesnt even exceed P50,000. I
cant remember, I really didnt go into the
- And yet people were zeroing in on him. On the other hand,
nobody would complain openly against Daoas, and yet on
record its 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 dont
say anything against a man whose official record shows
there is much more money missing. I dont 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,
theres 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 its
Daoas province, the Mt. Province. I think
theres 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 whos
there and as long as youre the PA, will get whats
- What I want is that the people in charge be the
recognized and the respected leaders - whether they be
Ramos or Estradas. They should be recognized
and respected by their own sectors. And in fact, they
should really have a track record that they dont
engage in milking the government.
- Because these people they serve are the poorest. The IPs
most especially are the most marginalized. People who
dont 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 anybodys pocket.
CyberDyaryo | 1999.04.29