MANILA: As millions of dollars pour in for more than four million left homeless by a typhoon in the central Philippines, authorities are grappling with a familiar problem: How to stop fraudulent claims and prevent greedy politicians taking advantage.
Typhoon Haiyan smashed through the country on Nov. 8, laying waste to just about everything in its path, and killing more than 4,000 people.
Nearly 13 billion pesos ($298 million) in cash and relief goods have so far been pledged by countries and donor groups to an overwhelmed government that was criticized for its slow response in the first few days after disaster struck.
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have committed a total of more than $1 billion in grants and emergency loans to support reconstruction and relief efforts.
Add to that the millions of pesos raised by the private sector, with Filipinos working across the globe gathering friends for fund-raising activities, and you have a lucrative target for scammers and unscrupulous public officials in one of the most corrupt countries in East Asia.
The Philippines comes in at 105 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, with the cleanest country, New Zealand, at number one.
“It is a big issue in the international aid community, especially insofar as international NGOs are concerned,” said Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, when asked about bogus aid agencies and scams.
Tricare, a health care programme providing insurance to US military personnel and retirees worldwide, had received claims for damaged homes from two million people from the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban when the population, before the storm struck, was only 220,000, said Andrea Colley-Lopez, a programme manager at International SOS Assistance Inc which provides support for groups including Tricare.
“The Philippines is always going to be the bane of our existence,” she said, adding medical service providers had also submitted fraudulent claims for damaged hospitals, complicating insurance groups’ responses to legitimate typhoon victims.
Philippine disaster officials this week warned donor agencies and the public about two individuals, including one using the surname of President Benigno Aquino, who have been soliciting aid for typhoon victims on behalf of the defense minister.
“We would like to warn the public to be vigilant and not fall to this modus operandi by unscrupulous individuals,” the Department of National Defense said in a statement.
A scandal over lawmakers’ misuse of “pork barrel” funds has become the biggest crisis of Aquino’s three-year rule, tainting his image as a corruption fighter and undermining his ability to push economic reforms.
This week, Manila launched an online portal called FAiTH to provide information on donations in answer to concerns that aid money might once again end up lining pockets of local officials.
“The (pork barrel) scam has put everyone on high alert,” said Vincent Lazatin, executive director at the Transparency and Accountability Network.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said fraud went hand in hand with natural disasters, as was the case with Tropical Storm Washi in 2011, Typhoon Bopha last year and an earthquake in central Bohol province last month.
“There are people who take advantage of the good heart of individuals, especially those who only want to give small amounts but are embarrassed to go to foundations,” she said.
“For me, every cent counts, so they should give to those organisations they know.”