POSTSCRIPT / December 4, 2001 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bias vs absentee voting more political than legal

NEW YORK — Judging from the feedback we’ve been getting from Filipinos in America, it seems that our compatriots abroad must first get their act together before they hanker for a chance to vote in elections back home.

While FilAm organizations are actively lobbying for the passage of Philippine law enabling them to vote, there is scattered objection from Pinoys who keep whining that the endeavor is too complicated, very costly and susceptible to cheating.

It seems that there are still some Filipinos abroad who don’t take suffrage seriously or don’t have faith in their own capacity to participate in absentee voting, in clean and honest elections in the home country, as mandated by our Constitution.

This is lamentable considering that overseas Filipinos are crucial in the shoring up of our economy, and that more than 40 diverse countries, some of them similarly situated as the Philippines, have some form of absentee voting for their citizens abroad.

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ENABLING LAW NEEDED: There are measures being debated in the Senate and the House of Representatives to enfranchise possibly two million quality Filipinos abroad and give them a chance to vote starting with the 2004 presidential polls.

Although the 14-year-old Constitution provides for “absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad,” the provision (Section 2, Article V) requires an enabling law to make it happen. Among other qualifications, the right to vote rests on two pivotal points: citizenship and residence.

On citizenship: Since only citizens who have all the qualifications and none of the disqualifications may vote, the big question is if Filipinos who have been naturalized citizens of their host country can still be considered by law as also Filipino citizens with the right to vote.

On residence: Can Filipinos who have gained permanent residence status in other countries be deemed by law to fulfill the requirement for voters to have resided for one year in the Philippines and six months in the community where they will cast their ballot?

These problems are not insurmountable. Without violating the spirit of the charter, legislation can clear the way for millions of Filipinos residing abroad, including those who may have become citizens of the country where they live.

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IT’S MORE POLITICAL: The obstacles are more political than legal. We can trust our brilliant lawyers in Congress to find ways to part the legal Red Sea for our compatriots abroad. It’s the political debris on that seabed that could stop the marching in of absentee voters.

Many an election has been lost on a few thousand, even a hundred, votes. With some two million voters across the seas waiting to be swayed one way or the other, they may just be the tidal wave spelling victory for whoever captures them.

When enabling legislation is passed, expect more of our politicos to visit and connect to Filipino communities abroad. Among them are President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Cabinet members, senators and congressmen who can find excuses for official travel.

In Congress, expect the approval of those who believe they have access to this rich foreign-based vote, and the disapproval of those who fear they will lose out in the courtship of those voters. Also expect the political opposition to balk if they sense that the Arroyo administration will gain by it.

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BIG VOTING BLOC: There are an estimated three million Pinoys in America alone, but a report from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas last October gives the stock estimate of Filipino immigrants in the US at 1.8 million — comprising some 70 percent of all Filipino emigrants worldwide.

Canada, a far second, has 277,000 or 11 percent, and Australia is third with 202,000 or 8 percent. But in terms of registered overseas workers, the US is only the eighth largest employer, with 59,767 listed. The largest e employer is Saudi Arabia (829,3000 or 27.73 percent), with Hong Kong a far second (148,844 or 4.98 percent).

Pinoys in America are settled mostly in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Texas, Florida, Virginia and Nevada.

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NIPA GIVES SIDE: We’ve just received, meanwhile, the reaction of the chairman and the president of the NGOs for Integrated Protected Areas Inc. (NIPA) to our Postscript last Sunday quoting observations of reader Jenna Lopez on alleged mishandling by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and some NGOs of a $20-million “biodiversity conservation grant” of the World Bank.

In an email, NIPA chairman Ma. Rebecca N. Tanada and president Domingo Egon Q. Cayosa said:

“An electronic smear attack has been launched by malicious and vicious persons against the NGOs for Integrated Protected Areas Inc. (NIPA), Philippine civil society, DENR Secretary Heherson Alvarez and the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project (CPPAP) through a white paper entitled ‘Civil society and the $20 million biodiversity grant: A matter of sleaze, hypocrisy, collusion and ineptitude’.

“We set the records straight. The white paper is darkened with black propaganda and colored with half-truths and outright lies. The rehashed issues and accusations with respect to CPPAP and NIPA have been refuted or clarified in a number of fora and official project documents. NIPA stands by all its actions and decisions in managing CPPAP as a pioneering world experiment in government-civil society-international community partnership in biodiversity conservation.

“We remain accountable to our partners and the people that we serve. The concrete achievements of CPPAP, recognized by no less than the Scientific Technical Assessment Panel (STAP) of the Global Environment Facility, and the positive evaluation by an independent, scientific, and in-depth impact assessment of CPPAP vindicate us.

“Secretary Alvarez is not directly involved in the management of CPPAP and the project was on its sixth year when he became DENR secretary. It is to his credit, however, that he took decisive action on long pending and much needed DENR deliverables for CPPAP. Moreover, he has opened the DENR bureaucracy to healthy interaction with civil society and there are now promising and path-breaking GOP-NGO partnerships towards more effective and efficient conservation of our natural heritage.

“It is unfortunate that cowards and incompetents, who are being threatened by new approaches in governance, collude with unscrupulous persons and vested interest groups for their selfish and destructive ends.”

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JUST A SMALL PICTURE: Lopez said her report was based on various papers, among them the aide memoire dated Sept. 12, 2001, of World Bank official Richard Anson to Alvarez and Cayosa. Anson is senior rural development specialist and task team leader of the bank’s rural development and natural resources sector unit for East Asia and the Pacific.

Other materials and facts, she said, were provided by employees of the CPPAP, host NGOs, the Protected Area and Wildlife Bureau and “other decent DENR employees sick of the sleaze from some members of Civil Society in NIPA.”

Lopez adds: “This is also a small picture since we are only referring to the most recent World Bank aide memoire. From February 1996 to June 2001, there have been 11 aide memoires. Except for this year’s aide memoire, the previous ones have not been disclosed. So we don’t know the extent of NIPA’s sleaze since 1996.”

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WORLD BANK MEMOS: From 1996 to the present, Lopez continued, various WB aide memoires have had NIPA’s project management characterized by “high turnover of technical assistants,” “cumbersome process of reviewing and approving livelihood proposals,” “confusion over rehabilitation and loan Livelihood Fund projects,” “weak monitoring and evaluation system for POs with livelihood projects,” etc.

In its letter and a statement of objectives to Alvarez and Cayosa dated May 8, 2001, the World Bank, through Anson, pointed out that: “…the Project was already rated ‘at risk’ by the Bank’s portfolio management system (based on standard indicators, used globally.’”

To show to Alvarez and Cayosa the impact of an unsatisfactory rating, the World Bank said “The standard practice for Project’s rated unsatisfactory is that they need to be restructured, if clear progress is not materializing. Accordingly, the mission will assess the realistic need for further Project restructuring within the remaining Project period, especially involving: (a) the existing institutional arrangements between and among NIPA, HNGOs, and the DENR/PAWB, and the DENR field offices; and (b) the review and further streamlining of approval processes for the livelihood component.”

With due respect to Alvarez and NIPA, we think the report of Lopez on personalities and entities involved in World Bank environmental projects is too extensive and detailed to be dismissed in general terms and a resort to name-calling.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 4, 2001)

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