Philippines Relief Shipments Stranded By Politics

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[Global: Politics Of Relief]

Can politics trump the desire to rescue victims of a natural calamity?

Fifty large cardboard boxes packed with clothing, medical supplies and food sit in the Bayanihan Filipino Community Center in Woodside, Queens, here in New York City, ready to be shipped to areas in the Philippines most affected by the recent typhoon.

But for all the donors’ good intentions, the boxes are likely to remain there -- caught in a standoff between young Filipino activists and the government back home.

At issue is a Sept. 29 directive by Filipino president Gloria Arroyo that any aid or cash donations bound for the Philippines be taxed unless they are consigned specifically to the government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). The directive sent waves of protest throughout the Filipino community in New York and New Jersey with many arguing that the government is taking advantage of the recent tragedy.

Early last week, in a calculation fraught with risk, the Filipino Forum, a leading community group in Queens and Jersey City, voted to withhold shipment of the much-needed supplies until they could get a guarantee from the Philippines government that the goods will be distributed without recipient organizations paying a tax.

“The Filipino people already pay lots of taxes but with the corrupt officials in position, we don’t know where these taxes are going,” said Jonna Baldres, a volunteer at the Filipino Forum.  “When the time comes that the Filipinos need funds for services such as these disaster relief efforts, we can't find them anymore.”

Another Filipino Forum volunteer, 34-year-old Yancy Gandionco, claims the current government is known for corruption and said he and other activists were concerned the goods might not reach the neediest victims if the government is in charge of distribution.

The group and other affiliated organizations in the U.S. and the Philippines are considering ways to pressure the Arroyo government to drop the policy, including staging a protest at the Philippine Consulate on Fifth Avenue, said Jonna Baldres, a member of the Filipino Forum and the National Association for Filipino Concerns. 

When asked whether the organization would ignore the government directive and distribute the goods illegally, coordinator for the New Jersey Filipino Forum, Nick Cordero said: “I can’t really say, but if we have to, we have to.”

Tropical storm Ketsana, or Typhoon Ondoy, hit the Philippines on September 25, triggering the worst floods the disaster-prone nation has seen in more than 40 years. The typhoon flooded large parts of metropolitan Manila and was followed by a second storm, Typhoon Parma.

Close to 600 people have been confirmed dead and authorities claim stagnant floodwaters are spreading disease. Engineers and analysts have attributed the devastating impact of the floods to poor infrastructure and the lack of emergency planning. The U.N. estimates an additional $74 million will be needed to manage the disaster.

Advocacy organizations decry the financial restriction.

“There is no way people can afford taxes,” said Anneberyl Corotan, a spokesperson for the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns. “This is not the time to be political.”

Is the government now backing off, or is publicity generated by the controversy forcing officials to ramp up its public relations campaign? Yesterday, Deputy Consul at the Philippine Embassy in New York, Melita Maria-Thomoczek, said: “There are no taxes for donation goods as long as the proper documentation work is done.”

She added that the government required that the goods be inspected by the Department of Social Welfare and Development for health security. The “goods would be handed on to the partner organizations,” she said. The consulate had also reached out to the Filipino Forum, she said; the group denies that.

Jonna Baldres, the Forum volunteer, maintains that all donations that are not distributed through the government are indeed taxed.  She said a large box typically costs $60 to transport, and would cost $20 extra in sales tax. She also said the Philippines government was in some cases paying for the freight of goods distributed through the DSWD.

A spokesperson at Johnny Air Cargo, a Filipino air freight company in Woodside, Queens, said that large amounts of goods deemed “commercial” were taxed $25. Ref Cabangon, an employee at Johnny Air, didn’t know whether large donations distributed outside of government channels were being taxed.

As the controversy remains unresolved, 50 boxes with needed relief supplies sit in an office in Queens and another 100 sit in an office in New Jersey. One wonders how many shipments from Filipino communities around the world remain stranded by the diplomatic and political limbo.

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