Fri, 14 Feb 2003

Freeding program for kids hits snag

Neal H. Cruz, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asia News Network, Manila

Here is one more reason things never get done in the Philippines: A non-government organization (NGO) under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to feed thousands of malnourished schoolchildren in the Philippines with free milk. Everything is free. The milk is donated by the American dairy industry, with no strings attached. The Philippine government doesn't have to spend a single centavo.

The Department of Education is enthusiastic over the feeding program. Officials in Bicol, where the program will begin, are raring to go. Preparations and negotiations started way back in September 2002, but until now the program can't be implemented. The reason? One bureaucrat of the local National Dairy Authority (NDA) wants the NGO to buy the milk from the NDA.

But the NDA doesn't even have the milk. The feeding program requires at least 25,000 liters of milk a day. The NDA can produce only a fraction of that, and it is not even pasteurized. The NDA offered to supply the milk raw, straight from the farmers. Feeding children with unpasteurized milk is worse than not feeding them at all. You never know what bacteria is in the milk that can make the children sick. The NGO plans to feed 320,000 children daily for at least three years.

All government agencies associated with the project -- the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, etc. -- have already approved the feeding program. But this bureaucrat from the NDA wrote to all of them to block the program.

The NDA doesn't have the milk. And anyway, the NGO doesn't have any cash with which to buy any milk. The milk is being donated free by American dairy cooperatives. The NGO is paying the factory processing the milk and putting them in tetrapacks not with cash but with milk. The first batch of the milk, thousands and thousands of tetrapacks, are now in bodegas awaiting distribution to hungry children. But this one bureaucrat has succeeded in delaying the program for reasons only she knows.

The milk processing plant in Cavite has temporarily stopped processing and packing the milk. They might just rot in the warehouses. The NGO plans to lease another processing plant in Mindanao. But red tape, which President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, by the way, promised to cut, is still very long in the Philippines.

The USDA has similar programs in Indonesia, feeding 450,000 schoolchildren; in Vietnam, 320,000 children; and in Bangladesh, 210,000 children. It started the same program in Pakistan only last year. It has never encountered the red tape and obstructions that it is encountering in the Philippines.

The NGO has the funding for the program's first year here. This is the time to seek funding for the second and third years. But with the United States spending billions of dollars deploying its armed forces for the impending war in Iraq, funds for aid to Third World countries will naturally become scarce. If war actually breaks out, the United States will need more funds to rehabilitate Iraq, and still more to replenish its stock of armaments and military supplies.

What I'm driving at is that if the Philippine feeding program doesn't get going soon, the United States may just cut off funding for the program. Here in the urban areas, the effects of malnutrition on children may not be so alarming. But there in the countryside, it is. With children eating mostly tubers, which contain only starch and no protein, they don't grow. Some of them don't even have the strength to walk. Worse, their brains don't develop, and they grow up to become like bureaucrats in the NDA.

Here is deliverance for the impoverished children in the form of milk to be fed to them for free. But Some Filipino bureaucrats want to throw that chance away.

They built a "Police Community Center" under the flyover at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Tandang Sora in Quezon City. There are always policemen sitting inside the center. A police patrol car is usually parked on the street outside. At any given time, two or three of them are seated on plastic chairs outside, passing the time away. Yet only a few steps away, across the street, directly in their line of sight, traffic is chaotic. Jeepneys and buses block the intersection to load and unload passengers. Vehicles wanting to exit Tandang Sora and turn right on Commonwealth can't move and traffic stretches back for a kilometer or more.

There is a sign on the corner that says, "No Loading and Unloading." Another sign in Filipino tells commuters, Doon Po and Sakayan at Babaan, with an arrow pointing to the newly built waiting shed. But does anybody go to the waiting shed? Nobody. Commuters continue to wait for their ride at the corners, unmindful of the signs, and jeepneys and buses continue to load and unload there, blocking the intersection.

But does any policeman in the nearby Police Community Center bother to walk the few meters to tell the commuters to go to the waiting shed only a few steps away? And does any of them bother to arrest or even warn the drivers who violate the "No Loading/Unloading" sign? Of course not. They behave as though they don't see anything.

If these policemen can't do their duties, what are they there for? Why was the center constructed with the people's money in the first place? Why were the waiting sheds on both sides of Commonwealth built at all if nobody was going to use them? Why are we paying these policemen their salaries and allowances at all?