June 06, 2019
ALTHOUGH there were good intentions behind it, the diversion of P5 million in funds from the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) meant for the rehabilitation of war-torn Marawi City to the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) to finance the Hajj for displaced citizens was irregular and the officials involved must be made to account.
The chief of the government’s “Bangon Marawi” rehabilitation program, Eduardo del Rosario, has argued that the funds were used for a “social healing process in the overall rehabilitation of Marawi,” which was virtually destroyed in five months of fighting between the ISIS-affiliated Maute group and the Philippine armed forces in 2017.
Del Rosario stressed that the funds were fairly used for the purpose intended by the NCMF, with a public raffle being held to determine which people living in the evacuation centers or transitional shelters would have their Hajj expenses and requirements covered by the funds.
That was a compassionate act but completely beside the point.
The Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are obliged to undertake at least once in their lifetimes, if they are capable of doing so, is a solemn, sacred duty and a deeply moving experience for any Muslim. We cannot at all disagree with the Bangon Marawi chairman’s view that for someone who has lost his home and livelihood in a war, being able to participate in such an important rite of one’s faith must, indeed, be a form of social healing. And if the process to choose which displaced Muslim residents of Marawi would be lucky enough to have the considerable costs of their travel, lodging and visa requirements for the month-long trip paid by the NCMF was as fairly conducted as del Rosario has said it was, we can appreciate that as well.
Nevertheless, it should not have been done by involving a diversion of funds, for two very good reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that the transfer of funds was not among the authorized expenses specified in a memorandum of agreement — which was, in turn, based on the provisions of a presidential decree and the 2018 General Appropriations Act — between the Office of the President and the HUDCC. That agreement is a legal and binding framework that defines the authority and responsibilities of the HUDCC’s role in the rehabilitation process. Allowing the agency to write its own rules sets a bad precedent for any similar future programs.
Second, facilitating the participation in the Hajj for displaced citizens, although a very compassionate and undoubtedly spiritually and emotionally beneficial thing to do, falls beyond the scope of the publicly funded rehabilitation program for Marawi. One of the important objectives of a rehabilitation program for a population and an area that has been struck by a calamity is to return those people to a healthy, productive state as soon as possible. That means ensuring that they have safe shelter, access to workplaces, schools and essential services such as health facilities, and can pursue their own livelihoods.
Until those things are provided, which is the responsibility of the state, those needs represent a burden on taxpayers. It is a burden every taxpayer cheerfully bears, because every taxpayer may someday need the same assistance. Acceptance, however, is limited by necessity. Many would argue that the policy of the government puts priority on providing adequate housing for the refugees; it did not authorize funding for a religious pilgrimage.
It should be made clear to the officials who authorized the trips that diverting the funds for an unauthorized purpose was a mistake, and must be corrected.
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