By ELLEN TORDESILLAS
THE Bureau of Customs sought Friday to allay public distrust arising from the directive of President Gloria Arroyo to course all foreign donations through the Department of Social Welfare and Development by setting up a multi-agency one-stop shop system at all its offices, including at the airports, to facilitate the release and delivery of goods for victims of Storm “Ondoy.”
“It’s our initiative to prevent unscrupulous persons to take advantage of the crisis situation. This is a safety net mechanism. This is also to prevent smuggling,” Customs Commissioner Napoleon Morales said.
He said the one-stop shop system will rationalize the distribution of donations to ensure these get to as many victims as possible.
Morales said the one-stop shop desk will be composed of representatives of the DSWD, National Disaster Coordinating Council, Presidential Management Staff, Department of Finance, Department of Health, Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Bureau of Food and Drugs, among others.
Arroyo ordered on Sept. 29 that only foreign donations coursed through DSWD will be tax-free. “Hindi sisingilan ng buwis o kukumpiskahan ng Bureau of Customs ang mga donasyon ng pagkain at kagamitan mula sa ibang bayan, basta’t ito ay naka-assign sa DSWD,” she said in her order.
This created some confusion because the country’s Tariff and Customs Code allows nonprofit, welfare, religious and charitable organizations registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission and duly licensed or accredited to receive duty-free donations.
Morales belied reports that foreign donations for “Ondoy” victims not consigned though DSWD are being held at the Customs. He said what his office has received so far was a planeload of donations from the U.S. government consigned to the Philippine National Red Cross and released Friday morning.
He said he has been informed of planeloads of donations coming from Taiwan and Italy. The Australian government, he said, will also be donating rubber boats to the Philippine Coast Guard.
“As of now, there has been no arrival of donations from foreign NGOs yet,” he said.
The DOF earlier lifted the imposition of duties on used clothes intended for victims of “Ondoy.” Morales said, however, the release of the goods must be coursed through the DSWD.
Fr. Benjamin E. Alforque, president of the U.S.-based National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, said, “Taxing on donations that do not go through the DSWD is only a manifestation of further exploitation of Filipinos overseas by the Philippine government, which takes pride in its ‘Bagong Bayani,’ but is actually doing otherwise. This move can only lead to our Kababayans getting discouraged in sending much needed help to the motherland, whose only concern is to extend aid to their own families and to other distressed fellow Filipinos during these trying times.”
“These steps being taken by Arroyo to control the outpour of support to the Philippines is a display of arrogance, making her administration look good and undermining efforts of people’s organizations whose relief efforts are made possible even without help from her government,” he said.
Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, chair of the Senate ways and means committee, is concerned that the DSWD would not be able to handle the outpouring of donations from Filipino groups abroad and would just delay the assistance.
Escudero also said many Filipinos abroad distrust the government and do not want to entrust their donations through its agencies.
Sen. Alan Cayetano said, “At this point in time, we need all the help we can get. And although the DSWD is one of the most trusted departments, some would simply rather donate directly through their partner organizations.”
Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, president of the United Opposition, urged national government agencies to exercise flexibility in processing donations for calamity victims.
“It is indeed a sad commentary when most overseas Filipinos would rather donate to private charitable groups than to the national government. But this is not the time for the national government to be sensitive or to assert itself, but rather to show flexibility,” he said.
The Makati mayor supports a move to exempt calamity donations addressed to private entities from donor’s tax. He said it sends a wrong signal when the national government is seen as profiting from a calamity by collecting taxes on donation for calamity victims.