Are donations to the relief and recovery of Yolanda victims in the Philippines all going to waste?

Back in 2009, a massive bushfire raged through much of the state of Victoria in Australia, killing 173 people following record high temperatures in the state. It was the highest peace time civilian death toll from a single disaster in Australian history. At the time, the state Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre (IECC) applied a “stay or go” policy of advising residents of areas found to be under threat of bushfire. This policy delegated the decision to either evacuate or stay and defend one’s home to individual households. The policy was founded on the empirical claim, researched by Dr Katherine Haynes of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, that concluded that survival was more likely for people to be actively fighting the fire at home than passively shelter or evacuate to be stuck on the roads.

The deadly fury of bushfires in Australia

The deadly fury of bushfires in Australia

In contrast, the state of California in the United States (also frequently ravaged by bushfires) applies a compulsory evacuation policy when foreseen disaster conditions are imminent. Robert Manne, Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and one of the survivors of the 2009 Victorian fire wrote shortly after that “the stay-or-go policy was unique to Australia.”

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The policy began with one of the clichés of the era of neo-liberalism: mutual obligation. Citizens did not passively accept government services. They formed a partnership with government, in this case in the common struggle against bushfires. For the citizens who decided to stay to defend their homes, there were very specific obligations. They needed to prepare their properties carefully, in particular to remove combustible vegetation and to have protective clothing, pumps and generators ready and handy. The people who were to stay and fight were told that in case of fire, houses offer fundamental protection. When the fire front hit, they should shelter from the radiant heat. As soon as the fire front passed, they should go outside to extinguish the embers. As one of Jack Rush’s associates, Rachel Doyle, pointed out, the policy was captured in a saying which had even appeared in official literature: “Houses protect people and people protect houses.” In some of the official literature it was even claimed that people were at least temporarily safe even in houses that were actually on fire.

A significant chunk of the death toll in in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) on the Philippines in 2013 was accounted for by people who also chose to ignore evacuation warnings and stay to defend their homes. Indeed, people most at risk in the event of natural disaster may benefit from stronger central government in the event of crises than be left to work out the best course of action for themselves. During big disasters of the magnitudes thus far described, national governments are usually the only entities that possess the resources to evaluate situations on a macro scale…

The Philippines’ disaster preparation and relief capacities are also hampered by political factors. It lacks a strong central government and provincial governors have virtual autonomy in dealing with local problems.

Contrast this with Vietnam, which sees about a dozen typhoons per year and is similarly poor and densely populated.

But in Vietnam a centralised, Communist Party-led government broadcasts clear messages that cannot be ignored by the provinces.

Fatal national politics: Philippine VP Jejomar Binay

Fatal national politics: Philippine VP Jejomar Binay

The idea that strong central government better mitigates national crises, however, is premised on said government being competent enough to step up to that leadership role. In the case of the Autralian government response following the 2009 bushfires, even relatively well-organised bureaucracies could fail whenever “black swan” disasters strike… “From the evidence collected at the royal commission, the cumbersome new bureaucratic machine, the IECC, seems to have operated like an army without a general, where no one thought it their responsibility to take the lead,” observed Manne. In the Philippines, CNN’s Anderson Cooper reporting from the ground in the early days after Yolanda left, observed that there was “no one in charge”.

A key difference between the Australian and Philippine cases lies in the scale of disaster risk. The victims of the 2009 bushfire in Victoria, Australia consisted mainly of a minority profile — small communities of Australians to whom living near or even within densely-forested areas is a lifestyle choice. In contrast, people who live along coastal areas that are at risk of flash flooding and storm surges comprise a significant part of the Philippines’ impoverished majority. Considering that the risk of death from a catastrophic disaster is more the rule than the exception in the Philippines, the role a strong government plays is vastly more critical there.

And yet, it has come to light, that even as vast sums of money and resources came pouring in to aid the relief effort, the astounding inefficiency of the Philippine bureaucracy was all but fatal so much so as to bring to serious question the recovery prospects of Tacloban City and other affected areas observes Kevin H.R. Villanueva, a university research scholar in international politics and human rights at the University of Leeds…

The money pledges and relief supplies of food and water worldwide have been heartening. And yet they were, until recently, stuck in Manila, or in the case of cash donations, much has prudently been held in banks until plans for reconstruction come to light. Driven by the images of despair and desperation, people have themselves made haste to come to the aid of the survivors of Yolanda.

The argument to be made here is that there has been no single point person to whom accountability for immediate relief and the eventual task of rebuilding has been bestowed. The Filipino people will survive because it is in their character to counter and rise above adversity. But if we are all to genuinely learn and understand the lessons of this disaster, the question must be given a future perfect thought: Who will be in charge, if Tacloban and its people are to rise from the rubble?

Columnist Amando Doronila warns that the only reason donor countries have been generous following the Yolanda disaster is “because the Philippine calamity was an extraordinary once in a lifetime event that required massive assistance to enable this country to recover from the havoc wrought on its economy by the typhoon and rescue its teeming poor from going deeper into poverty.” But wealthy countries have long been suffering from “donor fatigue” as evidence mounts that the absorptive capacity of many chronically-impoverished Third World countries are simply not up to scratch even when enjoying access to abundant development funds. Doronila writes further…

As international aid commitments flowed in, it was not clear how the government can handle these inputs and whether its bureaucratic machinery has the absorptive capacity to deliver these assets to the devastated regions, for which there are now bottlenecks blocking their speedy distribution.

All what we can hear about the capacity of the government to clear the choke points in the distribution system is an appeal from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for greater patience and public understanding amid persistent complaints about the slow provisions of relief to typhoon survivors

Relief items donated by civic groups and business organizations are bottled up in the DSWD for repacking for redistribution—a process in which the department has been allegedly relabeling the goods as a largesse from government.

The DSWD is reported to be embroiled with the Department of National Defense over who is in charge of relief distribution following the slow response of the military in providing immediate assistance in communications, and facilities and transport of basic relief goods and services.

Primitive logistics: Distribution of relief goods moves at a snail's pace.

Primitive logistics: Distribution of relief goods moves at a snail’s pace.

It is indeed a tragedy of monumental proportions that so much good intention all routinely go to waste in wretchedly imporverished nations like the Philippines. Indeed, we could emphasize “routinely” because wasted opportunity and resources forms pretty much the core plot of Philippine history. As I wrote in the past, The Philippines is one big SQUANDERED foreign investment.

America presided over Philippine history’s biggest and most intensive foreign investment sprees, one that lasted over most of the first half of the 20th Century. Over that period, the “free” world’s favourite system of government was established, as was a world-class public education system, deep water ports, the country’s “summer capital,” a vast naval and military air base, a long-distance train line, and a new national language that was well on its way to becoming the lingua franca of science and technology. Manila had a plan that stretched all the way out to the mosquito-infested swamps that were still to become “Metro Manila.” The city also had a really nice electric car system for public transport. It was, at the time, the jewel of the Pacific.

What America left the Philippines in 1946 is, collectively, the mother of all foreign investments.

Manila was, of course, bombed to smithereens during “Liberation.” But so was much of the industrial heartlands of Japan and Germany. Let’s not even go into much detail over what South Korea had to work with as recently as the 1950s. Or Vietnam, for that matter in the 1970s. Indeed, despite Manila flattened beyond recognition in 1945, the Philippines still reigned as the pin-up girl (often literally) of Western-style prosperity over much of the 1950s. For a while, it looked like Filipinos were running gracefully for the goal carrying in their arms the result of a brilliant forward pass. And then the renowned Filipino Condition set in. And the rest is history — Philippine history over the last 60 years, that is.

Given the Philippines’ extensive track record of failure to deliver some semblance of decent return on the world’s vast investments in its development, it becomes hard to remain optimistic about the recovery prospects of the areas destroyed by Yolanda. Already, there are questions as to what will happen to the tens of thousands of refugees being shipped to Metro Manila. Chances are, many of them will add to the vast squatter colonies that already infest the coastal areas and waterway banks of the teeming megalopolis, further taxing already meagre resources, further infuriating honest taxpayers, and further fattening the Philippines’ portfolio of disasters-waiting-to-happen.

Indeed, experts have recommended altogether abandoning any effort to rebuild Tacloban City unless a different approach can be found to rehabilitate the lives of its victims…

Many climate change and disaster preparedness experts say that rebuilding the 78-square-mile town of 220,000, where hundreds were killed by the storm, is a grave mistake.

Rebuilding “needs to be done urgently and differently for the Philippines,” Vinod Thomas, director general for independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank, told Quartz. “There is clearly a big lesson to be learned in not relocating in a highly vulnerable area,” he said. “Tacloban is like a poster child. You can’t imagine a more vulnerable area than Tacloban.”

As the eminent physicist Albert Einstein was said to have said:

A problem cannot be solved using the same thinking that created it.

[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the article “2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site. Photo of relief goods distribution courtesy]

35 Replies to “Are donations to the relief and recovery of Yolanda victims in the Philippines all going to waste?”

  1. Oh how I wished we didn’t gain independence from America right after WWII, we ought to have waited just enough to get back on our feet with proper urban planning and all..

    1. @Kermadec:

      You want the country to be another Puerto Rico? It is the Governor of a State, that runs the State. Not the U.S. Federal government. Puerto Rico has the same problems, inspite of being a Commonwealth of the U.S. I still believe the late Pres. Manuel Quezon was right; in getting our independence…it may be our Hell Hole now; but at least, it is our own Hell Hole…

      1. Don’t get me wrong, Hayden. I love to be in a free and independent country as much as you do. What I meant to say in my previous comment is that we should have been patient. Our nation was devastated after WWII, infrastructures damaged, no houses left for surviving residents and etc. We could have regained our status as the jewel of the Pacific with Americas help. Instead, our politicians (i.e. Pres ML Quezon) were too “hambogero/mayabang” thinking they could do a better job than the Americans. They were right, they were better…in screwing the nation!

  2. i believe we should forget temporarily the issues about the recent tragedies the Philippines had suffered because Pacman is back.

    1. Suuure, you just want us to forget how your president fucked up. Nope, not gonna happen.

      Just throw in the towel, you are finished.
      Nobody will believe you.

  3. nakaka hiya naman talaga..something has to be need to keep going on and going writing for changes to least i know its not only me feeling shameful of our failure..our government..

  4. Its always preferable to write and post stuff on the interwebs in the comfort of one’s home rather than actually doing something eh?

    1. I did my share of repacking, even if it was under the aegis of the ladrones we call the State. Would that satisfy you now, or would you rather we shut up entirely even if someone deserves to be called out on his/her mistakes?

    2. It all begins with talk, and for some it began with a pen. So don’t underestimate this site. I definitely do not.

      Oh, and I think this government regime, like many before it — sucks. These families who have made the government a business to enrich themselves and their cronies, bring nothing but shame and more shame to this once promising country.

  5. What is needed is co-ordination, concensus, planning, and creative solutions, all of which tend to be filipino weaknesses, and which, i suspect, will be replaced in reality by politicking, corruption, conflict, and an innate skill to turn an opportunity into a failure.

    It will be an everlasting black mark on pnoy aquino personally, and his kkk government if they fail to rehabilitate and rebuild, and having donated so much, the world will be maintaining a watching eye on progress, and will not be tolerant of excuses/victim mentality.

    Clearly it is being seen as a ‘ battleground’ for 2016, which in itself signifies the wrong approach for tye wrong reasons.
    It will end up being pnoy aquino and mar roxas’ waterloo.

    1. No point in listening to any news in the Philippines 9 out of 10 stories are just that stories. Sadly to say the folks down south will be living in tents for years.

      November 21st NEDA board approves P184 billion infra projects.

      LRT Line 1 South Extension Project. The P64.9-billion project involves extending existing LRT Line 1 by 11.7 kilometers to Bacoor, Cavite.

      November 25th Bidding for LRT-1 deferred anew to the end of June 2014

      In just 4 days they managed to change the plan yet again….

      All talk zero action.

  6. This article rings true. Nothing makes my blood boil more than a stupid bureaucracy and idiotic Filipino politicians.

    I persuaded my principals to place their donation on hold because of the stupid incompetence of the Philippine government’s aid and relief distribution program. We will look for groups that are working and close to the victims.

    Cannot depend on the Philipine government. It chooses to distribute dismay and frustration — only too well. So fucked up.

  7. I have personally witnessed much of the ‘assistance/aid’ given to the LGU’s not being ‘distributed’. and know for a FACT that the majority of it is NEVER given to those it was donated/intended for…it is sickening. I have told many people to NEVER donate anything to a charity sending money, or anything else, to the Philippines as nothing reaches the victims but seems to have no problem reaching the Local governments and State governments as well. THIEVES, sleazy as shit thieves.
    In 2011 CDO gave out srdines and water after receiving enough money to furnish houses for 10,000 people. 2,500 P1 Million peso dwellings could have easily been built and given to flood victims, but NO!!! Sardines and water were handed out and only when the ‘victims’ could prove they needed them.
    QUESTION: HOW THE FUCK DOES SOMEONE PROVE THEY NEED SARDINES AND WATER? sickening, Emano, that little creepy eyed scumbag!

  8. I think, Physicist, Albert Einstein, also stated: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, everytime.” Maybe, the leaders/politicians are insane. Or we are the ones insane, by electing them.
    Politics destroyed, and is destroying this country. The incompetents are elected as leaders. Like Show Biz personalities. People cannot distinguish, between , heroism in the movies . And heroism , in actual life.
    The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) states: ” Where there is no vision of a leader; the people suffer.”
    Our leaders had never have any vision for the country;for its people and for its goals. Leaders run into their own holes, when crisis occur. Or look who to blame. Or just remain passive, hoping the crisis will pass away…this was then; this is now…Ay Pobre Pilipinas!!!

    1. This is from the Christian Old Testament: “Where the leaders have no vision; the people perish.”…It seems God is very accurate in his words. I think they are the same verse. Perish and Suffer are the results of leaders without any vision, where to lead their people.

  9. The fact that, for the foreseeable future, the ONLY HOPE this country has for effective Disaster Preparedness and Relief is the installation of US Military Bases paints a clear picture of the Philippines condition. This (current) government is incapable of managing even the most minor of situations. Hell! They still refuse to acknowledge REAL International Weather Agency estimates of ACTUAL storm strength. 250kph wind speed? NO! More like 315kph. Your figures shoe 250kph because your equipment can’t measure anything above that limit… Fuck it! In times of disaster, just turn everything over to the US of A! That’s the only way shit will get done right!

  10. Benigno… I hope It is the wrong info. I got information that foreign aid including US goods are being exchanged for local goods. There seems to be hocus pocus thievery made by certain officials in the Aquino administration. Where are they channeling the foreign aid? Selling it in the open market?

    1. Someone who has friends in the Philippine Red Cross told me that those sorts of things happen even within the Philippine Red Cross itself. So nothing surprising there..

    2. An expat colleague of mine says the same thing happens when relief orgs try to work in India, Pakisan, Haiti and other third-world states.

      But if the worst is that the imported food is being exchanged for local food, at a pure 1:1 rate (and not the Napoles “steal everything” rate), then at least the people are still getting the food they need; just the local variety rather than imported.

    3. One thing I forgot to add: relief orgs DO sell donations. Not always because they left the goods in care of thieves, but rather because the agencies have to pay for their overhead (employee salaries, rent for facilities, etc.).

  11. Congratulations Philippines! We are headliners again on international media,DTI selling goods to survivors, relief which supposed to be free are now being sold. Well done Philippines! Praise the Government!

    1. Kenneth,

      Where did you get your information? I know the DTI is operating “Diskwento Caravans” in Leyte and Samar. The program sells basic commodities at discounted prices. It was designed to create a sense of normalcy in the area; an attempt to create a familiar commercial routine and provide access to basic commodities without being overly burdensome on the affected populace. This program has nothing to do with the government’s distribution of relief goods or any other relief effort. The products sold through this program — according to the DTI — were provided by Gardenia Bakeries Philippines Inc., Nutri-Asia, Nestle Philippines, Century Canning Corp. and San Miguel Pure Foods Co. Inc.

      You can question whether the implementation of the “Diskwento Caravans” is appropriate at this time. Personally, I don’t agree with the timing. I do not understand why the supplies sourced from those companies can’t be distributed as typhoon relief instead. The allegation that the government is “selling” relief goods, however, seems completely erroneous.

    2. Here is the DTI statement on the “Diskwento Caravans” that have been in place for a number of years as part of the Philippine government’s non-wage benefits program (read dole-out):

      It has been implemented by various agencies including the DOLE and Department of Education.

      Again, I question the propriety of rolling them out for Leyte and Samar at this time, but lets get the facts straight.

  12. Me and group of friends volunteered in Villamor airbase to assist Yolanda victims coming from Tacloban, Eastern Samar and Leyte. A lot of them arriving. Morning, noon, midnight, dawn. There were different task for many volunteers. We have to clap first as they approached. Will let survivors rest first then give them drinks then food as what was advised for us to do. Social workers will interview them, volunteer medical personnel give medical assistance, social workers/psychologist/psychology students give psychological assistance, finally lead them to disaster relief building (I didn’t find out where that was though) while those who have relatives or family in Metro or other close cities were escorted by volunteer drivers with their vehicles.

    Other noticeable stuffs:

    There’s only manila paper and coupon bonds on the walls written with signs and itineraries/tasks for volunteers. Then there’s like an ukay-ukay station full of donated clothes and other stuffs (the group also donated some clothes but it was redirected to DWSD hq, there’s a truck there loaded with used clothes as well as room full of unpacked used clothes reminding me not to donate clothes next time) then there were tents with cooks cooking and serving fresh foods, and a tent for donations in kind like canned goods, toiletries, rice and noodles. There are lots of boxes of goods and cooked foods keep on arriving, some from popular fast foods and restaurants. Since food keep on arriving, there were a lot of wasted food, spoiled foods including bread and foods in boxes and styros. Officer in charge even asked us to take home cooked foods also take home biscuits since there are boxes and boxes of foods and bottled drinks. Tents for medical volunteers. Tents of DSWD and PRC. I remember we were tasked to open packs of biscuit and divide its contents to survivors. We were thinking there are more than enough to give the whole pack to each one of them why distribute contents of one pack? Siguro baon lang, ngangatain on the way. Then some survivors were led to the Ukay-ukay station to pick clothes they will use. I was only told by my friend that survivors passed the “grocery” corner to pick up “supplies”. It kind of baffle us where are the packed goods from donations that we should be giving these people. I guess distributing that was a tasked relegated to other volunteers or they get it in other food relief stations. Then there were volunteer taking selfies. ‘Nuf said.

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