Let us learn from Haiti and our own experiences in disaster relief, rehabilitation

By BENJIE OLIVEROS
Bulatlat Perspective

Three years after a strong earthquake hit Haiti, January 2010, there are still around 360,000 people living in tents that were provided as temporary shelters. People are asking: Where did the donations go?

There is much to learn from the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in Haiti. The government could also derive some initial lessons from its responses to Typhoon Pablo, which hit Mindanao just last year. There is no better time for the Aquino government to do this but now after it announced that it is already formulating a relief and rehabilitation plan for the immediate, medium and long term and will be releasing P39 billion ($906.9 million) for this. It also announced that relief efforts would start to taper off in January 2014 and much of the budget would be spent on rehabilitation and reconstruction.

In Haiti, by the end of 2011, only $2.38 billion of the $4.5 billion pledged to Haiti’s reconstruction had been disbursed; and an accurate accounting of the amount that was disbursed was problematic because “Haiti’s reconstruction, like almost everything else in that country, has been privatized, outsourced, or taken over by foreign NGOs.

The Haiti government was practically marginalized in the whole process.

Not only was an accurate accounting of the money disbursed and an assessment of the effects of the reconstruction efforts problematic, there was also no proactive planning because of so many actors involved in the process. Coordination of all efforts was taken over by the United Nations (UN), which is being blamed for the spread of cholera in Haiti. Cholera, which was already non-existent in Haiti then, was suspected to have been brought into the country by UN peacekeeping forces.

By January 2013, a total of $13.34 billion in international aid was pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction but only half has been disbursed. And according to reports, only a small amount was spent on reconstruction. The New York Times reported that “much of the so-called recovery aid was devoted to costly current programs, like highway building and HIV prevention, and to new projects far outside the disaster zone.” According to the same report, “Just a sliver of the total disbursement—$215 million—has been allocated to the most obvious and pressing need: safe, permanent housing.”

Not all of the assistance provided to Haiti were grants. After all, most, if not all, international aid are actually soft loans. One lending agency, which offered a loan to Haiti was the International Monetary Fund, through its extended credit facility. And this comes with conditions among which were raising electricity rates and a wage freeze. The very same neoliberal policies that kept Haiti poor, and burdened with huge debt payments, were used as a condition for more loans for reconstruction.

In the case of the Philippines, it appears that the Aquino government is drawing up a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction not only of areas hit by Typhoon Yolanda, but also those affected by the October 2013 Bohol earthquake, the December 2012 Typhoon Pablo and the December 2011 Typhoon Sendong. It has also launched a transparency website called Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAiTH) to enable the public to monitor the amount of foreign assistance pouring in for relief and rehabilitation efforts for Typhoon Yolanda and the government agencies where the donations would be coursed through. Perhaps, local governments in disaster hit areas, as well as private organizations that received a lot of donations, such as the major media networks, could follow suit.

However, the Aquino government is also wont to privatize and outsource the implementation of its projects, consistent with its neoliberal agenda. Thus, chances are, after the government agencies concerned release the money to private corporations – both local and foreign – which were awarded reconstruction contracts, accountabilities would be obscure and projects would be costly because these corporations are out to earn profits. And considering the number of government officials they have to bribe to be awarded the contracts and to have the budget released, projects would most likely be delayed and not up to standards. It could be remembered that the government has not yet effectively addressed the corruption scam involving pork barrel funds called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). Now it would handle another huge chunk of discretionary funds for disaster relief and rehabilitation.

In terms of housing, the National Housing Authority is reportedly consulting with the United Architects of the Philippines to come up with a design of houses that could withstand winds of 300 kph. The question is: How will the people, whose livelihoods have been wiped out, pay for these strong housing units. As it is, the country’s major cities, Tacloban included, already have big populations of informal settlers because of the majority’s inability to rent, much less buy, houses.

The United Nations is reportedly working with the Philippine government to generate round 200,000 jobs through a “cash for work” program to clear the mountains of garbage and debris in disaster-hit areas.

This is a good start but the effect in terms of employment is only temporary. Will the government also seek to rebuild the livelihood of the people or will it just focus on the destroyed infrastructures such as roads, bridges, and government buildings to “stimulate” the economy and wait for “trickle down” effect?

The government would most likely provide livelihood loans, but still, how could the people who, even before Yolanda struck, have been living on a “hand-to-mouth” existence and now have lost all their personal belongings pay for such loans?

Businessmen, especially the big ones, could simply write off what was destroyed as losses but the people who barely survived before Yolanda and now have lost whatever meager personal belongings they had would find it more difficult to survive, as there is nothing much to rebuild.

This is perhaps the main reason why 360,000 people in Haiti still live in tents. Even if there is no shortage in housing units, how could the poor pay for it? “A 2008 report from the Center for International Policy points out that in 2003, Haiti spent $57.4 million to service its debt, while total foreign assistance for education, health care and other services was a mere $39.21 million.” (Richard Kim, IMF to Haiti: Freeze Public Wages)

In the Philippines, how much of the planned budget for rehabilitation and reconstruction would be sourced from loans? What are the conditions?

Another point that the Aquino government should reconsider is its plan to taper off relief efforts beginning January 2014. People in Leyte, who reporters of Bulatlat talked with, estimate that it would take six months before they could begin earning again. Before that, they still need relief assistance. This is what happened with the victims of Typhoon Pablo: when the relief goods stopped arriving after a month or two, people began to experience hunger again. This situation motivated them to get organized to be able to negotiate for their needs with government agencies. But the Aquino government did not look at this in a positive light.

Cristina Morales Jose, a councilwoman of Binondo village, Baganga town in Davao Oriental, who was one of the leaders of the organization of survivors of Typhoon Pablo, was killed allegedly by elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Before Jose was killed, she led a camp out of the survivors at the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Davao to demand for relief assistance. According to human rights group Karapatan, immediately after the camp out, Jose and other typhoon victims were allegedly “harassed by the barangay captain and the military from the Army’s 67th Infantry Battalion.

There is also the issue regarding the increased presence of US troops in the country, and even Philippine troops in highly-populated areas for that matter. The killing of Jose is an example of why AFP troops should not be the main force in “relief operations.”

In Haiti, the Southern Command of the US Armed Forces formed Operation Unified Response when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti. After a week, the US already had around 17,000 troops, 17 ships, 48 helicopters and 12 fixed-wing aircraft conducting relief operations in Haiti, in addition to 43 other military units from other countries. All in all, the US sent 22,000 troops and the UN sent a peacekeeping force numbering around 10,500. And much like what they did in Tacloban, US troops took over the Port-au-Prince international airport. Time magazine called the US military’s relief effort as a “compassionate invasion.” “US commanders have repeatedly turned away flights bringing medical equipment and ­emergency supplies from organisations such as the World Food Programme and Médecins Sans Frontières, in order to give priority to landing troops,” wrote Seumas Milne in an article Haiti’s suffering is a result of calculated impoverishment, which was published by The Guardian January 20, 2010.

Unease over the presence of US troops grew, especially since the US supported the overthrow of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide twice. Aristide was forced into exile in 2004. Patrick Elie, former Defense Minister in the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was quoted as saying “We don’t need soldiers, there’s no war here.”

The same happened here during relief efforts after Typhoon Yolanda hit the country. The US reportedly sent 50 warships and aircraft to the country. And when it began scaling down its relief operations, it turned it over not to civilian government agencies but to the AFP.

Why is the US Armed Forces engaged in relief missions?

“The US military’s relief efforts in the storm-ravaged Philippines will save lives, but also illustrate how humanitarian operations promote Washington’s interests in the Asia-Pacific,” read an article Military’s aid operations help promote US interests, which was published by the Space Daily.

It added: “These are seen as a strategic tool, allowing the United States to exert ‘soft power’ through means usually tied to ‘hard power.’”

Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert Del Rosario reportedly said in a press conference, in the presence of a US Congress delegation, “What [we have seen] in Central Philippines as a result of this typhoon, and the assistance provided in terms of relief and rescue operation . . . demonstrates the need for this framework agreement that we are working out with the United States for increased rotational presence.” Officials of the US government and Armed Forces must be patting each other in the back after hearing the Aquino government’s foreign affairs secretary hard selling the increased presence of US troops in the country.

Add to this the arrival of the new US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, who served as Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research of the State Department and was kicked out as US envoy to Bolivia on charges of intervening in the country’s internal affairs by supporting Bolivian opposition parties, and the US would have all the elements for further intervening in the internal affairs of the Philippines and using the country as its launching pad in the Asia-Pacific region.

What should the people do?

As the Aquino government plans and implements its relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction program, the people should get organized to demand that the government prioritizes the needs of the people first, including the extension of relief efforts until such time that the people are able to survive without relief assistance; the provision of free housing and the generation of more stable jobs; to be more transparent in its dealings and to closely monitor and hold private contractors to account; and not to use the disaster as justification to allow the increase in presence of US troops in the country. In the long term, the people should demand that the Aquino government effectively addresses the main source of the people’s vulnerability to disasters: poverty. ()

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