If the destruction wrought by typhoon Yolanda had a positive side, it was the opportunity it offered to rebuild the shattered communities of the Visayas into habitats that would not only provide poorer residents adequate shelter but also protect them from the calamities that regularly strike these islands. A reconstruction program driven by an imaginative social policy could have been the basis for making that opportunity a reality.
Instead, what is emerging is a total lack of either imagination or vision that’s once again providing the usual crooks in government and the private sector opportunities for unlawful gain at the expense of the victims of Yolanda and the whole nation. One of the most telling indicators of the sheer incapacity of the so-called leaders of this country to think out of their accustomed boxes is the decision to build bunkhouses.
Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson says these temporary living quarters meant for those who lost their homes to typhoon Yolanda that are being built by private contractors for the government are not overpriced. He admits, however, that they don’t meet international standards and that some of the contractors may have not followed government specifications — in which case, he emphasizes, they won’t be paid.
But that’s hardly the point. Whether these bunkhouses meet international standards, and whether their builders did not follow government specifications, have a bearing on their price. The cost of the structures was premised on the contractors’ meeting both government specifications as well as the standards set by international rehabilitation and habitat experts.
The claim that the overpricing of the bunkhouses, of which the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has been implicated together with local politicians, is based on the contrast between contract specifications and the way the structures have turned out. It isn’t so much whether the contractors have been paid that’s at issue, but whether the structures are worth the contracted cost — which the contractors would have likely been paid had there been no complaints about the shoddy quality of what they had built.
Both local as well as international experts have described the bunkhouse units constructed earlier as too small, among other flaws. Each unit had an area of 8.64 square meters into which a Filipino family was expected to cram themselves. The average size of a Filipino family being six persons (parents plus four children), it should be obvious that fitting into units hardly bigger than a shower stall would be next to physically impossible.
In addition to the sheer physical limits families of six or even more would have had to cope with, living in such cramped quarters without any segregation of the sexes and no physical barriers between adults and children would also have exposed young girls to abuse by a predatory parent. The Department of Social Welfare is well aware of the dangers to young girls posed by the overcrowding characteristic of substandard dwellings, many of which are far more spacious than the 8.64 square meters earlier allotted to each family.
Although the DPWH has announced that each bunkhouse unit will now be double the size of what had earlier been allotted (they will now be 17.28 square meters), it still doesn’t address the potential perils young girls would be exposed to when they’re forced to sleep in such close proximity to adult males and male siblings.
The construction of bunkhouses, despite Secretary Singson’s pious assertion that their contractors are practically donating the structures to the victims of Yolanda, has thus become another door of opportunity for graft and self-aggrandizement by the usual suspects in the public and private sectors.
It is also of doubtful value as social policy. Once those who can’t rebuild their homes are relocated in these bunkhouses, communities could develop that would be no different from the very same informal settler settlements that are the most seriously affected by the natural calamities to which poorer Filipinos are especially susceptible.
No time limit has been fixed for the occupancy of these bunkhouses, but even with the assumption that they will indeed be temporary habitations, will they be demolished afterwards despite what they cost? And would that not be another instance of wasting the resources the government has never tired of saying are both scarce and limited?
But what is of even greater moment beyond the issues the construction of bunkhouses has raised are even more basic questions. The program squanders the opportunity to construct in the devastated areas of the Visayas livable habitats and communities worthy of human beings, and in fact assumes that because of need, the planned beneficiaries, after living in tents for months, will accept any alternative no matter how cramped or dangerous.
Rather than implementing a program that’s the equivalent of applying a band aid to cure cancer, some sectors have suggested that the Aquino administration seize the opportunity offered by the need for the reconstruction of the areas razed by Yolanda to build not only permanent housing structures but also entire communities.
But to make to make such a program truly meaningful, innovative, and even radical, would have required the kind of rigorous, intelligent planning lacking in the laid-back Aquino administration, and even the declaration of a state of emergency in the affected areas in the Visayas.
Such a declaration, Philippine experience suggests, would have been problematic. In two crucial instances, the rulers of this country used supposedly critical situations against rather than for the people. Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law was a proclamation of a state of national emergency writ large. He claimed that saving the Republic and reforming society was its supposed purpose, whereas it was primarily meant to keep him in power. In more recent times, the Arroyo administration’s emergency declaration in 2006 was among the many means the regime used to suppress opposition and criticism.
What this country has long needed is a political class that will use both its existing capacities and whatever extraordinary powers may be delegated to it for the welfare, protection and wellbeing of its constituencies rather than for self-aggrandizement, silencing critics, and oppression. That need is once again being demonstrated in the aftermath of Yolanda. Thanks to the creatures who have monopolized power in this country for decades, the opportunities the Yolanda tragedy offers for this country to put together model communities for the poorer victims of the typhoon will go the way of others long since lost. In its place we have the short-sighted construction of bunkhouses, among others, instead of a long-term, sustainable program based on a well-thought out social policy.
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Published in Business World
January 9, 2014