Philippines

What emergency aid, what reconstruction?

Disaster policy versus local self-help

Where the aid doesn't reach: the SOS teams primarily helped the wounded in remote regions. The health network's logistics teams distributed emergency packages to 50,000 people. (Foto: Bernd Eichner) 

It was a sad record when typhoon Haiyan blew through the Philippine Visayas islands at the start of November 2013, with gusts up to 380 km/h. This was the strongest typhoon to land since weather records began. Even so, Dr Efleda Bautista is mainly angry with the government. Although they could nothing about the storm itself, she feels they were responsible for the devastating consequences.

According to UN figures, some 14 million people were affected by the destruction, around four million people were displaced, and a million houses were destroyed. Over 6,000 people were crushed by rubble or drowned in the metre-high storm surges. 'The indifference to the victims is criminal.' Even before the storm, the government failed to take adequate measures to protect people. The government also failed to give people sufficient warning. Efleda Bautista is a retired associate dean of the University of Samar College of Graduate Studies, and got her PhD in education at Frankfurt's Goethe University, with a dissertation on 'Pedagogics in the Third World'. She occasionally acts as the vice chairperson and press spokesperson for 'People Surge', a movement of typhoon survivors supported by medico.

A vulnerable country

The scientific community supports her criticism that disaster prevention measures were not carried out. In its World Risk Report, 'Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft' (Alliance Development Works), an alliance of seven German aid organisations, traditionally gives the Philippines an embarrassingly prominent place. The Philippines has ranked third in the World Risk Index for years, putting it consistently in the top risk category. The index calculates the risk for 173 countries worldwide of becoming a victim of a disaster due to a natural event. The disaster risk is based not only on exposure to natural hazards but also the degree of vulnerability of the people, which in turn depends on social factors.

While the vulnerability of the country is well-known, only 0.1% of the national budget is spent on disaster management. 'This is the political scandal behind the disaster,' explains Rosalinda Tablang, emergency aid coordinator of the medico partner organisation Samahang Operasyong Sagip (SOS). She works closely with Efleda Bautista, as public protest against the government's inactivity, self-organisation by the victims and concrete emergency aid belong together in the view of the two organisations. 'The country's élite is not only ignoring the natural hazards, but also the needs of the victims. After the typhoon had swept through the country, President Aquino went on television and promised immediate aid. In reality, however, the government needed a whole week to respond to the disaster,' adds Efleda Bautista.

Self-help network

The SOS network came into existence because this was the story of earlier disasters as well. It was founded at the start of the 90s, after the main island of Luzon had been battered by both an earthquake and an eruption of the Pinatubo volcano. The idea was to establish a self-help network that was unconnected with the government but closely linked to local needs and resources, and would be able to carry out disaster reduction measures and also provide aid in the event of a disaster. Today, SOS comprises some 20 health organisations, whose members are working continuously on providing basic medical services to the poorest on the islands of Leyte and Samar, among other locations. These seasoned decentralised structures also functioned after the typhoon in November 2013. SOS was able to initiate an extensive disaster response and provide for victims independently of state measures and the arrival of Western experts.

In the course of its aid missions, more than 7,000 patients were treated in around 70 affected communities. Each mission consists of several SOS teams, each with 15 doctors, nurses and volunteers. These teams tended to the wounded, and treated primarily diarrhoea and respiratory diseases. The logistics teams distributed emergency aid packages to some 50,000 people. SOS assistance was directed primarily at single parents, families with sick and handicapped members, and particularly poor families. In addition to material and medical emergency aid, SOS is assisting the communities on Samar and Leyte with psychosocial services. The emergency aid packages contained drinking water and food, blankets, hygienic supplies, tools and petrol – often, people need very little to get the destroyed infrastructure and houses back in order by themselves. 'The administrative area of Huknan was cut off from the outside world by the destruction of a bridge. All that the inhabitants asked the local government for was 25 kilogrammes of nails and petrol for their chainsaws. But the bureaucrats just said they weren't responsible for repairing the bridge,' Rosalinda Tablang reports. Even months after the typhoon, SOS was still coming across affected communities which had received no assistance. The villages in the remote mountain regions in the east of Samar are particularly neglected by the local authorities, according to complaints from local SOS staff, who brought aid material to the highland communities with motorcycle convoys in some cases.

Rosalinda Tablang no longer believes that the remote communities will get the urgently needed aid with reconstruction that they have been promised. She notes that the government programme has allocated almost four times as much money for support to the private sector as for farmers and fishers. 'The neediest and most underprivileged population groups have the lowest priority.' Efleda Bautista also has little confidence in the reconstruction programme with its neoliberal inspiration. 'It wasn't created for people, but for corporations greedy for profit. The Aquino government is scaling back its own efforts and giving an unreasonable amount of scope to the private companies which got the contracts for reconstruction. As a result, the corruption spreads, particularly among high-level bureaucrats and their private sector friends.'

The typhoon as a driver for privatisation

This is why the SOS network and People Surge boycotted the 'Yolanda Forum for Transparency' organised by the government in Tacloban, choosing instead to work with a large number of other grassroots initiatives on an alternative event attended by some 13,000 victims of the typhoon. They also handed in a petition signed by 17,585 survivors of the disaster. Two of its demands: first, every family affected by the typhoon should get immediate financial aid equivalent to just under EUR 650, as government aid to date has been insufficient. Second, the law prohibiting people from rebuilding their houses near the coast should be repealed: although this sounds like a protective measure, it ultimately legitimises forced resettlement on unattractive public land, while tourist resorts snap up the prime coastal strips.

Besides the acute need for more aid, the meeting in Tacloban's Astrodome was also concerned with prospects for an equitable bottom-up reconstruction. SOS was not only represented by a mobile clinic but also participated actively in the debate. The results are the basis for a comprehensive reconstruction programme with a holistic approach, which SOS will implement with medico's assistance in eight particularly seriously affected villages on Samar. The focus is on the rehabilitation of small-scale agriculture and fishing and establishing basic health service structures and community-based disaster management. The most important thing is participation by the victims and integration of local cooperatives, as Rosalinda Tablang stresses, given that SOS seeks to strengthen self-help by those affected, rather than creating new dependencies.

The conflict over whether urgently needed resources end up with corrupt élites and the private sector or with the victims is still unresolved. Both SOS's project with the neglected communities and the ongoing protests by People Surge will keep Philippine President Aquino under pressure by demonstrating alternative options for disaster management. Efleda Bautista has more to say: 'We're a rich land with natural resources, but even more important – we're a nation of hopeful and intelligent people. There's no better way than to get together, take to the streets and fight for fundamental needs. We will also fight for long-term reconstruction to benefit the people – despite the government's betrayal.'

medico support to the humanitarian assistance to the families affected by the typhoon on the Visayas islands by the SOS health network in 2013 amounted to €196,685.


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