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Two years for emergency assistance?

How do we know for a fact that government bungled the relief and rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of the “Yolanda’’ supertyphoon? 

There’s a report released by the government’s own watchdog —the Commission on Audit—which categorically states that the government not only failed to spend a large portion of the money intended for the victims of the strongest typhoon in history, but that tons of food and other relief goods have also gone to waste because government did not release them to the people before their expiration dates.

Of course we have heard about all these for the longest time now, I have personally lambasted in this space the foot-dragging that characterized government’s response to the urgent appeals for help from the people, but it’s a completely different matter altogether when it’s written up in an official report.  It’s the kind of report that makes one’s blood boil, particularly if one saw with his own two eyes the extent of the devastation and the suffering of the victims.  I will continue to insist that it is always infinitely better to over-deliver on food and relief goods to victims of calamities; scrimping on relief goods smacks of bad judgment and misplaced humanity particularly when these goods run the risk of spoilage.  We’re seeing yet again how overcautiousness, bordering on paranoia and analysis paralysis, can hurt everyone.

But we don’t really need an official report to know that something went grievously wrong somewhere with the Yolanda relief and rehabilitation efforts.  Let’s just allow a known fact to speak for itself: The release of the government’s much-vaunted Emergency Shelter Assistance program, which was intended to help victims of the supertyphoon rebuild destroyed houses, finally got underway only in the last few weeks.  Imagine that—a program that government had the gumption to label “emergency assistance” being made available to the people almost two years after the supertyphoon struck! 

If all of the tens of thousands of victims relied mainly on the promises made by government and did not take the initiative to rebuild their lives through some other ways, they would still be living in tents, or school buildings, or amid the wreckage.  (Actually, some towns with stronger political influence got their ESA much earlier than everyone else, but that’s another story).

I was in Leyte two weeks ago where I met with some families who confirmed that they did get their ESA recently.  When I asked what they did with their money— most everyone told me they used it to pay off their debts.  In many cases, the proceeds directly went to loan sharks who had possession of their so-called green cards as many of them had already pawned their cards as early as last year.  The almost two-year delay in the release of the assistance meant that interest rates had piled up and there was virtually nothing left for the families. 

The delay in the release of relief and rehabilitation funds was supposedly due to efforts to ensure that the process was not hijacked or used by local politicians for partisan politics.  Apparently, all that effort was for naught because we know for a fact that local politicians did find a way to insert themselves into the picture.  Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman complained last week about the presence of Congressman Niel Tupas during the distribution of the ESA in certain towns in Iloilo and we’ve heard stories about how politician members of the Tupas clan have been engaged in some kind of a contest over who gets to preside or grab credit for the relief and rehabilitation efforts in Iloilo. 

The same happened in other provinces, although the politicians were a bit subtler.  But the situation was worst in Leyte where barangay officials directly asked for a cut from the beneficiaries in exchange for elevating their entitlement from partial assistance of P10,000 to full assistance of P30,000.  All of these happened because the inordinate delay allowed politicians at the local levels to strategize and marshal their influence and resources in support of their nefarious schemes.  Had the assistance been given immediately, the victims could have found more meaningful use for the funds.  But then again, all of these is now wishful thinking; as usual, most Filipinos have moved on thankful for whatever little they got.

There are, however, valuable lessons that all of us hopefully learned from the Yolanda tragedy, particularly on how best to manage relief and rehabilitation efforts.  Based on what we saw, the whole response has been severely hampered by lack of effective leadership and an integrated coordination and response.  When we got to Tacloban two days after the supertyphoon struck, no one was in charge and everyone was doing programs based on their appreciation of the situation.  The situation has remained basically the same—we still don’t know who is in charge and how exactly is the rehabilitation being implemented.  As in the first few days and weeks of the tragedy, some towns and individuals have received more than what they needed while others are still waiting for scraps. There remains no visible and palpable mechanism in place to coordinate rehabilitation efforts despite claims that some masterplan has been designed.  In fact, people have remained confused as to who is really accountable; the roles Senator Ping Lacson, Secretary Mar Roxas, and Soliman have remained inchoate and in the minds of people, they are all just passing blame to each other.

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