Aquino's "build back better": a corporate takeover of government's reconstruction program

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A month after typhoon Yolanda, when the Philippine government launched its Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY) program, no less than the President himself declared that the government is committed to "build back better".

Speaking before the members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of international organizations, President Benigno S. Aquino III said, “We know that we cannot allow ourselves to be trapped in a vicious cycle of destruction and reconstruction. We know that it is more efficient to prioritize resilience now, rather than to keep rebuilding. This is why we are going to build back better.”

Whatever he meant of "build back better", Yolanda survivors, nevertheless, are not happy about it and have expressed pessimism and alarm over the way the government reconstruction program has been carried out thus far. The program has already drawn grave concerns about privatization or corporate takeover of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

In its official newsletter, the government defines RAY as a "strategic plan to guide the recovery and reconstruction of the economy, lives and livelihoods of people and communities in the areas affected by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

The program requires a total of P361 billion in investments which will be disbursed in four years. The government, however, did not identify where will the funds come from drawing flaks from various quarters. A British diplomat registered misgivings about the huge amount and even asked how the government will raise the funds and coordinate with the international community.

No-build zone

The President kicked off the program by ordering the enforcement of no-build zone policy in coastal communities ravaged by the typhoon. The no-build zone policy prohibits fishermen and other residents in the Visayas areas from returning to their fishing villages. The government also prohibited construction of houses and settlements 40 meters away from the shoreline purportedly to prevent the same destruction again in case of storm surges.

The President appointed former Senator Panfilo Lacson as rehabilitation czar to lead the reconstruction program of the government. Lacson even went further by callously declaring that the no-build zone policy will be changed to no-dwelling zone to accommodate business investments while preventing the residents from rebuilding their houses on the targeted areas.

To speed up reconstruction, typhoon affected areas were divided into 24 groups wherein private sectors can choose among the areas which they can help build, the government claimed. The framework emphasizes that the "government seeks to enable new modalities to encourage and facilitate the active involvement of the private sector in implementing RAY. Options for greater private sector involvement include: expansion of public-private partnership arrangements for major investment programs."

But various groups have chided the government saying that the reconstruction program of the government does not really address the real needs of the victims and that it is enforcing a privatized rehabilitation framework passing otherwise government responsibility to big corporations. They said the government did not bother to consult the victims, let alone involve them in the implementation of the program.

Disaster capitalism

The program draws concern about disaster capitalism where big businesses are using disasters to generate profits and government favor in the guise of humanitarian undertaking and corporate social responsibility. Groups opposed to the program have noted how the typhoon-hit areas were divided according to the business interests of big investors and corporations: the Aboitiz group with business interests in land, air and sea transportation, property development and leisure/resort picked the long coastlines of Eastern Samar, western Leyte and Northern Cebu; Enrique Razon who owns the biggest port terminal services in the country and Manny Pangilinan who has business interests in telecommunication, media and mining both picked Tacloban city, the center of commerce in Eastern Visayas; the Ayala group whose interests include real estate, water infrastructure and telecommunication chose the big islands of Panay and Negros; San Miguel Corporation, the largest beverage and food company which has also interests in real estate and infrastructure took over housing projects; SM corporation and Lucio Tan chose to focus on education; and Manny Zamora, chairman of mining giant, Nickel Asia, selected the nickel-rich town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar.

According to TWHA partner Gabriela, the government had already neglected the people in terms of rebuilding their lives, now, it is using the disaster to let the big investors take charge of the reconstruction.

Gabriela, together with other progressive organizations, has launched a series of relief and rehabilitation operations to several parts of Visayas islands especially those areas hardly reached by government relief operations and international donors.

Based on the testimonies of its volunteers, Gabriela observed the incapacity of the government to carry an organized reconstruction program. There are a lot of private organizations carrying their tasks but they are all scattered making the rehabilitation and reconstruction disorganized, it said.

It also expressed alarm over reports of rape incidents in the aftermath of the typhoon as other survivors became more desperate due to lack of immediate support.

People Surge

In February, more than 12,000 typhoon victims from the provinces of Samar and Leyte converged in the devastated city of Tacloban to express their indignation against the inept response of the government to their needs and to hold it accountable for its criminal negligence. The protest movement was transformed into an alliance of typhoon victims now known as the People Surge. One of the issues they criticized during the protest was the government's implementation of RAY saying that the victims and not the big businesses should be the core of the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts of the government.

Another TWHA partner, the Council for Health and Development (CHD) is asking why the government places the recovery of agriculture at a low priority setting an investment requirement of measly P18 billion whereas the total damage in agriculture was estimated at around P31 billion and that the majority of those who lost their sources of income and livelihoods are farmers and fishers.

Even the United Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos in her latest visit to the typhoon-hit areas said that a large amount of support has to be given for the livelihood of people who rely heavily on fisheries and agriculture.


Victims defying the no-build zone

In Eastern Samar, where CHD is focusing its relief and rehabilitation operations, the victims are standing their ground and defying the no-build zone policy of the government. In the coastal town of Giporlos, more than 90 families whose properties were completely destroyed by the typhoon are rebuilding their houses where they once stood ignoring the "no-build zone" tarpaulin signs posted by the government.

According to them, they are defying the order because they do not know where to go. The government is not providing them any relocation site and if ever there is any it is not clear to them if they will be given any source of livelihood.

CHD also discovered that unlike in other areas where the no-build zone only covers 40 meters from the shore, in this town it is even extended to 70 meters. The people said that before Yolanda came, investors were already starting to develop the coasts of Giporlos into a high-class eco-tourism zone. They said that the government's statement that the place is now dangerous to live in due to possible storm surges is highly suspicious because the government is welcoming investors to rehabilitate the place. "Di puwede ang tao pero puwede ang negosyo "( people are prohibited to build houses but not the businesses), they quipped.

Instead of grabbing their land, what the residents are asking the government is to let them stay and rebuild their houses; and instead of building bunkhouses, construct permanent evacuation centers where they can stay during typhoons.


Politics and corruption, roadblocks to rehabilitation

During relief operations, CHD volunteers witnessed first hand how politics reared its ugly head in the government's relief and rehabilitation operations. In the town of Basey, for example, 23 out of 51 badly hit barangays (villages) were not included in the list of the priority beneficiaries simply because their leaders are not politically affiliated with the town mayor.

There are a lot of complaints about how inefficient and corrupt is the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the leading government agency on relief and rehabilitation, in responding to the needs of the victims. In the village of Legaspi in Marabut town, Eastern Samar where 145 houses were damaged, some residents are still waiting for the iron roof sheets the agency had pledged to provide a few weeks after the typhoon. But what really outraged most of the residents here was the callousness of DSWD officials who inspected the typhoon damage in their area in excluding from the list of beneficiaries those whose roofs had not been blown away but severely damaged anyway.

Again in Basey, the chief of Panugmonon village was so frustrated by the failure of the DSWD to release the payment for the cash-for-work program after the agency ordered him to implement the said program in his village. Village captain Louie Dacusana selected 68 individuals who worked for ten days for P260 a day. The workers were tasked to repair damaged canals, clear the riverways of debris and clean the barangay facilities. After ten days, he went to the local office of the DSWD to collect the money, but he was told that there was no fund because the national office has not released anything yet. He said he did not know how to explain the problem with the workers knowing that they desperately needed the money to support their families.

The same thing happened in the nearby village of Serum where its barangay officials were also instructed to implement the cash-for-work program. Teresita Alvarez, barangay secretary, could not contain her disappointment when she later learned that there was actually no fund at hand to be given to the workers. She said for ten days the workers left their families and worked for the government expecting that they would be compensated but to their dismay they returned home empty-handed.


By Andrew Aytin


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