What will happen to the Philippines?

November 18, 2013
Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction, Wageningen Universiteit
Views of the city of Tacloban, ruined by typhoon Haiyan on November 8

Last week we posted a blog by Sara Pantuliano calling for the Philippine government to lead the Typhoon response. This week, here’s another viewpoint on the capacity and will of the Philippine government from Professor Dorothea Hilhorst. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

What will happen in the Philippines? This is the question preoccupying everyone watching footage of the havoc wrought by Typhoon Haiyan. With a disaster of this magnitude, it is impossible to get a smooth relief operation going within a few days, no matter how hard one tries.

Reports from the disaster area suggest that the government of the Philippines is doing a reasonably good job in organising the relief effort. The country has invested a lot in the last few years to be better prepared for disasters. In 2010, a law came into effect, requiring all local government units to reserve 5% of their budgets for disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Indeed, there was a functioning early warning and evacuation system in place when Haiyan hit, but the typhoon was so strong that the shelters were blown to pieces. In the days following the typhoon, the army has been mobilised and huge efforts made to access victims and – with the help of the United Nations – coordinate the flow of relief goods to the area.

In the coming months the relief effort will mainly focus on providing basic services to those who have lost everything. Then, reconstruction will slowly begin. After the initial surge in aid and support, international interest will undoubtedly wane. Domestically, questions about reconstruction and service delivery, such as who gets what and what areas are to be prioritised, are likely to be increasingly politicised.

Floor Leeftink, a student at Wageningen University, has just completed research into Typhoon Pepeng, which ravaged the north of the Philippines in 2009. She found that even three years after the disaster many people are still living in emergency shelters. The help they received has not been enough to rebuild their houses and they are slowly trying to recover with their own means. The government has started relocating a few villages deemed to be located too close to the river, but this has not been successful due to a lack of participation, bad planning and mismanagement. It is a sad and familiar pattern following disaster in the Philippines. The population of Leyte and Samar will have to move on with their lives – with or without help – and will bit by bit resume their lives and livelihoods. With domestic and international support, numerous reconstruction projects will begin, with varying success. The question is whether this type of reconstruction will protect the poor better in case of future disasters.

If the government of the Philippines is really committed to reducing people’s vulnerability to the next Haiyan – and there will be more typhoons – difficult political decisions will have to be made. With the amount of low-lying coastal areas in the country, this will require investments in the landscape and robust urban planning, which will also have implications for land ownership.

But does the government have the political will to make and follow through on such decisions? In recent months, the country has seen an unprecedented corruption scandal involving elected politicians who have used their positions to line their own pockets. In such a political climate, developing and executing a vision that will better protect the poor against future disasters may easily get thwarted by elite politics. It is hoped that the magnitude of this disaster may help to challenge the political culture and put pressure on the government to make the required choices for reconstruction.


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