Reconstructing after Yolanda: potential gaps and stumbling blocks

Typhoon Yolanda was not just any disaster. It shattered Philippine storm records as much as it shattered the landscape of our communities. It came as a brute force of nature, the strongest typhoon on record to ever make landfall, we are told.  It came as an old foe, having visited us a few times in the past, albeit with a different intensity and name. And it came at a time when we were still reeling from the effects of a major earthquake that crippled Bohol and some parts of Cebu and an equally devastating man-made disaster that gripped Zamboanga in terror. 

Yolanda ravaged not only our lands, but also our collective psyche.  The devastation it left on its trail was so horrific that by the time it left the Philippine Area of Responsibility at 3:30 PM on November 9th, we were mostly dazed and confused, clueless at the havoc that it wrought.

Our temporary paralysis, of course, was not just because of Yolanda’s strength, it was also on us. And it was not just due to the inability of some sectors to act prudently, swiftly and with foresight; it was a systemic failure that ultimately revealed the different faces of vulnerability in our communities. All we need to do is pick our poison: sheer apathy, ignorance, miscalculation of risk, incompetence, lack of preparedness, un/ill-planned urbanization, maldevelopment, the ugly head of politics.

Whatever the reason for our failure to effectively deal with a superstorm like Yolanda is moot by now and to continue to pin blame would be unproductive. What is clear though is this: that we have now more than just a humanitarian crisis on our hands; that we have, in fact, a human development crisis that can potentially set back the socio-economic progress that the PNoy administration has been trumpeting about in the last few years.  

As we approach the eighth month since Yolanda battered Eastern Visayas, now is a good time to reflect on what potential stumbling blocks we should be cautious of as we move forward. 

Funding gap

In the Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters published by World Bank, Jha et al. (2010) pointed to certain areas that need close attention and careful management. One of these is the so-called funding gap, which is caused by fluctuations in the flow of resources throughout the long and arduous recovery process.

The common pattern in many disasters is that most resources are used up for emergency response and relief, leaving little for reconstruction, let alone risk-sensitive recovery. It is difficult to say whether or not this is the case in the Philippines post-Yolanda given the lack of accessible information at this point.

What we do know is that as of June 19, the UN inter-agency cluster system still needs about US$ 350.4 million to cover the various needs of the affected population.  Of the 10 critical clusters identified by the UN, shelter and early recovery and livelihoods have the biggest gap. More than 2.6 million people remain at-risk and without durable shelter requiring US$ 104 million, while only 27% out of the required US$ 117 million have been received  to support livelihood programs.

We also know that the P14.6-billion supplementary budget in 2013 from the realigned PDAF and the P20-billion rehabilitation fund from the 2014 budget have yet to be accessed and used. In a forum at the Ateneo de Manila University on July 30, Undersecretary Danilo Antonio of the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) said that one of Secretary Panfilo Lacson's marching orders is to be extra cautious in dealing with government funds for reconstruction.*

Planning challenges

Unfortunately, post-Yolanda reconstruction planning is becoming a messy, multi-layered affair. More than a month after the disaster, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) came up with a document, Reconstruction after Yolanda (RAY), detailing the damage and needs of the so-called Yolanda Corridor and providing general directions for recovery and reconstruction. NEDA, as the national planning agency and vice-chair for recovery in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, is supposed to update RAY and come up with RAY 2.0, the final reconstruction master plan, based on the results of the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) of the Office of Civil Defense.

However, the preparation of RAY 2.0 is taking longer than expected, in spite of the fact that the PDNA report has been completed and presented already to the President in as early as March. Technical differences between RAY and PDNA results seem to have bogged down the process. What appears to be the case now is that RAY 2.0 will no longer be the rehabilitation master plan that we originally hoped for; rather it is expected to simply take the form of a general policy document to guide the reconstruction process.

The situation gets more complicated with OPARR obligated to provide “over-all strategic vision and integrated short-term, medium-term and long-term programs.” In the absence of a national plan, OPARR had to make do and work with the rehabilitation plans prepared by provinces. To date four provincial plans have been vetted and submitted to the President, with at least two more to follow by the end of the month. At the rate that provincial rehabilitation plans are being formulated, we may not be able to complete—and subsequently authorize the implementation of—all 14 plans before Yolanda’s first anniversary. 

This piecemeal planning process is certainly not ideal, as it may just lead to fragmented and regionally disjointed efforts. The integration of plans prepared by municipalities—we are expecting 171 of them—into the provincial plans is an added concern. The quality of these plans is variegated as they have been prepared independently and mostly with the help of different consultants and organizations. The only silver lining we can get from this planning debacle is the assurance that the programs are identified through a bottom-up process, and that we are finally moving.

Disaster capitalism

The implementation phase may pose yet another challenge as humanitarian relief workers are slowly replaced by reconstruction actors. The British Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors proposed in one of its reports that surveyors, GIS technicians, risk professionals, and other “built environment” experts will be needed more than ever to fill this gap. Fortunately for us, this does not seem to be a big problem judging by the influx of consultancy firms and experts, both domestic and international, in the Yolanda recovery scene. 

The private sector has also been very active as, in OPARR parlance, development and sector sponsors. OPARR’s approach has been to categorize the Yolanda corridor into 24 Areas for Intervention and Development (AID) for willing corporate entities to “adopt.” Tacloban, for instance, has been divided into two, with Smart and PLDT working south of Avenida Veteranors and the International Container Terminal, Inc. in the north.  

While the contributions of these actors are welcome, there is always the possibility that disaster risk reduction considerations will take a backseat in the name of profit. On the other hand, there is the expectation that since these big businesses will stand to lose in the event of another major disaster, as is the trend in the latest Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction published by the UNISDR in 2013, they will be more concerned with disaster risk reduction in order to protect their business interests.

We also need to remember that reconstruction is not just about meeting the needs of the affected population, it is also about ensuring that their rights are met and protected. This rights-based approach has been the cornerstone of many humanitarian NGOs in recent years and is what the Ateneo School of Government (ASOG) has been pushing for in its assistance to Yolanda-affected communities in Leyte.

Disasters and debt

Another issue that we must be cautious of is our propensity to rely a bit too much on assistance from international financial institutions (IFIs) for long-term recovery. It is expected that as reconstruction progresses, financial resources go through peaks and troughs and ultimately dwindle over time.  Eventually, as “donor fatigue” sets in, government funding and IFIs like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank fill the needs in the long run.

Overdependence on loans provided by IFIs will only bury as deeper in sovereign debt. Note that the World Bank’s $980 million assistance package is not a grant. The same case with ADB whose $900 million Yolanda assistance is provided mostly as loan, with only about $20 million given as grants.

These loans will add up to our already insurmountable foreign debt, currently standing at $59.8 billion. To depend so much on IFIs for reconstruction funds will only negate our efforts to build back better, smarter and stronger. By around this time, barely seven months since Yolanda’s fury, about $6.5 billion have already left our national coffers to service our debt.

Outside the issue of debt, World Bank’s approach in post-disaster reconstruction is also not beyond reproach. It took heavy flak for taking advantage of the post-Hurricane Mitch situation to push its privatization agenda. It was likewise criticized for favoring commercial interventions following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Monitoring progress

Lastly, we must bear in mind that reconstruction is a fertile ground for corruption, mismanagement and wastes. Research has shown that this is due to a number of factors including the massive influx and procurement of aid and goods; the pressure to spend quickly; competition among aid agencies; weak administration and oversight systems; and economic desperation of the affected population, among others.

Corrupt and questionable practices may also be observed from the affected population themselves. Overstating of the extent of damage and needs is one of them. In the US, following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, it has been estimated that as much as US$1.5 billion of the government’s “expedited assistance” payments were lost due to fraudulent claims. 

Beyond the issue of corruption, Walden Bello (2006) also cautions us of the emerging relief-and-reconstruction complex wherein the US military plays a growing major role. He noted how the Pentagon took advantage of the Indian Ocean tsunami to restore military aid to Indonesia and further strengthen its foothold in the region. 

In the case of Yolanda, a little over one-third of the US’ US$90 million assistance has so far been received directly from the federal government’s Department of Defense. Then just last month, the Civic Action Programs of the Joint Task Force Pacific Partnership 2014 involving the national forces from the Philippines, United States, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea were finally unveiled to include, among others, the construction of classrooms and science buildings in Tacloban and Palo. The increased presence of the US military in the country in the name of Yolanda has already received criticisms from certain sectors.   

Without a doubt, the task of reconstruction is gargantuan and daunting. The challenges are manifold as it involves the cooperation and coordination of many stakeholders who may have their own, sometimes, competing, agenda.  We therefore need to be vigilant to ensure that we do not simply “bounce back” to where we were before and that we are instead actually “bouncing forward.” – Rappler.com

*Editor's note: Upon the request of the author, this paragraph was rephrased for better clarity.

Kristoffer B. Berse, PhD, is a full-time faculty of the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG). This think piece is based on a talk he delivered at the “Forum on Coordinating Recovery: Reflecting on Gains and Gaps after Yolanda” organized by Save the Children and Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Political Science last June 30, 2014.