Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The need for participatory democracy at ground zero

THE president of the Philippine Alliance of X-Seminarians (PAX), Ricardo “Ricky” Ribo, is a Quezon City-based lawyer (recently seen on TV in his capacity as counselor for actor Zoren Legaspi’s case with the Bureau of Internal Revenue) who hails from Jaro, Leyte. He tells me a story about Oliver Cam, the president of the Leyte chapter of PAX called Paisanos whose members once attended the Sacred Heart Seminary of Palo, Leyte. Cam now sits in the rehabilitation committee of the Tacloban City government, and the story about him and his mates was officially relayed to Ribo in an April 2014 letter by PAX’s Tacloban facilitator, Tony Cruzada, who wrote, “Our PAX unit in Tacloban is now fully engaged in livelihood recovery in the San Jose area” (this was in reference to the Tacloban area most devastated by Typhoon Yolanda on the fateful morning of November 8, 2013). The letter goes on to write that the focus of the program is “restoring household livelihood to the pre-Yolanda level.”

Atty. Ricardo "Ricky" Ribo (center in white t-shirt) at the Sto. Niño de Leyte Shrine collection of relief goods for Leyte.
San Jose, Tacloban City, after the Typhoon Yolanda devastation. Photo borrowed from

     The rehabilitation strategy of the Tacloban group of Cam and Cruzada has been to work on capital build-up via people’s livelihood themselves. Livelihood, that is, in whatever form, although it had earlier been identified that the most common sources of income in the area included sari-sari stores, the retailing of fish and/or vegetables, meat or cooked-food vending, public transport pedicabs, sewing shops, barber shops/beauty salons, and small scrapyards.
     “The intervention that we wish to make is for seed money to be made available to a livelihood operator to ease and speed up his/her capital build-up,” Cruzada—whose brother, also an ex-seminarian, died from injuries caused by the devastation—explained. “The cooperator commits to a definite capital build-up target and to return the seed money on a weekly basis. The seed fund, therefore, will continuously flow to new batches of cooperators. The capital requirements of the greater number (of the villagers) ranges from P2,000 to P6,000. A smaller number would (have to) be limited to (outlays between) P7,000 and P15,000.”
     Cam and Cruzada’s group did not need to source the initial seed money from outside of PAX. Instead, they grew their fund internally through savings from the group’s purchase of unmilled rice (palay) already available in neighbouring towns and provinces. The palay were purchased in bulk, milled, delivered back to the community, and then sold through accredited sari-sari stores that also profited from commissions. The net savings and profit from this progression were then channeled to the seed fund.
     According to Ribo, this was just one among the many or few ways the people of devastated Leyte devised to rehabilitate their economy on their own, in the face of the shortness or failure of government economic rehabilitation efforts. . . .

ALTHOUGH Ribo and his national group had been one of the first relief responders to the post-Yolanda scene, operating with modest resources and collections from their headquarters in Sto. Niño de Leyte Shrine (a self-effacing chapel-cum-hideout along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City humbled by the maddeningly tall and blue Iglesia ni Cristo church beside it), Ribo himself was able to visit Leyte only in February and then in early June of this year. In contrast, Efren Delima, another PAX member who is an accounting consultant and intermittent project evaluator for the party-list-system party Aksyon Magsasaka-Partido ng Tinig ng Masa (AKMA-PTM), had traveled to Leyte several times since November 2013 as one of the men in charge of the PAX relief distribution at ground zero.

Accounting consultant and NGO worker Efren Delima
     Both Delima and Ribo posit their views of post-Yolanda reality as having gone beyond criticizing either the national government’s or the local governments’ handling of rehabilitation efforts, and having moved on towards a desire to offer their testimonies (for whatever they’re worth to whichever party) on what’s really happening at present on the ground and to come up with plans to confront these realities.
     Delima articulates his assessment this way: in many rehabilitation efforts, there is no coordination. There is no coordination, precisely because of the breakdown of a necessary bottom-up system that has been replaced by our culture’s long-traditional and long-proved-wrong sorry top-down approach. But it’s really not that simple, he says. Delima and Ribo both saw a vicious cycle continuously at play that they say has become both annoying and frustrating:
     Where the top acknowledges the necessity of hearing the knowledge of the bottom, it expects the usual bottom to function instead of recognizing the fact that the bottom has evolved or has in fact always been dynamic. In post-Yolanda Leyte, many small government units ceased to exist, sometimes refusing or seeing no reason to exist any longer other than for the purpose of accepting donations and selectively distributing them. Most efforts from the top have failed to recognize the fact that most in this bottom need reorganization, devoid of political affiliation, preferably people- or wholly community-based as against representative-based. On the other hand, where the bottom sees nobody from the top initiating the reorganization, it submits to its now ever-present “to each his own” or “everyone for himself” state (because government has ceased to exist) instead of owning up the opportunity to establish a new organization of the people and by the people.
     The much-touted Malacañang-appointed “Yolanda rehab czar” of the national government task force for Leyte-Samar, Panfilo Lacson, once admitted to the media that the money for the area has not wholly been released yet in the absence of a finished master plan. He also mentioned two departments that didn’t want to have anything to do with the program or the political area. He failed to mention that this sort of disinterest was also driven by the psychology wherein the top kept on waiting for the bottom to provide inputs for a comprehensive plan, while some from the top came up with top-down plans that the bottom refused to heed (the declared no-build zone and the transfer of residents to a safe zone, for one, a plan now recognized as nothing more than a great sound bite for television appearances for the simple reason that it is unenforceable).
     The Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Human Rights (EcuVoice) has already urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the Philippine government’s “slow, inefficient, and inadequate” response to the devastation. “Up until now,” the group's Irma Balaba told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “the government does not have an alternative plan for the displaced communities that would ensure their long-term alternative livelihood, safe relocation areas, free housing and access to social services.”
     Ribo attests to this apparent non-release of rehab funds, having been witness to said absence of a comprehensive effort for the entire area, save those visible efforts for select spots. Delima, meanwhile, explains that where there is no master plan, there can definitely be no NEDA release, since NEDA only relies on the Procurement Law for the processing of funds. Both men insist that as of February there was no release of rehab funds, except to no more than 10% of each municipality. By June, they both insist, the efforts have remained select.
     Delima says what were released were the calamity funds for the provincial LGUs (local government units). Presently, there is yet a half year or more to wait for the next batch of calamity funds from the 2015 budget to come pouring in, should there be such an allocation. Many in Leyte’s LGUs, he says, complain that the calamity funds from the 2014 budget were already depleted by June. The immediate calamity funds from the 2013 budget, many local governments complained, appeared to have already been depleted as early as late January of 2014, Delima says. And this year’s November typhoon season is already looming on the horizon.
     But Delima agrees that government calamity funds are not enough and won’t ever be enough. The reason, both men say, why the focus should be in rehabilitating the economy first instead of in restoring government infrastructures, ideally simultaneously with equal emphasis on both. Schools, however, they say, are an understandable priority since they also stimulate the economy of urban areas and town centers. In short, what stimulates the people to move around within, with the promise of economic gain via their own little ways, has to constitute the rehab plan itself, not the top-down visions of a grandiose and monumental sound bite that can only go nowhere.
     Both men cite this instance: The immediate economic need is food; but, instead of coming up with ways of importing (from other provinces) and then retailing food, the government comes up with long-term plans for agriculture that end up with vegetables meant to be harvested in cycles harvested in toto, or with seeds meant for planting consumed as immediate food. In contrast, the more immediate economics of gambling has proliferated like crazy, with cockfighting cockpits offering an almost-daily circulation of money. Ground zero has become the cowboy movie version of Las Vegas, spurred forward by Las Vegas-esque economics.
     If there is something even Keynesians could learn from Milton Friedman’s shock therapy, it is that a people-deriving economy can sprout from an absence of physical “infrastructures”. What Keynesians can offer, in turn, is just a little bit of seed money for capital that can hasten trade in the communities and get money to move around, not seed money for big corporations to put up their projects, whatever they are, all over town. A pat on the back of the ordinary banana-cue vendor standing in front of his wok, instead of just the back of the friendly mining company executive eager to resume his community-contested venture in an island in southern Samar. Otherwise, we might as well divide the ruling Liberal Party into a Social Liberal Party intent on helping the grassroots and a Neoliberal Party intent on helping the opposite of the grassroots.

A PRIEST, Fr. Joeboy Buñales, of St. Francis of Assisi parish in barangay Jugaban, Carigara, Leyte, has thrown his savings on 1,000 pedicabs on loan to spread capital build-up around his town.

Fr. Joeboy Buñales of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Carigara, Leyte
     Such acts are much needed these days in Leyte, given that the smallest LGUs have literally been rendered revenue-less. The public marketplaces, now free-for-all areas for the enterprising, can do nothing but waive selling-spot fees. Meanwhile, residents who want to take care of their property tax are met with an absence of receipts.
     If only government had put its focus on stimulating and/or facilitating the influx of trade here, things might have recovered quicker. Again, we can take a lesson from some of our enterprising Mindanaoene brothers, who have found it worth their time to haul in fake Marlboros from Indonesia which they can affordably sell here at P30 a pack. If only government had put its focus on community organization instead of political party organizations, the atmosphere might have recovered quicker. Again, we can take a lesson from the criminal minds who have found organizing to be lucrative for group robberies, the impact of which can be seen in the transport operators’ re-scheduling of their last trips from 12 midnight to 4 pm.
     The much-ballyhooed restoration of electricity service is appreciated, of course, except for the ballyhoo. Though blackouts remain rampant and those who don’t have access to electricians’ fees continue to make do with makeshift secret connections, Friedmanian shock therapy, as well as history as a whole, would attest to the fact that humans will adapt to the reality of a situation and create an economy from inside that reality. In short, while electricity supply and service do have an immediate impact on a community’s re-emerging economy, a sheer focus on that service devoid of a seed money stimulus for the same economy puts more emphasis on the aider to the economy (electric power) than on the yet-to-exist-again economy itself needing capital help first in order to start the ball rolling. It doesn’t matter that the DPWH rehabilitation of its roads and bridges is slow-moving, as long as there is an already-strong trade there will be roads and bridges other than what the DPWH would expensively build for you and me and the contractor and the contractor’s politician friend.
     Also, a Fr. Buñales privy to what the people need would not supply chainsaws to a town that doesn’t know how to operate chainsaws, much less chainsaws from China that lose their blades after work on a couple of felled trees, says Ribo. Besides, in communities used to seeing every now and then drunk men disemboweling each other in a bolo-knife fight, a proliferation of useless chainsaws is the last thing you’d want to see in an oncoming future, Delima argues, not to mention the danger of seeing rampant small-scale illegal logging when the trees get tall enough again.
     Delima and Ribo say there was also no single effort from politicians, local and national, to rehabilitate the San Jose fisherman’s access to the sea, not even to meet with military officials on what to do with the bullets and grenades from the San Jose armory that were washed out to sea, bullets and grenades now there resting on the seafloor along with the pedicabs and wrought-iron beds aiming to be structures for a future underwater village of barnacles welcoming human scavengers as its tourists.
     No meeting over what to do with either the thousands of coconut lumber wallowing in the uplands, Ribo tells us, or those on someone’s coconut farm, which latter stagnation has driven away the tenants of that someone’s land in search of other sources of income (drove them away along with the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program certification that was dangled over the land and promised to the tenants).

THE failure to stimulate/support with seed capital the influx of trade supplies as well as outflow of potential products like coconut lumber has raised the price of meat, many of which have always come from the Davao region. Today, trucks come into the city and the towns with these meat supplies and go back to Davao without a “back load.” Naturally, the supplier would have to double the price of his meat due to the cost of this route for his economy of scale. Before Yolanda, the trucks would carry back-loads of copra, mussels, etc. Now they go back to the Compostela Valley with entirely empty vans and crates.
     With the failure to get a hold of the bottom-up requisite for a high satisfaction rate, government can only content itself with slow rehab projects and health projects slowed down by the people not “owning,” to use Delima’s preferred word, those projects. Even Guiuan, Eastern Samar, which displayed a readiness for typhoons when it built five evacuation centers for this town in the southeastern peninsular tip of Samar, evacuation centers that undoubtedly saved a lot of lives, the people—according to ex-seminarian Rolly Siguan—now capital-less, un-facilitated, and un-stimulated, also slowed down both physically and mentally. The same thing happened in Delima’s hometown, Capoocan, Leyte. Apart from the high-profile presence of Dinky Soliman's DSWD in the towns, a sporadic presence that nevertheless aided in nurturing a temporary culture of dependence, the Department of Agriculture-certified corn seedlings did not stimulate agriculture but only hunger for immediate consumption of corn millet made from the seeds. The politics behind the uneven distribution of these government dole outs further contributed to the communal depression.
     Another ex-seminarian, Osmundo Orlanes, who hails from Calbiga, Samar, says that municipal governments and governance have been tainted by political propaganda thrusts. He considers the Yolanda disaster as the ultimate demonstration of how elite politics operates in this country, where you see wealthy political families treating the situations in the landscape as playground for their little student-council contests where they can display their political party colors and logos and do their usual photo-op distributions and baby-raising as well as tirades, ignorant of the fact that the people are already disgusted by the shameless circus they are seeing.
     He looks at the way the elite political families treat each other even as they imprison each other in elite "custodial centers" or with fancy hospital or house arrests, while victims of a disaster who have no place in the roster of Tatler magazine-featured circles can make do with living in windowless plywood-walled square bunkhouses that could keep a morning pan de sal warm through to the afternoon.

A Facebook meme uploaded/posted by Facebook user "Steel Rain" at The bunkhouse featured in this Internet meme photo is actually of a design redone from a previous windowless design that was criticized in the media when photos of built houses with that previous design started coming out.
     Delima says this insensitivity to or ignorance of what the people want and need, a trademark of our representative democracy through the decades, explains the government’s lack of knowledge of the perennial immediate need-based situation that has yet to transition into a future need-based one. Thus the government’s surprise when it witnesses DA-certified rice meant for planting making its way to the mortar and pestles. As we mentioned above, DA-certified seeds are stolen for immediate food consumption, and the government can only police future supplies or otherwise halt or delay all deliveries.
     Delima says the office of the Leyte governor would deny it, but politics played a part in even the prioritization of areas for the government’s restoration of electricity and water supply. In fact, jokes have proliferated about why the planned relocation (from the Palo, Leyte beach area) of government regional and provincial offices to various municipalities is facing resistance—there is supposedly ruling-party fear of development in areas not within the party’s control.

DELIMA tells me the story about a livelihood support project in Capoocan for the cottage industry of anahaw and buri (corypha) handicrafts and wares that the people have long “owned.” The government later came up with a parallel project when it introduced a similar industry using nito vines (lygodium circinatum), possibly with the good intention of expanding. But, this time, it incorporated the industry into a cooperative system. Unfortunately, the cooperative system didn’t sit well with the people’s math, and the industry was soon considered by the townsfolk as the infamous sister to the much-preferred original anahaw/buri industry where the people remained as the respective owners of their own work and profit accounting. A similar industry was introduced in the province's municipality of Tanauan which did not impose a cooperative system, which democratic decision gained a positive reception that further resulted in progress for the venture.
     Delima, in his previous work with an NGO subcontracted by the government to implement an EU-funded project, says the feeling of “ownership” carried by a people towards any venture, no matter where the idea derives from, is crucial to those ventures and their success. A top-down approach that does not collect the people’s embrace of the aid will have to be labelled as nothing more than an elitist (condescending, if you will) imposition.

EVIDENTLY, Yolanda has become a case study for all sorts of plans and systems, both the corrupt and the idealistic, both the merely-obliged and the enthusiastic. It is up to us now to choose whether we shall heed the learning we have gained from it as a hellish experience or live through another Yolanda and post-Yolanda stint that would then repeat for us what seems to remain as a very elusive point. [JSV]

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