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Reconstruction czar required

Publication Date : 29-11-2013

 

After a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III approved in principle a three-stage  reconstruction plan for provinces devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” But three weeks after the storm  struck land in Eastern Visayas, there was still no one in charge of the colossal rehabilitation job.

Government relief workers were still collecting dead bodies even as the official death toll increased with the recovery of more corpses buried under the ruins of Tacloban City, one of the worst hit in the region.

Malacanang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda reported a so-called Yolanda Recovery and Rehabilitation Plan, presented by Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan and drafted by  a planning (not action) task force. It called for three phases of implementation: “Provide immediate assistance to affected areas; expand initiatives and programmes in the medium term; and reach full recovery and rehabilitation in the long term.”

According to newspaper reports on the Cabinet meeting, the first since Yolanda’s landfall on November 8, the plan did not indicate how long it would take to complete, and the Cabinet had no idea about the costs and where to source the financing of the project. Worst of all, the administration did not say who would be in charge of this massive reconstruction effort, which is at present horribly disorganised and uncoordinated among local government units and central government agencies—the Department of Interior and Local Government,  the Department of National  Defence, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, all competing with one another.  The administration’s relief effort alone is as disorganised and slow to respond as its  machinery was when Yolanda flattened Tacloban.

All we are told, according to newspaper reports, is that Mr Aquino has approved in principle many of the items cited by Balisacan, but asked the latter and other pertinent Cabinet members for more specific details before providing formal approval. Other unnamed Cabinet officials were reported to have indicated that the plan would most likely be funded by foreign and local sources. Lacierda said the Cabinet task force that drafted the plan would meet with the President today to “present further refinements to the plan, especially to the immediate actions to be taken.” That’s another delay. Mr Aquino then reportedly breezed out of the Cabinet meeting, the way he stormed out of a meeting with officials on Day One in Tacloban, in anger after being told that the death toll in Tacloban alone would reach 10,000.

After the Cabinet meeting, the President supposedly rattled off the marching order, “Do it now,” meaning the action plan, then disappeared, leaving the Cabinet members guessing when they would see him again, perhaps with the decision as to who would be calling the shots in this gigantic reconstruction effort.

The enormity of the scale of the devastation confronting the administration unfolded on November 25, summed up by Inquirer Research: 5,235 dead (as of the government’s understated count, not reflecting the 1,755 bodies retrieved in Tacloban from November 15 to 21; 1,613 missing; 23,501 injured; 4.2 million displaced; 347,426 in evacuation centres; 10.5-billion-peso damage to agriculture; 552,419 destroyed houses; 12-billion-peso damage to infrastructure;  14.9 billion pesos in international aid; 507 million pesos in local assistance.
The President has at last conceded that the death toll is now twice the estimate he gave to foreign correspondents (2,000-2,500). But the number is still rising, with more bodies having been recovered. After  going back to Leyte and Samar last week, the President did the foolish thing of calling for an investigation into why the death toll had exceeded his expectation of “zero” casualties in a country that, since time immemorial, has been ravaged by an average of 20 typhoons a year—partly to save face and partly to look for scapegoats to blame for the havoc wrought by Yolanda.

With more figures being reported to Manila, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported updated figures: damage to agriculture about 11.30 billion pesos, including 5.168 billion pesos in crops and 2.184 billion pesos in livestock; damage to infrastructure 13.182 billion pesos; estimated cost of government assistance to affected families 528 million pesos. Aquino also said he would ask Congress to amend the 2014 national budget to provide funds for rehabilitation, saying the government did not have all the money it needed for the massive rehabilitation required.

The Asian Development Bank has announced it would likely increase its significant aid to the Philippines, citing the “massive challenge” facing the government in reconstruction. It said its initial assessment of the damage showed the need for a long-term reconstruction plan that must include zoning rules that the government should strictly enforce.

“While we need to get more information from the assessment teams, it is clear that reconstruction will be a massive challenge,” ADB vice president Stephen Groff was reported as saying. “As with many such disasters, some of the most difficult challenges will be in carrying out the  principle of ‘building back better’—including rezoning and its enforcement—as people and business get back  on track.”

This requires a reconstruction czar with extraordinary powers, not a rule by an inchoate Cabinet.

How can a Cabinet run a country in a catastrophic crisis led by an absentee and waffling government?

US$1 = 43.66 pesos

 

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