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Reconstruction lessons

Publication Date : 20-12-2013


Forty days after Supertyphoon Yolanda (internationalname: Haiyan) wreaked havoc in the Visayas, the national government presented the Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda, or RAY, framework, a “strategic plan to guide the recovery and reconstruction of the economy, lives, and livelihoods in the affected areas”. It is a laudable effort, emerging from core principles “based on lessons from previous disasters in the Philippines and other countries.” But in at least two aspects, the plan—and by extension the administration that prepared it—still has important lessons to learn.

RAY represents the National Economic and Development Authority’s best estimate of the economic impact of Yolanda. Using the United Nations’ definitions of loss and damage, the Neda calculated the total cost at 571.1 billion pesos (US$13 billion). Another remarkable statistic: About three-fifths of the total economic impact, some 325 billion pesos ($7.30 billion), was in housing alone.

The RAY framework is explicit about its “core principles”—and the pivotal paragraph is worth quoting almost in full: “The magnitude of the disaster and the large scope of recovery and reconstruction call for institutional arrangements that combine strong central coordination and oversight with flexible implementation at the local level.

Coordination between government agencies and engagement with international donors, civil society organisations, and the private sector will be based on common recovery and reconstruction goals with standards set by government, which will also be responsible for managing implementation risks and addressing bottlenecks. At the same time, implementation shall be the responsibility of the local government, supported with capacity development, to ensure that the response is tailored to local conditions and promotes community participation, ownership and sustainability.”

This is where the first lesson-not-yet-fully-learned can be found. While we recognize the impressive amount of consultation conducted to formulate the framework, we are concerned that the plan’s core principles do not explicitly acknowledge the need to consult constantly and continuously with the survivors themselves. As we argued in this same space last week: “Rather than unilaterally imposing rehabilitation plans that may look good on paper but turn out to be of little use to victims and survivors on the ground, it would be wise for government agencies in the frontlines to involve the affected residents every step of the way in any effort meant to rebuild their lives.”

We realise that “flexible implementation at the local level” is a concept wide enough to include consultation with survivors, and recognise that promoting “community participation” is a step in the right direction. But our sense is that “private sector” will often be read as code for businesses, and that nothing in the framework prevents local governments from ignoring unorganized survivors. In other words, the most important lesson of postdisaster rehabilitation, that the locals themselves are the main source of sustainable assistance, is insufficiently applied.

President Aquino presented RAY to diplomats and representatives of international aid organizations on Wednesday, as partners in the massive reconstruction effort. The plan itself acknowledges the crucial role “international donors, civil society organisations” and the like will perform. But it does not address the popular demand for greater accountability of donations and aid. Unlike other disasters, Yolanda carries a governance burden; the pork barrel scam has shaped people’s response to the reconstruction project.

But accountability—the second lesson-not-yet-fully-learned—applies not only to Philippine handling of aid and donations, but to the aid-givers and donors, too. Only three years ago, the Haiti earthquake provoked a similar outpouring of international assistance. But as detailed in “The Big Truck That Went By,” Jonathan Katz’s exposé of what really happened in Haiti after the earthquake, much of the pledged amount of $8.4 billion did not materialize, were inflated, or were the result of creative accounting.

This is not to second-guess the many organisations that have come to our aid, or to undermine the terms of their assistance. Like the rest of the nation, we are truly grateful for their help. But accountability cuts both ways—and RAY, despite being the genuine breakthrough it is, lacks sufficient measures to hold all parties to the reconstruction to strict account.


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