Monday, December 2, 2013

A storm surge of suggestions

By Denis Murphy

These days, President Aquino faces a storm surge of suggestions on how to run the government’s reconstruction program in the areas walloped by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The purpose of this piece (and of a roundtable on reconstruction matters to be held in mid-December) is to help the President and his assistants to sort through the suggestions pouring into their offices. Some are good; some are not so useful.

There are rules for the dangerous and demanding work of reconstruction. Lawyer Angel Ojastro of Naga City, who worked closely with the late Jesse Robredo, sent the following list of suggestions compiled by former US President Bill Clinton when he was the United Nations’ special envoy for tsunami recovery (2006). In the interest of space I have left out some suggestions and trimmed down some:

• Governments, donors, and aid agencies must recognize that families and communities drive their own recovery.
• Recovery must promote fairness and equity.
• Local governments must be empowered to manage recovery efforts.
• Good recovery planning and effective coordination depend on good information.
• The UN, World Bank, and other multilateral agencies must clarify their roles.
• From the start of recovery operations, governments and aid agencies must create the conditions for entrepreneurs to flourish.
• Good recovery must leave communities safer by reducing risks and building resilience.

My good friend, architect Jonathan James Price, sent me his own list. Price is now a consultant with the World Bank in Manila. He is English but is fortunately married to a Filipino, architect May Domingo. He has worked among poor people in a number of Asian countries. I have also left out from his list some suggestions and trimmed down others:

• If possible, people should be allowed to return to their previous locations and, with technical assistance, rebuild safer and better housing where they used to live. It is very easy to make blanket judgments about no-build zones, but mitigation measures should also be taken into consideration. People often end up losing their occupancy rights as well. “Building back better” is a nice catchy phrase, but it doesn’t always get done, especially when so many people are affected and resources including technical assistance, monitoring capacity, money and materials are limited.
• Relocation projects should not cram as many people as possible onto the sites, but consider livelihood very carefully in the planning—such as larger plots of land for backyard gardening or common facilities like workshops. If livelihood is not considered very carefully in the relocation sites, they will be a failure.
• It’s best to avoid transitional housing or bunk housing and move people straight into permanent housing. People end up staying in bunkhouses for far too long.
• Whenever possible, big international nongovernment organizations should partner with local NGOs, people’s organizations, and community-based organizations in rebuilding communities and replanning or planning new settlements. In so doing, they can strengthen local organization and capacity as well as make use of all that local knowledge.

Most of the suggestions in these two lists seek to ensure that ordinary citizens and their communities will be involved in the reconstruction process (the poor, especially, because they are so often ignored or ill-treated), and that they will be treated fairly and with equity (justly). Price’s suggestions focus on historic mistakes that were made in past reconstruction programs and can be made in the future.

To act as Clinton and Price suggest takes time. It is better, they recommend, to proceed slowly and thoughtfully than rush to judgment in these complex and controversial matters, such as the site of relocation areas. If the people feel poorly treated, the road ahead will be slow and maddeningly frustrating all around.

Price focuses on some of these recurring mistakes, such as choice of relocation areas, overcrowding, and lack of long-term perspective. At bottom, it seems that he and Clinton are asking for compassion, consultation, determination, learning from past mistakes, and thoughtful, widely accepted steps forward.

How does the government show its determination to rehouse the million-plus homeless families despite the problems? How will it enforce its decisions? How will it punish individuals who place their own economic good over the happiness of thousands of poor people? Does it need special powers from Congress—for example, stronger expropriation powers?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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