Monday, February 3, 2014

‘Build Back Better’

Commentary
By Denis Murphy

The international slogan for reconstruction work after disasters—“Build Back Better”—promises both a return to what existed in the past and a much better future. It offers reassurance and hope. We can easily build back after Super Typhoon “Yolanda,” but will we be able to build in a way something that truly offers victims a better future? This may be the main question facing the government in its reconstruction work in the Visayas.

We can return our fishermen and farmers to their old, pre-Yolanda and materially poor life conditions, but can we enrich their lives? Returning people to their previous lives of poverty is no big deal; helping them find or build better lives, that is the real, great achievement.

And this requires that we not only provide houses for the victims of Yolanda, but that the houses are in relocation sites that are acceptable to the people and that are up to international standards in terms of size, durability and attractiveness; and that the families get land tenure security.

On a larger scale, the question is: Will reconstruction work result in a society that is more equal in income and in political power? Will the income gap between the rich and the poor narrow somewhat? Will the poor and near-poor have a greater voice in the decision-making that affects their lives? Will democracy prosper?
There are worrisome signs indicating that the poor would be lucky to get back what they once had, inadequate as it may have been. What are some of these signs?

For one, there seems to be a large communication gap between the poor and the key decision-makers. In mid-January, in Tacloban, wives of fishermen told people working with Urban Poor Associates and the Holy Spirit Sisters that their children were still hungry and in growing danger of malnutrition. They pointed out that their tents, given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), get wet inside when it rains; and cold rain blows through the tents; and adults and children get drenched when they try to sleep. The people in charge are no doubt willing to give more food and provide flooring materials for tent occupants, but they aren’t aware of these needs of the poor.

Food for children and some type of flooring could be provided  if the top decision-makers knew of these needs. They are caring human beings, after all; and the food supplies and flooring materials are available. But this sort of “response gap” indicates that the top officials are unaware of the day-to-day concrete reality on the ground. What is not known cannot be fixed. And do the decision-makers appreciate the intangibles that make people’s lives “better,” such as land reform, propoor law enforcement, land tenure security and many others?

The items that make life better for poor people are most often  considered matters of social justice. But the increasing reliance being placed on the business sector for such things by the reconstruction officials worries us. Big business can “build back”—it can provide houses, boats, seeds, fertilizer, etc., but it doesn’t have a very good record on “justice issues,” such as land reform, land tenure security and propoor law enforcement.

There is a role for all sorts of people in the reconstruction effort, but this doesn’t mean the business community should spearhead the overall movement. Can we employ business resources and intelligence in the pursuit of goals and execution of plans that a wider number of interest groups, including the poor people themselves, decide on?

Public skepticism about the openness of big business to so-called justice matters was heightened by a CNN report last Jan. 25 from the Economic Forum in Davos. It noted that income equality was extensively discussed at the meeting by the participants, but there was little indication the mostly wealthy businessmen and women there were prepared to do anything to narrow the gap. “They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk,” the commentator summarized. Do Filipino businesspeople differently inclined in their response to this concern?

We have to provide rice and coconut farmers with seeds and fertilizers. In addition, we should institute land reform, the kind that would definitely improve their lives. Maybe the coconut farmers could also get back the coconut levy collected from them during martial law.

The fishermen need new boats and nets, and also the assurance that the municipal waters will be reserved for them, and that all other laws meant to help the marginal fishermen will be observed.

Indeed, the reconstruction project faces a big decision on the issue of relocating families from within the “40-meter no-build zone.” Like all relocation undertakings, this one inevitably raises more questions: For example, will it allow wage-earning fishermen to have a marina-hostel of sorts at the shore, where they can also sleep when necessary, so they can continue fishing in order to support their families? The marina-hostel will serve as a “fishing jump-off point.”

Relocation we know how to do; we know the mistakes to avoid, the biggest of which is the lack of jobs in distant relocation sites. Designing and building the facility for the fishermen will still take a great deal of consultation and discussion with the fishermen. We should get busy. For them, relocation without the marina-hostel is not even “building back.” And the challenge is “building back better.”

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates 


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