Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How are we doing?

Denis Murphy

It’s been more than three months since the onslaught of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” Maybe it is time for President Aquino to talk to the nation about the progress made to date in the reconstruction, and how he evaluates the work. What guidelines does he feel must be reaffirmed? What are the great priorities for action? Maybe it is also time to refocus the country’s energies on this enormous task, the most complicated work of its kind since the reconstruction after World War II.

The Senate plans its own investigation of the Yolanda work. That, too, is welcome. We can count on the Senate to reveal the political backdrop to the work down south. The reconstruction work is so immense that we need many other evaluations.

Here in Manila we hardly hear details of the work. We have our basketball games, movie festivals, and Senate inquiries; these hold our attention while 5 million survivors of Yolanda and more survivors in Bohol, Zamboanga and Eastern Mindanao fight for decent survival. For many, the work undertaken in the Visayas and Mindanao is as remote as the war in Sudan.

Reconstruction is really too important a work for the nation’s future economic and cultural health to allow political and money-making considerations to guide decision-making. Yolanda is the great crisis of this generation. What solidarity can exist in the nation if we allow hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters to go homeless and hungry? Who will respect our leaders if they fail to lead by example of hard work and honesty? What face will we have in the international community?

Among the guidelines the President might reaffirm is the policy that families cannot be removed from their homes unless they consent to be relocated on a permanent basis to a site they have approved, to concrete houses with a clear road to a title in the future. There should be work available in the relocation area. Fishermen’s families can be relocated, but there should be a facility along the shoreline, a wharf perhaps, where they can store their boats, prepare and market their fish, or send the fish to larger markets, and sleep when convenient. Fishing is the only income these families have.

The President might see to it that agricultural workers who find their crops and trees in ruins will receive seeds, fertilizers, plows and other forms of assistance, and be benefited by land reform. Why not? It could make the difference between simply “building back” and “building back better.” I think the people of the nation would like to hear the President reaffirm that the recovery will be characterized by people’s participation and will be community-driven. Democracy is often the first casualty in a crisis.

The reconstruction work is as complicated as life itself. How complicated it is is seen in a community discussion held late in January in Tacloban City. The people, mostly fishermen and their wives, were discussing new fishing boats, relocation, a fisherman’s wharf, improving the tents provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and feeding programs for children. And then a middle-aged woman stood up to tell the people there: “We discuss these things and we need them all, but we also need bras, panties and sanitary napkins. It’s impossible to keep our clothes dry in all this rain. Oh, yes, the men need briefs, underwear. They’re human, too.” The crowd laughed.

People would also like to hear from “reconstruction czar” Panfilo Lacson. What is his assessment of the overall work? What is he concentrating on? Is he mostly concerned with big businesses, as rumors have it? What are the major problems he faces?

People would like to know the overall financial situation of the recovery effort. Did the country get the funding it hoped for from the UN, international NGOs, and individual countries? If there is less funding than expected, where will cuts be made? How was the local financial contribution?

Have people been arrested for hoarding, raising prices artificially, stealing resources, and profiteering in other ways? Has anyone been punished? Most people will assume, I’m afraid, that if some people have not been arrested, the old crimes are taking place with impunity.

A wise and learned priest told me this story a few days ago about St. Alberto Hurtado, a 20th-century Jesuit priest in Chile who held doctorates in law and in education  and worked with labor unions, youth and the homeless. He marveled at the closeness of the poor to God. One rainy night Hurtado was late for a big meeting. He was running to his car to catch up when he saw a sick old man sitting in the rain. He gave the old man the money he had in his pocket and ran on. Then he stopped. He went back to the Jesuit house, took all the food in the refrigerator, and gave it to the man. He took off his coat and wrapped it around him. And as he watched in amazement, the tired, ravaged face of the old man turned into that of Jesus.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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