Friday, March 14, 2014

Danger on the Trail Ahead

By Denis Murphy

I see a great danger looming for the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” as they trudge toward recovery. I fear that the plan of the government and the United Nations to end all food relief in April is premature, and can cause many families to fall back into hunger rather than spur them forward to economic self-reliance.

Six months after a disaster, the United Nations and other relief bodies regularly end the distribution of food, believing that by that time the beneficiaries will have enough cash income to buy the food they need. After six months a dole economy gives way to a cash economy. Donors believe longer food relief will encourage dependency.

But the result of our own sampling of the families in Barangays 89 and 90 of Tacloban City shows that many would not yet have found sufficient income to purchase their food when the cutoff comes in April. We should note that cash-for-work programs will also stop in April, along with the restoration and repair of agriculture and aquatic resources.

We selected 30 families at random in Barangays 89 and 90 and asked them if right now they can pay cash for the food they eat, or if they depend to some degree on the food relief. All but five said they cannot yet pay for all the food they eat or need to eat. I don’t see a realistic hope that they can do so by April, especially if the UN program and other cash-for-work programs are suspended. The families all seek economic opportunities.

To be honest, I have talked about this matter with high UN officials, international donors, members of local nongovernment organizations, personal friends, and my wife, Alicia. Only my wife agrees with me because she has met the same people I have met.  She doesn’t always agree with me so readily, as our friends know. To  most of the other people I spoke with, I must have sounded like the hen in the children’s story “Henny Penny,” who went around frantically warning everyone that the sky was falling because an acorn had fallen on her head.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the typhoon survivors do not have enough income to take over the cost of food. Most of them lost the very means of work. Fishers lost their boats, motors and nets. Rice farmers lost their fields to salt-water inflows. Coconut farmers lost their trees. Only a small fraction of fishers have new equipment. The fields, I am told, need at least an entire rainy season to recover, and new coconut trees need six years before they can bear fruit. Countless other wage earners had worked hand in hand with the fishers and farmers, such as fish marketers and coconut oil workers. Now they are also out of work.

In Tacloban the people of Barangays 88, 89 and 90, where well over 1,000 people died, have taken advantage of every economic opportunity offered even while receiving food aid. For example, they worked with the Holy Spirit sisters to make the fishing boats they will use. They scavenge, vend food products in the city, and search for casual employment. They put up sari-sari stores with the financing they got from the Tzu Chi Foundation.
The need is not for a closure, but for an expansion, of cash-for-work programs. There is a need for large public works programs that, for example, can build sea walls to mitigate future storm surges, build artificial reefs to allow for the replenishment of the fish stock, remove debris,  and make public improvements in communities.

We should also remember that Samar and Leyte have always been among the country’s poorest provinces. There was never much economic fat on most people in these provinces, and Yolanda took that little away. They have a long road in front of them before they reach some level of economic sufficiency.

Some donors are afraid that too long a period of food relief will encourage people to be dependent. I am reminded of the words of sociologist Gelia Castillo of the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos: “If poor people really depended on the Philippine government for the necessities of life, they would be dead by now.”
Ordinary men and women don’t like to beg or line up for food. Whether they have food relief or not, poor people will strive to find work. With work comes self-respect, which all people seek. Food relief may make some families overly dependent, but they are not many. Isn’t it an awful indictment of a nation’s people to say food relief can dull their sense of dignity as human beings?

We ask the government and the United Nations to monitor the actual situation of the poor closely to judge if they have sufficient income and will not be hurt if the food relief is shut down a month from now. It would be a great cruelty to allow our poor people to fall back into food poverty just because we have followed a general norm without an intense inspection of the actual situation on the ground. Please take another close look.

Since the days of ancient Greece and the Hippocratic Oath, doctors have been told that their first duty is “not to do harm.” I suggest we make that our first rule in this matter of the food relief cutoff.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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