Typhoon Haiyan – An Opportunity for Transformation?
By Robert McElhinney
Last November, Toronto residents joined the local Filipino community in responding to the tragedy caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Fundraisers were organized to help the millions left without homes, and vigils mounted to mourn more than 6000 dead. Four months later, most of us have already forgotten.
In the Philippines, however, the work of reconstruction has only just begun. In the days and weeks following the disaster, the government struggled to rehabilitate the national north-south highway, and to add the additional ferry services needed to accommodate the flow of relief supplies.
Later, the focus shifted to building bunk houses for the homeless. Amidst outcry at the poor quality of the construction, there has been a commitment to modify and rebuild to international standards.
Public debate over mismanagement of development funds is not new to the Philippines. Right at the time that the typhoon hit, organized opposition to “porkbarreling” was ramping up. The issue here is continuing presidential discretion over 1,134.8 billion pesos in public funds [$28 billion Cdn].
A small portion of these funds – 25.2 billion pesos in the proposed 2014 budget – are Priority Development Assistance Funds. These PDAF funds are allocated to legislators for purposes which they determine in their regions.
In one recent scandal, allegations are that 100% of this PDAF has been lost to kickbacks – 50% to legislators, 10-15% to local governments and implementing agencies, and 35-40% to a prominent business woman named Janet Napoles.
Typhoon Haiyan has drawn new critical attention to the porkbarreling system. On the surface, it would seem that this crisis presents an opportunity for President Benigno Aquino to direct discretionary lump sum funds to the purpose of rebuilding the devastated regions of his country.
However, this top down approach to spending has historically favoured the rich over the poor. Already grass roots organizations are expressing concerns about the government’s plan to develop a public-private response to the crisis. To date, there has been no organized consultation with victims or organizations supporting them.
What are we in Toronto to make of this convergence of major disaster with public outcry against a corrupt system of managing public funds in the Philippines? It should be transformative. It is a time for momentum to bring about real change.
In 1986, people power removed the corrupt regime of President Marcos. Sadly, removing the man did not transform the system. This time people power in the Philippines must target the very workings of governance itself.
We here in Canada can support the grassroots movement for change. If we do not, we become part of the problem, because our own corporations are there.
The Philippines government allows Canadian mining companies to extract tremendous natural resources, while exporting up to 100% of their profits. This permissive environment has led to complaints of environmental destruction and human rights abuses.
Canadians have a responsibility to pressure our government to regulate the activities of our mining companies working abroad. At the same time, we can support people power by raising the porkbarreling issue with our government representatives and partnering with community based organizations in the Philippines.
Can a leopard change its spots? When the people of the Philippines rise up again in a collective cry for change, and when we their allies abroad are with them in the struggle, it is possible.
Robert McElhinney is a retired United Church minister, whose daughter and her family live in the Philippines. Over the last six years, he has visited the Philipinnes three times. In 2012, Bob and his wife Dorothy participated in an exposure tour to learn about the impact of large scale mining on local communities and the environment in the Cordillera region of north Luzon in the Philippines. His last visit to the Philippines fell one month after Typhoon Haiyan.