Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Still not getting it right

My March 3, 2015 column.


There’s good news and there’s bad news for the victims of supertyphoon Yolanda, particularly those who have still been unable to rebuild their homes, or at least put together some semblance of a shelter for their families after the howling winds and the storm surge destroyed everything on that fateful morning of November 8, 2013.  
The good news is that 15 months after the supertyphoon wrecked havoc and devastation across the Visayas, government is finally releasing direct financial assistance to victims under the Emergency Shelter Assistance of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.  The total amount that government is now willing to give to the victims of the supertyphoon is a staggering amount that reaches tens of billions of pesos.  The amount released recently just for Western Visayas reached P1.5 billion pesos.  Based on media reports, families whose houses were totally wiped out, destroyed, or leveled to the ground, would receive a low of P30,000 to a high of P70,000 each,while those with partially damaged houses would receive a smaller amount.
Okay, so we all know that this was exactly the plea of People Surge, the alliance of victims of the supertyphoon who even went to Manila and submitted their request at the gates of Malacanan Palace last year.  They were snubbed and their request for financial assistance to the victims and the homeless was deemed impractical. In his trademark response to questions that annoy him, the President of the Republic scolded the leaders of the movement for not thinking clearly and for being unrealistic, saying that releasing that kind of money was not as easy as the victims thought.   Senator Panfilo Lacson even branded the victims as communists who were out to destabilize government. 
But let us not get anymore into the reasons for the sudden change of heart of the Aquino administration.  The generosity may be a little late, but it can still be of great help to the victims many of whom have not fully rebuilt their houses or still live under temporary makeshift houses.
The bad news, however, is that the guidelines that define who are qualified to receive the shelter assistance has been met with large-scale indignation.  From an objective perspective, the intent is quite clear and reasonable – only those who are gainfully employed with incomes below P15,000, those below the poverty threshold of the region, and those who have not received similar assistance from other agencies are the only ones qualified.  When resources are limited, it makes sense to make sure that these go to those who truly need it the most.  Unfortunately, this is not the way mindsets go in this country where everyone thinks of himself or herself as a victim who deserves as much help as everyone else. 
What aggravates the whole situation is the seeming lack of coordination with local governments, most of which are complaining about not having been consulted by barangay health workers or DSWD employees on the ground.  In many cases, the local officials are themselves the ones agitating people to complain about not being in the list of recipients.   And so, all over the Visayas today, there is widespread grumbling and anger directed at the DSWD for the alleged snafu in the selection of those who got the highly coveted “green forms” (the Disaster Assistance and Family Access Card).  
Once again, we have a situation where instead of being praised and congratulated for helping the victims, government is actually getting more flak.  In the words of many people in Leyte who were “disenfranchised” from the list, “it would have been better if the government didn’t help anymore since we did not expect them to do that anyway.”  It’s not really a fair comment because there really are many people who would really still benefit from the shelter assistance, but on the other hand, not totally incomprehensible since many of the global donors did not impose the same preconditions when the granted aid in the immediate aftermath of the supertyphoon.
All of these problems could have been avoided if government response was quicker; a year ago, it would have been a lot easier to distinguish those who really needed help the most.  Also, a more collaborative approach where everybody – local governments, community organizations, church organizations, etc – is consulted and involved would make communication efforts more effective.  And of course, a little more empathy on the part of government would really go a long way.  Scolding people and brushing their complaints and questions off and accusing them of being opportunists – as some DSWD local officials in the Visayas have been reportedly doing – does not help.

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