By Pauline Eadie
On Friday 8 November super typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) traversed the Philippines leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The Philippines lies in the western Pacific and is the first major landfall above the equator before continental Asia. The Philippines is an archipelago comprising of thousands of islands. It is directly in the path regular typhoons that roll in from the Pacific. The capital Manila often bears the brunt of the typhoon season but this time the weather system struck land further south in the Visayan region. The storm came hot on the heels of a 7.2 earthquake in the same region in October. The earthquake demolished many historic buildings, left over 200 dead and many of the survivors were still living in tents when the typhoon hit.
The Eastern Visayan town of Tacloban has become the poster town for Yolanda in the international media. Over 10,000 are feared dead although there is no immediate prospect of an official death toll given the chaotic situation on the ground across a wide area. Despite the warnings many people in Tacloban were unable to find adequate shelter as the storm hit. People were advised to head for concrete structures. One of those chosen as a refuge, the airport, was completely destroyed by the strength of the storm. The images coming out of Tacloban are reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The devastation to the city is near complete. Dead bodies litter the streets and virtually no structures are left standing. A similar although less extreme picture is emerging from other areas in the region.
Early indications show that the international community has responded rapidly to calls for aid and relief efforts are underway. However, the situation remains desperate for some of the survivors. The Philippines’ population is recorded as 105.72 million in 2013. It is ranked as the 12th most populated country in the world despite ranking 71st globally in terms of landmass. Population continues to grow at 1.89%, a trajectory fuelled by the vocal opposition of the Catholic Church to birth control. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and politicians ignore the influence of the church at their peril.
The Philippines enjoyed a GDP growth rate of 6.8% in 2012 according to World Bank figures however 52% of Filipino families ranked themselves as poor in 2013. Inequality in the Philippines is endemic and wealth and poverty exist in close proximity. The poor tend to live in the most vulnerable environmental areas, as they simply have no choice. Space is at a premium. Yolanda has left many people destitute. However these people were most likely already on the breadline and living in flimsy shanty housing. They are uninsured, not in the sense that they have no insurance policies, but in the sense that they have little or nothing material to fall back on. Yolanda has thrown the nature of their existence has been thrown into sharp relief. However failings of governance must also surely come under scrutiny.
Yolanda’s arrival has coincided with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Warsaw 11-22 November 2013. Yolanda has highlighted the link between global warming and an increased incidence of destructive weather phenomena. As the waters of the Pacific heat up typhoons become stronger and more likely. The responsibility for Yolanda lies with unsustainable patterns of development and consumption across the international community.
However there are also significant problems of governance within the Philippines that contributed to the devastating impact of Yolanda. On Thursday 8th November, a few hours before Yolanda laid waste to the Visayas, financial fixer Janet Lim-Napoles appeared in front of a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee accused of the mass misappropriation of government funds. Napoles appeared in a police issue bullet-proof vest. Meanwhile Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago urged the defendant to name the officials complicit in her scam. Santiago suggested that if Napoles did not name names then her anonymous partners in crime would surely have her assassinated to ensure her silence. Napoles, as expected, exercised her right to remain silent. To clarify a Senator speaking in the highest governmental forum in the Philippines was openly stating that other senators were capable of organizing the murder of a suspect held in remand.
Napoles’ crime was to divert P10 billion in pork barrel funding into fake non-governmental organizations and ultimately back into the pockets of those who had sanctioned the dispersal of the funds. Napoles stands accused of being the brains behind the operation. Her misdemeanors were only exposed when a complicit relative, Benhur Luy, threatened to blow the whistle. Her response was to kidnap him. The authorities subsequently rescued him on March 22 2013. After going to ground Napoles eventually surrendered herself to the custody of President Aquino. Napoles apparently chose to surrender to the President as a way of ensuring her safety after a P10 million bounty had been placed on her head. The general population has been outraged by Napoles audacity and numerous protest rallies have been held across the country.
The Philippines is widely perceived as a corrupt country that is run by an oligarchy drawn from a narrow range of political dynasties. Indeed Aquino himself is the son of former President Cory Aquino and Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. His father was assassinated at Manila airport in 1983 when he returned home from exile in the United States. His martyrdom, allegedly at the hands of the Marcos regime, propelled his wife to the presidency in 1986. The current president’s 2013 electoral campaign aligned the Aquino family of father, mother and son with the holy family, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, a strategy that effectively tapped into the Catholic sentiments of the Philippines.
Napoles crime in perhaps unusual only in its scale. There was already public outrage over her activities however the devastation wrought by Yolanda serves to highlight the juxtaposition of a growing, impoverished and vulnerable underclass against a historically entrenched wealthy elite. In the days that follow there will no doubt be calls for the government to take effective action in the face of the disaster. However, early indicators are not good. It has been reported that Aquino walked out of a meeting in the face of the sheer scale of the disaster and angry heckling from survivors. There are also reports, reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that survivors are looting the dead in a desperate attempt to survive. However there are emerging reports that politicians are allocating their pork barrel funds to disaster relief. Now that the eyes of the world are on the Philippines hopefully the longer-term legacy of Yolanda will be enhanced transparency in the allocation of government finances and robust infrastructure capable of mitigating the effects of future typhoons. The international media has not made the connection between the Napoles case and Yolanda yet, but if the government of the Philippines fails its own citizens in the face of this disaster it soon will.
Dr. Pauline Eadie has travelled widely in the Philippines. She is author of Poverty and the Critical Security Agenda, which looks at the case study of the Philippines, and ‘The Philippine 2010 National Elections: Perception and Reality’ European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol 12, No.1, 2013. During the 2010 presidential elections she was an election monitor with the International Peoples’ Observers Mission in Iloilo, a city in the western Visayan islands affected by typhoon Yolanda.
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