On 8 November 2013 super typhoon Yolanda (or Haiyan as it is known outside the Philippines) cut a swathe through the Visayan region. Yolanda was one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall and the damage left in her wake was catastrophic. At the time of writing more than 7000 are missing or dead, vast areas of agricultural land has been devastated and whole towns have been destroyed. International media reports have focused on the city of Tacloban, which was virtually demolished by the storm. Yolanda has been a public relations disaster for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, this short article will examine why.
At the time of writing the international community has donated nearly $317 million in funding and goods in-kind to the Yolanda relief effort. However the logistics of aid delivery, clear up operations and the politicking that has accompanied this have been problematic. Aquino’s approval ratings were already on the slide in the face of the recent scandal over pork barrel funding however there is the distinct possibility that confidence in the president will collapse in the aftermath of Yolanda.
Aquino volunteered himself as a hostage to fortune two days before Yolanda hit when he stated that he expected government agencies to ensure zero casualties. Aquino subsequently attempted to dismiss a casualty estimate of 10,000 on the basis of it being an ‘emotional drama’, although this figure may yet be reached. A delay in clearing cadavers from the streets and bureaucratic wrangling over the death count has led to further criticism of the government’s response to the disaster. Aquino dodged a direct question from CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour about whether his response to Yolanda will define his presidency but his critics have been vocal in their condemnation.
An attempt by Aquino to blame failings in disaster response in Tacloban on local government units (LGUs) that were effectively wiped out, also met with widespread condemnation. The national government could hardly expect personally traumatized local officials at the epicenter of the disaster, and therefore victims themselves, to muster a coherent response. LGUs were legislated for in the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines under Article X and brought into operation under the 1991 Local Government Code during the presidency of Aquino’s mother, the late Cory Aquino. LGUs were designed to bring governance closer to the people as a reaction against the centralized system of governance that had allowed the Marcoses to strip the country of assets under martial law (1972-1986). However devolved governance has simply tended to result in decentralized corruption. A phenomenon that is surely related to the lack of typhoon resilient infrastructure in parts of the Visayas. The Philippines currently ranks 105th out of 174 countries in Transparency Internationals Corruption Perceptions Index.
The mainstream media in the Philippines has been largely loyal to the President. The ABS/CBN media network favours Aquino as his mother made it her business to return the network to the Lopez family after it was appropriated by Marcos under martial law. Consequently the ABS/CBN stable of stars turned out in force during the 2010 presidential campaign in support of Aquino and in the 2013 mid term elections in support of his first cousin Senator Paulo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV. The family has also benefitted from the support of Kris Aquino, the president’s youngest sister and one of the most famous TV personalities in the Philippines. However the president faced the glare of the international, not just the national media, in the aftermath of Yolanda, and it owed him no such loyalty.
A spat between TV presenter and wife of Interior Minister Mar Roxas, Korina Sanchez, and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, was illustrative of this phenomenon. Anderson reported that the government response to Yolanda in Tacloban was chaotic. Sanchez accused him of being overly critical. As Cooper was on the ground in Tacloban and Sanchez was still in an air-conditioned office in Manila he suggested that she, as wife of the Interior Minister, might be advised to come and see the situation for herself. Consequently spoof, but deadpan, messages emerged on the Internet that Cooper was to be appointed US Ambassador to the Philippines. This episode reflected badly on Aquino as Mar Roxas is one of Aquino’s closest friends and his right hand man on the ground in Tacloban. He is widely believed to be the candidate that Aquino will endorse as his successor in the 2016 elections. Philippine presidents are restricted to only one term office. Aquino cannot stand for re-election in 2016. Attempts to gloss over the scale of the disaster left Aquino exposed to a critical international media.
In some instances however reporting on the disaster has been distorted. Some media ‘evidence’ used in the aftermath of the disaster has been exposed as false or manipulated. For instance an image, purported to be of a young boy helping a younger unrelated boy in a queue for food was found to originate not in Tacloban but Zamboanga and the children are in fact brothers. This mislabeled image still graces the Facebook page of Filipina Miss World, Megan Young, who is seemingly oblivious to the error. Images of relief goods packaged in the yellow insignia of Aquino’s political party, Laban, are in fact goods that were doled out during previous emergencies. Much has been made of the repackaging of relief goods with critics noting that aid should be swiftly distributed rather than hi-jacked as political advertising. Unfavourable comparisons have been drawn between relief packs bearing the name of Vice President Jejomar Binay and those simply labeled ‘from the American People’. Even more damaging are allegations that government officials are capable of stealing and hoarding relief goods.
Meanwhile on 19 November the Philippine Supreme Court voted unanimously, with one abstention, to abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), otherwise known as pork barrel, in the wake of the Janet Lim-Napoles scandal. Napoles is currently under arrest for charges that relate to the diversion of P10 billion into fake NGOs and the coffers of Senators including Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla. The vote indicated the independence of the Supreme Court from government interference and is seen as a blow to the presidency as it undermines Aquino’s claim that he is effectively fighting corruption. Potentially this move could result in a sea change in Philippine politics if the implementation of the ruling means that officials will be fundamentally restricted in terms of syphoning funds into their own coffers. A process that critics linked to the lack of infrastructure and poor planning that was exposed in the face of Yolanda’s wrath.
There is no magic bullet that can repair the Visayan region. Entire livelihoods have been swept away, agriculture in the region is devastated and essential equipment such as fishing boats has been lost. Schools, hospitals and infrastructure has been demolished and homes destroyed. The manner in which Aquino sets about the regeneration of the Visayas will surely be his legacy.
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.