Yolanda

Reconstruction

My colleague Manuel Buencamino calls it the biggest reconstruction project in the Philippines after World War II. President Noy Aquino (PNoy) calls it a “comprehensive rehabilitation program.”

Typhoon Yolanda has brought incalculable, terrible costs. Two weeks after the most powerful storm in more than a century ripped central Philippines, more than 5200 people have died, more than a thousand are still missing, and scores of thousands are recuperating from physical injury and emotional trauma.

The calculation of economic losses brought about by Typhoon Yolanda’s devastation varies widely. The International Business Times (UK edition) provides some information on the economic impact:

CEDIM Forensic Disaster, based in Germany estimates that losses will range between US$8 billion and US$19 billion.
Another group, Kinetic Analysis Corp. places the economic costs at between US12 billion and US15 billion.
Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan estimates that the reconstruction costs can reach US$5.8 billion.

In short, the amount for rehabilitation is staggering. But as I will explain later, the resources can be mobilized without necessarily overburdening the economy. The important point is this: The rehabilitation program is an opportunity to lay the foundation for post-Yolanda all-round, sustainable development.

In this context of recovering from the devastation brought about by the super typhoon, we can apply loosely (even literally!) Joseph Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction.” Yolanda destroyed the old, and it is up to us as a people, not only the policymakers, to create a new one. We hope that what we rebuild, to quote Schumpeter again, will “revolutionize the economic structure” and bring in “the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization.”

The PNoy administration has created a “task group” for the comprehensive rehabilitation program, composed of Cabinet members and coordinated by Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla. The priority programs consist of shelter and reconstruction, power restoration, livelihood and employment, resettlement and psychosocial care, environmental protection, and resource generation and allocation. In the same vein, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) is tasked to prepare a unified plan, which will integrate the rehabilitation programs and projects of different agencies.

From the description above, we can observe that the “task group” is basically made up of the whole Cabinet. That is, the Aquino administration for the remainder of its term will focus its energy and attention on the post-disaster program.

The administration has correctly identified the core programs. Of course. they are general categories that are part of any template on recovery and rehabilitation. And any program cannot offer sure-fire solutions,

Allow me, nonetheless, to identify and emphasize some areas, which are essential for the success of the rehabilitation plan.

First, the plan is an opportunity not only to rehabilitate and rebuild the provinces that were hard hit by Typhoon Yolanda. The reconstruction plan must be a national one. To repeat, now is the moment to “revolutionize the economic structure.”

In addition, tens of thousands of victims have left their homes and have become internal refugees, evacuating to urban centers to start life all over again. This suggests that the scope of the plan cannot be limited to the damaged areas.

In another area, the restoration of power is not a quick fix. The power shortage extends to many parts of the archipelago. Further, we cannot discount a national energy crisis in the medium term. This entails hard decisions that will address the market failure in the energy sector.

Second, jobs have to be created. In the near term, giving cash to victims to do relief and rehabilitation work is a good step. The massive infrastructure rebuilding will also result in creating jobs, skilled and unskilled. But why stop there? After all, the administration is committed to inclusive growth, in which the creation of quality jobs is the cornerstone.

Third, employment generation—creating jobs of higher productivity and expanding the number of wage-workers—is linked to industrial and technology policy. The government through the Department of Trade and Industry has a program on expanding and diversifying manufacturing through new forms of industrial policy. This program, however, remains low key. It is high time we placed prominently on the national agenda industrial and technology policy, which is tied to job creation. In this regard, we welcome the technical assistance of multilateral organizations and donor countries,especially those in East Asia, towards doing industrial policy right.

Fourth, industrial and technology policy has new substance and forms. It is not just about picking winners; it is also about putting in place the disciplining mechanisms to prevent abuse of discretion. It is also about collaboration between government and the private sector to jointly diagnose problems, coordinate actions, and discover new ways of doing things.

Moreover, industrial and technology policy must adapt to an unfortunate reality in the Philippines—that we will continue facing horrible natural disasters. In this sense, developing local green technology to address disaster reduction and management and climate change can be the lynchpin of such policy. The advantages of indigenous green technology include its labor intensiveness and its dynamic comparative advantage (given that the technology is relatively new, even to advanced countries).

Last but not least, the rehabilitation plan will obviously entail huge resources. This can strain the government’s fiscal capacity, but this problem is not a binding one. The Department of Finance and the Bureau of Internal Revenue have performed well in steadily increasing the tax effort. The combination of Kim Henares’s tax administration reforms and the passage of the sin tax reforms symbolizes confidence in government’s revenue performance.

To be sure, more revenue measures have to be put in place, all the more made pronounced by the expenditure demand for rehabilitation. It is thus an imperative for Congress to pass the bill on reforming mineral taxation and another bill on rationalizing fiscal incentives. On top of this, depending on PNoy’s political capital, he may ask Congress to reform the specific tax on petroleum, which has been eroded through the years because of non-aadjustment to inflation.

Notwithstanding the increase in tax effort and the proposed tax reforms, government cannot avoid borrowing to finance the rehabilitation program. A word of caution though: It is better to borrow domestically than externally. A heavy inflow of foreign loans leads to a currency appreciation, which in turn weakens the real sector and thereby undermines the goal of inclusive growth.

We have heard it many times, but it has been recently articulated by Kim Henares, that slow development in the Philippines is attributed to our weak sense of nationhood. Typhoon Yolanda has moved the Filipinos, rich and poor, to act as one. Let us seize this moment to sustain national action. Let us turn disasters like Yolanda into a “gale of creative destruction.”

Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

(This has been cross-posted from Random Salt.)

A “Mediated” Catastrophe

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In the wake of the strongest storm on record to make landfall, Filipinos had found all telecommunications cut off and basic infrastructure levelled. No information from the affected regions was readily available in the immediate aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.

Then from satellites orbiting the earth and from previously stranded news crews on the ground in Leyte, first a trickle, then a deluge of reports came pouring in. The images they showed and the stories they told gave people from all over the nation and the world an overall picture of the gravity of the event that had just occurred. Scenes of utter devastation and loss were beamed straight into our living rooms.

From there the narrative evolved. The coverage initially focused on the impact of the storm on the people, their property and the place itself. Arriving at an accurate picture of the scale and severity of the damage was difficult at first. Estimates were compiled, reported, misreported, corrected, and updated.

First it was 1,200 dead, then it was scaled up to 10,000. Then it was adjusted back down to 2,300, before rising to 3,600 and then to 4,500. The rubberiness of these figures themselves proved how desperate the situation had become. Expressions of sympathy along with pledges of support began flooding in from all over the world. Social media started to buzz with the same. About 10 million have been directly affected by the storm. 

From there, the media trained its microphones and lenses at the response to the emergency by the state, international donor community and civil society, and on how adequate/poor, efficient/slow, effective/haphazard it was. Statements made by the president and other public and community leaders prior to, during and after the event were analysed, evaluated and subjected to commentary, with varying degrees of slant, depending on who was doing it.

By Day 5 criticism over the absence or slow rate of response began to build. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a veteran anchor and host of the show AC360 himself became part of the story when he began to offer his own personal opinions regarding the government’s actions since the storm hit. Having just arrived “on the scene” in Tacloban, he wondered out loud where the resources of the state were being deployed if at all. From his vantage point, there did not seem to be a presence.

He of course was speaking as a field reporter, travelling on foot and surveying what was in his vicinity. He was lambasted by a local news anchor, Korina Sanchez, for providing inaccurate information. She had a personal interest as her husband is the head of the interior and local government department. Sec Mar Roxas later appeared on CNN with Andrew Stevens explaining the logistics of aid, defending the government’s position, providing a macro picture of what the government had done and was continuing to do across the central islands and hundreds of municipalities affected.

The contrasting positions of official government representatives who were dealing with the crisis from the war room (which took a non-journalist in the person of Solita Monsod to document), as opposed to news reporters who were sampling local issues using partial, anecdotal evidence was not appreciated by the public, at large. Reality was being mediated by camera crews who were capturing conditions in specific locations without necessarily contextualising them.

This mediation of reality could be distorted without that broader awareness of what was happening in other places and behind the scenes. Social media began to reflect and magnify this somewhat slanted view. Memes began to pop up and multiply. The most common was the “nobody is in charge” one, particularly as reports of looting, stampeding, and shooting began to float around. By “catastrophising” the situation, the flow of aid may have unintentionally been slowed, as one Time magazine journalist observed.

It swamped stories of resilience, communities coming together, people pitching in, and successful operations elsewhere. The big picture was unavailable, only momentary media clips that could fit into bite-sized reporting, useful to the 24/7 news cycle. Rumours over a possible “state of emergency” or “martial law” began to fill the airwaves heightening that sense of insecurity and utter chaos, without necessarily being representative of the true situation.

The officials who claimed that conditions were well under control like President Aquino did with Christiane Amanpour or UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos were branded as out of touch, aloof, uncaring. That is the other meme: the uncaring bureaucrat or arrogant, self-serving politician. The commentariat began to vilify them for their inaction, for failing to plan, control or respond quickly enough. They did so without taking into account the extreme nature of the event.

Compared to similar “Black Swans” that have occurred, like Hurricane Katrina, the Boxing Day tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake, the timeline of Typhoon Haiyan looked a lot similar. People are appalled by the seeming inaction, but they fail to take into account the length of time it takes to ship goods, materiel and forces into a devastated location. While media people can be airlifted in, the bulk of relief goods have to travel by sea or land. In an archipelagic region where ports and roads may have been severely impaired, it is certainly a massive challenge to get those stocks flowing.

For commercial media outlets who feel the pressure of competing for eyeballs, clicks and viewership, catastrophising the situation served their interests. As New York Magazine commented regarding CNN’s falling ratings during the coverage of the budget and Obamacare crisis in the US,

If CNN can’t win the ratings during a breaking crisis, it really is in trouble.

Of course that is not to say that some officials were not doing their jobs. Reports of relief workers prioritising their own kith and kin began to filter through. One news item talked about how relatives of survivors were being ferried in to provide direct assistance to loved ones. The state was being disparaged in social media for being weak and ineffective, so much so that it had to be bypassed.

On the other hand the vice president was receiving a fair deal of criticism for attaching his seal to relief goods. A photo of these items was being circulated by the “anti-epal” brigade whose meme is the basis for a campaign against any form of opportunistic patrimonialism by public officials during elections or times of crisis. As it turns out, there is some controversy over the date in which the actual images were taken, and the source of the relief goods.

Of course publicly elected officials will want to be seen lending support at a time like this, just as foreign superpowers seeking to influence cultural memes regarding their role in the world will use their military and aid agencies to do the same. They would be criticised by their constituents for not visibly doing anything. It is part of projecting their “smart” power. Altruistic motives mix with self-serving interests. It is just curious to see how one set of actions, or one form of “speech” gets privileged over another.

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The message being relayed by such memes is of a state unable to protect its own citizens within its borders, so much so that a foreign power has to swoop down and do what local authorities can’t. By elevating one form of aid and denigrating another, these memes undermine the legitimacy of local officials in the eyes of their citizens who will begin to wonder whether it is time for them to vote with their feet and leave their country for foreign soil.

In the final analysis, a sound policy response can only be developed on the basis of carefully considered information, not spin, nor sound-bites. But that is not all. Good policy is worthless if it does not have the support of a well-informed citizenry. The fact that reality gets distorted through the lens of the traditional media and magnified by online and social media makes effective policy and program implementation even more difficult since the very legitimacy of the state and of its agencies is questioned and undermined at every turn.

Eventually, the crises that we find unmanageable may in actual fact have been made unmanageable in our minds first. When that happens, it is no longer a natural catastrophe that we face, but a mediated one, artificially constructed, mindlessly adopted by us from the sources of our information that prey on our human frailties and biases.