IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Getting the Private Sector On-board: Articulating the Role of Private Sector Organisations in Disaster Policy in the Philippines

Written by Eula Bianca Villar.

In February 2017, the Philippine Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) was reported to have convened a Regional Disaster Risk and Management Council with a primary objective of crafting a regional preparedness plan. Noting the increased vulnerability of the country towards natural catastrophes, disaster policy at the national level has seen a number of iterations. The incumbent administration of Duterte particularly highlights the importance of disaster risk reduction (DRR), with emphasis not just on building capabilities for response and relief, but also on ensuring preparedness and reduced vulnerabilities of communities. Complementary to this vision, the crafting of a regional preparedness plan headed by DILG is iterated from existing DRR-policies, and particularly identifies the following points of intervention: (a) information, education, and campaigns, (b) capacity-building, (c) localisation of disaster risk reduction management, (d) risk assessments and plans, (e) preparedness for emergency and disaster response, (f) continuity of essential services, and (g) partnerships. All these points are oriented towards minimising and managing the vulnerabilities of the country, and are equally critical in ensuring the country has the existing capabilities to cope and better manage extreme events. Such capabilities, however, tend to be overemphasised in policy rhetoric as ‘resilience’.

The private sector is critical because the measure of an economic recovery comes from them following a disaster.

Given the changing approaches of past and present Philippine governments in disaster policy, two questions arise in relation to the Duterte administration’s approach to disasters and the subsequent convening of a new regional disaster preparedness plan. First, how far can the approach of the incumbent administration take the Philippines in becoming resilient? Second, is resilience really up to the government?

The Duterte Approach to Disaster Policy: What might be Promising?

The incumbent administration explicitly highlights the ‘continuity of essential services’ as a critical intervention point for the new plan. While the scope of ‘essential services’ is not yet defined – it implies the involvement of both public and private organisations. The angle placed particularly on the likely engagement of private organisations is a potentially promising development, because certain private organisations in the Philippines also offer critical services in disaster events. For example, telecommunications, energy and water distributors, banks, and a host of others. In the previous plans, the engagement of private organisations is articulated mostly through partnerships, where the main role of the private organisation is oriented towards investment partnerships with the government.

Thus, articulating business continuity can be considered an incremental development from previous policies. Calls for the involvement of the private sector in disaster policy have been made long before. Yet, the case for the involvement of private organisations in disaster environments was especially highlighted during Typhoon Haiyan. This event saw the breakdown of critical infrastructure, which in turn caused an additional layer of complexity in managing the response and recovery phase. For example, the failure of networks in the combined capacity of the telecommunications sector caused a coordination challenge, while the damages that caused the energy sector’s failure had a domino effect on the ability of related services (like the banking sector for cash availability and hospitals for medical relief) to effectively undertake their respective duties. This experience signalled a learning point to both government and the private sector as to what it takes to make the country more resilient towards disasters.

If indeed, ‘continuity of essential services’ translates to ‘business continuity’ which pervades across public and private organisations, then the incumbent administration will have effectively made a promising development in disaster policy: making the private sector, especially those which provide critical services, accountable to the overall vision of a disaster resilient Philippines. This also effectively operationalises a more concrete approach to resilience, in that it implies the ability to manage change and maintain or transform living standards in the face of shocks is reliant on various pillars of resilience. Resilience of the government, resilience of communities, and resilience of the private sector all hold considerable importance. The former two have been central to disaster policy, but the last point is often overlooked. This then leads to a discussion on who is responsible for making the Philippines resilient.

The Resilience Question: Is the Government Solely Responsible?

Resilience is internalised as a core vision among many countries as they acknowledge the vulnerabilities and risks they face in the midst of a constantly changing world. To this end, resilience is generally defined as ‘the ability of a system, community, or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.’ Adopting this perspective requires further consideration, especially in terms of who is responsible for making a country resilient. In the Philippines, there seems to be a pervading mindset that ‘government is responsible’. However, various stakeholders beyond the government are equally accountable for resilience – this includes households, communities, and the private sector.  The private sector is critical because the measure of an economic recovery comes from them following a disaster. More importantly, the ability to continuously function in the midst of disasters is contingent on the measures they take to have adaptive and flexible capabilities in dealing with extreme environments. If the private sector is resilient, a country can become more resilient.

Another role the private sector can play is championing various constructs related to long-term prospects for resilience, including adopting business practices that can help propel an economic system that is grounded on sustainability. Of course, a related question might arise as to whether the private sector is motivated enough to come on-board with such a vision of resilience, especially because it is invariably geared towards profit over service. The counter argument is that resilience cannot afford to dichotomise profit and service. In extreme environments, service becomes tightly coupled with profit, because the private sector risks losing its clientele when disasters hit. Thus, service to their clientele is in their best interest to be able to bring business back to normal. Examples pertaining to this have been demonstrated widely in the private sector’s role in reviving the economic activities post-Haiyan.

With the private sector on-board with disaster policy, the government elects champions of resilience, and shares in the responsibility and accountability for making the country resilient. At present, the private sector has already showed initiatives in this aspect – with key players self-organising platforms for cooperation and collaboration, including CDAC Network, Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation, and the Corporate Network for Disaster Response, among others. Realistically, the government should and will remain a central actor in the implementation of disaster policies. With that in mind, it also holds the greatest capacity to mobilise its strongest partners, the private sector being one of them.

Eula Bianca Villar is a PhD Candidate and European Union (EU) Marie Curie Fellow at La Salle-Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona. She is a grant recipient for the recently concluded EU’s Initial Training Networks project, ‘A Networked and IT-Enabled Firm’s Perspective of Crisis Management’. Her research focuses on organising processes in disaster environments. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled “State & Society in the Philippines.” Image Credit: Flickr/ DVIDSHUB