Written by Jan Robert R. Go.

In the Philippines, the latest development in Yolanda rehabilitation was President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s creation of an inter-agency task force to monitor the process. Yet, this was back in August 2017, and since then there has been little talk of how the task force will implement its agenda. Indeed, rehabilitation remains slow, and many of the affected households are still waiting for their permanent resettlement. There are also reports that existing resettlement housing are of poor quality, which prompted a congressional investigation.

According to some residents, there remains a ‘colour-coding’ scheme in effect—if you have a different ‘colour’, i.e., supporting a different political party or personality or family, then the likelihood of receiving assistance is low to none.

The attention Yolanda survivors receive from the government in Manila has made the issue a national one. The direct intervention from national government agencies, with no less than the president himself giving orders, reflects this observation. This kind of response, however, is to be expected. National government comes into the picture when more than one administrative region is affected by a natural disaster or calamity. Yolanda was one of the largest typhoons on record, and naturally required the full weight of the Philippine state.

Given this active role of the national government, it is important to evaluate whether local governments, particularly the local chief executives, do their share in the rehabilitation process. Whether in the usual performance of their duties – delivery of basic services – or disaster and crisis management, political leadership is a key aspect. Especially in the case of disaster management, the primary responsibility is in the hands of the municipal or city mayors. The cases of the municipalities of Palo and Tanauan in the province of Leyte can be instructive here.

In the case of Palo, the experience and networks of the municipal government proved to be an advantage. A third-income class municipality, Palo’s economy relies on agriculture and fisheries. The damage brought by Typhoon Yolanda was vast. Since their municipal mayor was a former provincial governor, she was able to draw on her previous experience in responding to issues and concerns related to disaster management although there naturally were learning curves for responding to a disaster of such a scale.

The mayor’s network, political or otherwise, also proved to be helpful. Since they were allied with the party of then President Benigno Aquino III and the governor, who is the mayor’s son, access to support from both the national and provincial governments was easy to come by. However, this also meant differently-aligned barangays did not necessarily receive the same amount of assistance. According to some residents, there remains a ‘colour-coding’ scheme in effect—if you have a different ‘colour’, i.e., supporting a different political party or personality or family, then the likelihood of receiving assistance is low to none.

Just like in Palo, most industries in Tanauan centre on agriculture (livestock, farming, and fisheries). The local chief executive prides himself on being a proactive mayor. He managed to come up with a photo-essay book, compiling different images of the destruction and stories of recovery. He associates his proactiveness with the fact his rehabilitation programmes were crafted shortly after the storm’s devastation. His focus was on housing (relocation to safer places), livelihood (‘build back better’), and public infrastructure (making roads and connecting people).

Interestingly, the mayor belonged to a party different from that of the national and provincial government chiefs when the typhoon came. However, later on, he moved to the administration’s party. Similar to that of Palo, Tanauan also experienced ‘colour-coding’ politics. This kind of politics, whilst clearly protecting the interest of politicians, undoubtedly affected the quality of rehabilitation. Even if there is a beautifully crafted development plan, if the executors are playing politics then recovery may well be stifled. No wonder the totality of the response can be very slow.

What is obvious in these two cases is that mayors have full control. Whether the mayor is experienced or simply proactive, there are still challenges. On the level of governance, the basic issue should be to focus more on how to improve the assignment of tasks and people, how to ensure rules are followed, how to enhance capabilities, and how to properly enforce plans and programmes. But at the level of politics, there are also different sublayers. In the issue of rehabilitation, the question is reduced to the distribution of resources—who gets what.

Since August 2017, there have been very few reports, if any at all, on what happened with the inter-agency task force or the rehabilitation process. Indeed, Duterte’s own domestic agenda – most notably, his infamous ‘war on drugs’ – appears to have hijacked the national attention. Sadly, this has led to less interest, both nationally and internationally, on tackling the plight of Yolanda survivors. Local governments, then, must take on their proper roles in ensuring the right people are doing the right job, and that the rehabilitation process continues without prejudice.

Jan Robert R. Go is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman. He tweets @WuAnping. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ project entitled Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. Image credit: CC Medico International/ Flickr.

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