“The world is not in peril because of disasters. The world is in danger because of the virulent corruption that infects even the nobility of humanitarianism.”
Today, the world encounters disasters with horrific frequency. From the catastrophic earthquakes in Haiti, to the monstrous super typhoons in the Philippines — the world has seen a lot of suffering.
But amidst the horror and pain, the best of humanity also comes out in disasters. People from different nations unite to offer help. Every donated penny, every ounce of sweat and blood is aimed to alleviate the hardships of all affected victims — it’s a testament of humanity. Disasters gradually turn into a heartwarming opportunity when the world, no matter how diversified, becomes one.
But after a while the glitters of heroism fade out. Disasters turn back to disasters. Traumatised, displaced victims become neglected, famished and homeless. Everyone has moved on, while they are left behind. The world is not in peril because of disasters; the lasting danger is the corruption during recovery.
As a journalist documenting the biggest disasters that affected the Philippines over the last five years, I have seen this unfold before my eyes time and time again.
Corruption in the Philippine government’s response
After Typhoon Haiyan – said to be the world’s strongest typhoon ever to hit land – the Philippine government received around $600 million (USD) worth of donations from 58 foreign governments and the European Commission. The United Nations and NGOs also carried out their own donation campaigns.
Haiyan affected 16 million Filipinos from 44 of the 80 provinces in the Philippines. More than 6,000 were killed and a thousand more remain missing.
“Money is not a problem,” Philippine Budget Secretary Florencio Abad told the media.
He was talking about government rehabilitation projects for the victims of Haiyan. But the money for the recovery responses is sleeping in government bank accounts. Philippines commemorated the second anniversary of Haiyan on 8 November. Two years have passed, but not much has changed. According to a study by Social Watch Philippines, 130,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still living in temporary shelters in Samar and Leyte.
In June 2015, I documented the story of Darwina Ocale, a mother of eight children. She has been living with her family for almost two years at Barangay Arado bunkhouse in Tacloban City, Leyte.
During our interview, she shared her constant fear for her eight-month-old daughter, who was regularly getting sick. She complained of their miserable condition in the temporary shelters.
Speaking in her native Waray language, she said: “It’s very hot inside our house.” She thought that her daughter’s sickness was aggravated by poor sanitation and lack of proper ventilation in their shelter.
Darwina’s story is a reflection of how vulnerable disaster victims are to diseases and abuses, especially the women and children.
While thousands of IDPs suffer on the ground, the projects intended to help them are stuck in the government’s bureaucracy. Government officials engage in endless arguments and mudslinging, further delaying implementations.
Official data on budget releases were inconsistent and, most of the time, conflicting. A lot of the Philippine government disbursements were questionable. Among the most recent case is the Commission on Audit’s findings on irregularities and violations in the disbursements of the Philippine Coconut Authority.
In August, Caritas Philippines, the social action arm of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines raised concerns on the pending rehabilitation projects.
“What’s going to be a sad thing is if the release of the funds is tied to the 2016 election… That should not be allowed to happen.”
In May 2016, Philippines will hold its General Elections for the presidency, and also for other executive and legislative branches of the national, provincial, and municipal governments.
No better option?
In August, Nigeria donated $300,000 (USD) to the Philippine government for the victims of Haiyan.
Social media in the Philippines exploded with criticisms, questioning the government’s continued fundraising for non-existent projects.
Some Filipino netizens suggested that it would have been better if Nigeria had opted to turn over their donations to the private sector. But after looking into Haiti’s case, people started to question the private sector as a contentious option.
Where is the aid in Haiti?
“The response to the earthquake was like another disaster,” said Louino Robillard, a Haitian social activist.
Louino was working on the ground after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. The earthquake – considered one of the deadliest disasters in history – killed around 300,000 people and left more than one million people displaced.
Louino recalled how the government was crippled by the quake. Thousands of civil servants were killed.
Then the international community intervened. Relief operations were run by foreigners, whom Louino referred to as “internationals”. He shared his frustration on the lack of coordination and communication between groups and sectors.
“Many of them don’t even speak Creole or French.”
According to a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), USD $13 billion of aid was pledged to Haiti. NGOs and private contractors located in Washington’s metropolitan area have been distributed 75% of all the aid. Today, despite the billions of dollars of aid, 85,000 earthquake victims are still homeless in Haiti.
“We still have people living in inhuman conditions,” Robillard lamented. He added that many people continue to live in tents. Others built homes from the ruins. “People picked up the blocks and rebar, whatever they could…to build back again.”
An exposé by ProPublica reported on how the American Red Cross raised USD $500 million for rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Five years later the American Red Cross claimed to have built houses for 130,000 people, but the actual number of existing permanent houses is only six.
Aid delayed is aid denied
Organising an online discussion, paneled by two other youth activists from Haiti and Burma — the countries affected by the world’s worst disasters in recent years — I realised that corruption in disasters has remained an underground issue.
Humanitarian work is sublime. But it is extremely upsetting that there are people who could afford to steal from traumatised victims, and ultimately tarnish humanitarianism’s sanctity for their personal gains.
Donors should know that their donations were stolen. And disaster victims should be empowered to feel more entitled and press the concerned authorities for the aid that they deserve.
The delays in the delivery of sustainable recovery projects defeat the purpose of humanitarian aid.
To tweak a famous legal maxim—aid delayed is aid denied.
In October 2015 Makoi Popioco organised an online discussion for the World Movement for Democracy. Employing elements of documentary production, the panel features Louino Robillard, a Haitian social activist, and Zaw Htet Aung, a Burmese activist. In a rare opportunity, three young activists representing countries affected by the world’s worst disasters in recent years discussed the realities happening in disaster locations in their respective countries.