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A warning over disaster capitalism

Let people, not corporations, decide how to rebuild after Haiyan

  • Clarissa V Militante, Manila
  • Philippines
  • January 7, 2014
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I shudder at the word “czar,” a very powerful person or someone imbued with great authority, according to the dictionary. It is now being attached to the name of a newly appointed cabinet member in the Philippines, former Senator Panfilo Lacson.

Contrary to what being a “czar” implies, what has become evident in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan is the need for an effective leadership not imbued with power so much but compassion and the ability to listen to people, however different their politics may be, and to respond accordingly, not least decisively.

Since President Benigno Aquino appointed Lacson as “presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery,” we can probably dispense with the word “czar,” which appears to be a media creation. 

The government will “tap the private sector” so that rehabilitation can do away with “bureaucratic red tape,” as the private sector is deemed more efficient. Lacson claimed one of his main challenges would be “motivating investors” to invest in the reconstruction of the devastated areas.

The government plans to allocate US$916 million for rehabilitation but Lacson said he’d rather tap the private sector and foreign donor community first and then use this fund.

The first claim about private-sector efficiency should not be taken as a truism. Even in developed and rich countries where the private sector is more advanced in terms of organization, financing and technological capability, this myth of business efficiency has often been busted. 

Why is it always touted that the private sector is more efficient? And why can’t government do its job and be efficient in doing it?

The president’s "straight path" policy, after all, is not only about honesty or fighting corruption: in his inaugural speech, the president underscored that his “straight path” would be about honest, principled and effective governance. 

The alarm bells are not without basis. In a conference on land rights and landgrabbing last month, peasant leaders from the Haiyan-affected Sicogon Island, Iloilo, expressed concern over alleged plans of a family to develop the island into a tourist destination with funding from a Singapore-based investor.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, coastal and farming communities have also had to face land and tenure disputes, as private companies – with government backing – found an opportunity to push their own business designs during rehabilitation.  

A 2006 study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development Report, Addressing Land Ownership after Natural Disasters based on a survey of tsunami survivors underscored the danger in “the displacement of large numbers of people without clearly defined land ownership (which) can enable private and government ‘land grabs.’”

It also emphasized the crucial role of the government in making sure organizations do not leave out displaced communities during the process of land retitling and reconstruction of records on land claims and ownership.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, has talked about how post-disaster and conflict reconstruction projects have been used by governments, international financial institutions like the World Bank and corporations. 

Explaining disaster capitalism as finding “exciting marketing  opportunities” in the wake of major crises while people are still in shock or suffering from trauma, Klein recounts in her 2007 book the experiences of fishing communities in Sri Lanka affected by the 2004 tsunami.

Governments created unsafe “buffer zones” and prevented villagers from returning because it was not safe, while on the other hand allowing developers to construct beach resorts and hotels.

In the Philippines, we read about how sea gypsy families displaced during the Zamboanga conflict will be relocated away from the sea, which is not only a source of livelihood but also culture for this ethnic community – it's everything they have.

In tacloban, there used to be communities of farmers, fishermen, indigenous people and entrepreneurs in the areas devastated by Haiyan.  

Where is the space for these people to voice their concerns and express their own visions, not only for rebuilding their homes and rehabilitating the land, but also for reclaiming their lives and future?  

We have witnessed survivors’ tenacity in rising above the trauma. Hopefully space will not be closed to them after already losing so much. 

The devastation from Haiyan is on a scale never before witnessed in the Philippines: the rebuilding task is enormous but the government can tap into ongoing humanitarian, aid and civil society efforts, as well as the survivors themselves.

Helpless they are not – they overcame nature’s wrath, defied loss and hunger and are now prepared to rebuild their lives. As we speak, affected communities with support from civil society are reconnecting infrastructure for their water supply, building boats for fishing, clearing land and preparing to make them productive again.

The government can – and should – make partners of them.

Clarissa Militante is Coordinator of Focus on the Global South-Philippines and author of the novel 'Different Countries' and the forthcoming 'We Who Cannot be Daughters'

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