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Neighbors

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Neighbors

A NEIGHBOR is more reliable than relatives who live far away.

Preparing to write today’s column, I was trying hard to remember where I had heard that proverb. Was it here in the Philippines, or was it from Chinese elders, or was it from one of my Dutch professors? Then I realized I probably heard different versions of that advice in different parts of the world. In the end, I did an Internet search and was pleasantly surprised to find it was in Proverbs 27:10 of the Old Testament. Here’s the full passage:

“Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father, and do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you—better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away.”

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This vital role of neighbors, recognized even in biblical times, was the focus of research by professor Daniel Aldrich of Purdue University who will be coming out with a book titled, “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery.”

I learned about the research listening to National Public Radio on the Internet. Aldrich recounted how he first came up with this research focus. He had just moved to New Orleans in 2005 with his family when one night, a neighbor knocked on his door very late at night. The neighbor knew Aldrich was new to the area and most probably not aware of the risks posed by hurricanes. Although there had been no government call to evacuate residents, this neighbor advised Aldrich it would be best to leave immediately because the professor had young children.

Aldrich took the advice and drove his family to Houston. The deadly hurricane “Katrina” struck shortly after.

That incident got Aldrich thinking about the importance of neighbors for dealing with disasters and beginning a research project. In the NPR interview, he described his research in post-disaster areas in the United States, India and Japan. In the Indian villages affected by the 2004 tsunami, he found that the villagers who fared best were those “who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals and weddings . . . individuals who were tied into the community. They knew who to go to. They knew how to find someone who could help them get aid.”

In Japan, he found that after the Kobe earthquake of 1995, people helped rescuers to identify where to dig in the rubble because they knew their neighbors might have been sleeping.

Disaster management

With the Philippines now trying to implement the Disaster Management Act of 2009, I can imagine the focus will be on buying equipment for information alert systems as well as for rescue missions. But there’s more to effectiveness than these equipment. The law talks about building effective community-based response systems. That’s where political scientists like Aldrich come in. Aldrich’s research looks into social capital, which refers to social networks and the knowledge and trust that go with such networks.

Communities should not be equated with social networks. Social capital, particularly trust, has to be accumulated over time, through social interactions. The Old Testament passage captures that trust-building: do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father. The social context of the Old Testament was a patriarchal, pastoral society. In our much more extended social system in the Philippines, we would include “friends of your mother.”

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Filipinos are quite good at building social connections. Back in college many years ago, there was one year of terrible floods where I got involved in relief work in a town in Bulacan. For several years after, each time a typhoon would strike, there was a barangay official who would call me, asking for help. There were no cell phones then, and his town had no electricity. There were no phone lines but he always found a way.

I do worry though that sometimes we over-emphasize the building to very large but superficial networks, aiming mainly for people perceived to be powerful, usually a politician. But given how these politicians are often besieged by armies of indigents and others needing help, they may not be able to give the immediate help you need.

Storm “Ondoy” in 2009 was deadly because the floodwaters rose so quickly, but the death toll would have been even higher had it not been for the equally quick response of neighbors who lived on higher ground, or had multi-story homes and opened them (and their roofs) to those fleeing the waters. I was not surprised to hear that it was middle- and low-income homes that more readily did this. Upper-income Filipinos may be richer economically but poorer in terms of social capital and just generally suspicious of people, including neighbors.

“Ondoy” showed our vulnerabilities when it comes to the erosion of social capital in urban settings. The day after it struck, I found people milling around malls, to which they fled the night before. They were unable to go back to their flooded communities, but also had no one to turn to. Many had been calling their homes on their cell phones without getting any answers. It was a grim reminder of the limitations of technology.

On the other hand, that morning after the disaster, I found several homes (including my own) converted into mini-refugee centers, with people coming from as far as Antipolo. In many cases, the “refugees” were relatives and friends of our household helpers. Sometimes, the relative living some distance away is still reliable, but note again that these relatives need to have built some social capital.

I would like to refer back to Aldrich’s research, which showed how rehabilitation efforts can also be counter-productive if they don’t consider social networks. The most striking example he gives was from fishing communities, where well-meaning aid agencies gave out boats to individuals after the tsunami. Aldrich points out that fishing is a “very social activity,” involving teams of people each with specific tasks: steering the boat, carrying the net, transporting fish to the market. When boats were given out to individuals, Aldrich notes, “Trust broke down. Fights broke out.” Aldrich quotes activists from these areas as describing the new antagonistic relationships as “the second tsunami.”

Disasters aren’t just a matter of typhoons and earthquakes. I am suddenly remembering one of our students stabbed to death last year in her home in broad daylight. Neighbors remember hearing a commotion, but did not check because they thought it might have been a domestic squabble, and didn’t think it was their business to interfere.

Sometimes, it is good to have “nosey” neighbors, not in the gossipy sense but in terms of closely knit networks of trust and caring. We describe dire straits, especially during disasters, as “kapit sa patalim,” used to describe the futility and despair of hanging on to sharp objects to survive. The key to survival is another kind of “kapit” or attachment: our kapit-bahay or neighbors.

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Email: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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