Give and demand
It is utterly moving to see the many acts of human kindness in aid of people who have been displaced by Taal Volcano’s unrest. From unnamed citizens distributing free face masks amid the ashfall, to small stores offering free food to evacuees, to churches and civic organizations providing shelter, these displays of altruism have been springing up since the earlier hours of the eruption.
But amid these shining acts of charity, people found one thing amiss: government action. Many pointed out that ordinary citizens have been more prompt and helpful to evacuees than local units and the national government have been. And when some government offices finally came out with their responses, the public met them with scorn.
For instance, when the Department of Agriculture (DA) announced a loan program for farmers who lost their crops, many objected that farmers need financial aid, not more loans. The National Federation of Peasant Women particularly cited the DA’s P1-billion quick response fund, urging the agency to use the fund to compensate farmers and fisherfolk.
Similarly, when Interior Secretary Eduardo Año appealed for donations, netizens didn’t mince their words in questioning why the Department of the Interior and Local Government was asking taxpayers to donate when a calamity fund should be readily available. Amplifying this criticism is the fact that in March 2019, Congress slashed the government’s calamity fund by P11 billion.
Examples like these call to mind the quiet but growing cynicism of some toward charity and individual generosity. It is not uncommon now to find posts on social media asserting that through charity and volunteerism, private individuals bear the burden of fixing societal issues and public maladies—a responsibility that should be taken on first and foremost by the government.
Economist Rick Kuhn posits that our inclination to help others is now being appropriated and distorted, in a way that “enables governments to off-load responsibility… onto individual charitable impulses.” This is all too easy to see in light of our government’s sluggish response to the Taal disaster.
But whether or not we accept this conclusion—and regardless of how we currently feel about the government’s response to the calamity—we must continue to give from our own generosity while demanding better governmental action. We can do both. People affected by a calamity like this need both our individual kindnesses and the state’s large-scale support, not just either one of them.
A few reasons why private giving is still absolutely vital, separate of governmental aid: Our personal charity and volunteering are more efficient, free from bureaucracy, and more personalized for the individuals or groups we are helping. The initiative of some people to distribute dust masks, for example, waited for no meetings and signatures. It was swift and direct, which was exactly the kind of help needed in those first hours of the unexpected ashfall in and around Batangas.
The same can be said of organized donation drives and volunteer services, not just during Taal’s eruption but in most other public emergencies our nation has battled. Many of the first, most crucial, and most efficient responses to typhoons, floods and earthquakes came from people helping other people.
Of course, the altruistic giving of private individuals cannot and must not replace the institutional support that should come from the government. Alongside our giving, we must continue to pressure our public offices to act according to their mandates. In the context of calamity, government exists so the delivery of public services—to which we are all entitled—is not random but systematized, sufficient and continuous.
This goes beyond relief efforts and emergency funds. After the dust has settled and the donations have dwindled, it is still on the government to establish conditions that encourage people’s recovery and resilience, as well as measures to better protect them from similar catastrophes in the future. We need to insist on these, too.
In the face of incredible challenges to our community, we must listen always to our own personal instinct to help. People need it. This is no time to let cynicism get the better of our compassion. But we demand, too, that as we strive to help within our capacity, our government take the lead in this endeavor. After all, that’s its job.
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