The curious case of Maribojoc Mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr.—the Bohol mayor who confronted the Philippine Red Cross about the way it distributed its relief packages in his earthquake-battered municipality—is a fable for our cynical times. Instantly vilified on news and social media, Evasco on closer look has turned out to be that rare breed: a politician of both conviction and competence.
That rarity was a definite factor in the speed and scope of vilification; too many of us have a low opinion of politicians, and once the basic and uncontested facts of the confrontation spread, Evasco was immediately categorized as “epal”—contemporary shorthand for political personalities who use nonpersonal resources to publicize themselves.
Evasco had told the Red Cross to coordinate distribution with the local unit of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which he chaired. The Red Cross, the country’s premier humanitarian organization, refused, citing its own internal, crises-tested protocols which barred it from doing so. In the Inquirer’s own headline story, two unnamed sources suggested that by coordinating the distribution of all relief goods, other personalities (presumably local officials) could then “claim credit later.”
Unfortunate words were said. Evasco said he was affronted by the “arrogance” of the Red Cross staff. “If they want to help, then give. Don’t give any conditions.” He took aim at former senator Dick Gordon, the long-time chair of the Red Cross. “I’m not the one who is using an organization to promote his own political agenda.” Gwen Pang, the secretary general of the Red Cross, was not as confrontational as Evasco, but her statements left no doubt about her sentiments. “The local government knew the [Red Cross] team was going there … The people had lined up already when Mayor Evasco asked our people to stop.”
But Evasco has since explained that his purpose in seeking to coordinate all distribution of relief goods was simple fairness. A centralized system would mean that all 27 of his town’s barangays would have equal access to the relief packages.
Two realities recommend Evasco’s plan. First, the centralized system was already in place, with the local disaster council reaching an agreement with all barangay chairs to course all aid through the municipal government; with the town’s public market already in use as a repacking center; and with barangay representatives present at the repacking and community leaders deputized to monitor the distribution. (That last point, about a built-in audit system, is crucial.) Second, Evasco’s track record. Here was an ex-priest and ex-rebel turned administrator of the country’s largest city (Davao, under Mayor Rodrigo Duterte). By all accounts, he had done well as head of the city engineer’s office and as the mayor’s chief of staff. He returned to his hometown of Maribojoc to run for mayor in 2007, and he is serving out his third and last term. In short, Evasco was not a credit-grabbing
dilettante who didn’t know what to do.
The Red Cross is certainly within its rights to refuse to work with Evasco and his centralized system—but it is
also a local government official’s duty to do what he thinks is best for his community, including centralizing all aid. And the fundamental principles of humanitarian crises remain the same: Locals are the best source of information about where relief is most needed. They are also the best situated to handle relief.
Nongovernment organizations follow strict procedures in community organizing, the fruit of decades of experience. First among these is learning to truly understand a local community, which often takes years of patient work. Very few disaster relief and rehabilitation organizations are able to achieve this kind of understanding, precisely because of the nature of their work; they arrive during emergencies. All the more reason then to follow the lead of a local organization (in Maribojoc’s case, the municipal government itself) which knows what it is doing.
And in an era when political reputations rise or fall on mere association with credit-grabbing stunts, pork barrel use or outright corruption, Evasco’s run-in with the Red Cross is a case study in nuance. Sometimes, even politicians do the right thing.
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