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Saving Tacloban

The question we ask ourselves when we are moved to mobilize for humanity, especially under the agonizing blow of a typhoon the magnitude of “Yolanda,” is: Who’s in charge?

In the course of a week we followed a scenario somewhere along the lines of the old parable that tells of how three blind men “see” an elephant. The international donors have looked to the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, while the Filipino people en masse have mostly been laying their hopes on the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and all the other bodies designated by Malacañang. In the meantime, the millions of anonymous individuals who have given donations did so through a veritable maze of channels: schools, supermarkets, Internet service providers, business and local government networks.

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The money pledges and relief supplies of food and water worldwide have been heartening. And yet they were, until recently, stuck in Manila, or in the case of cash donations, much has prudently been held in banks until plans for reconstruction come to light. Driven by the images of despair and desperation, people have themselves made haste to come to the aid of the survivors of Yolanda.

The argument to be made here is that there has been no single point person to whom accountability for immediate relief and the eventual task of rebuilding has been bestowed. The Filipino people will survive because it is in their character to counter and rise above adversity. But if we are all to genuinely learn and understand the lessons of this disaster, the question must be given a future perfect thought: Who will be in charge, if Tacloban and its people are to rise from the rubble?

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I was initially struck by suggestions that we call on a United Nations official or a US general. It is perhaps not at all a bad idea. But there must be, to my mind, a more creative way to think about this crisis so that help extended will be more efficient and effective, and significant for survivors and saviors. We can turn to our friends and allies in the Asean Community. The Philippines need not go it alone.

Why. First, every year the Philippines is visited by a number of tropical storms; the cause of this natural calamity is, on that account, foreseeable. Second, because the country and its Asean neighbors are along the wind belt, we are all victims in its path; it is a phenomenon of regional scale. Third, if it is any indication of how such disasters can exceed national coping capabilities, recall that before Yolanda hit land, the government had not only been on standby, as many as 800,000 people had also been evacuated. Now if this were not enough evidence of how Yolanda exceeded our imagination and hence any degree of preparedness, recall how the conditions of remote villages and islets are now only being discovered and uncovered.

The effects of the 2004 tsunami on Banda Aceh in 2004 and Cyclone Nargis on Burma (Myanmar) in 2008 ought to have opened our eyes, however, to the unpredictable dimensions of disaster prevention, emergency response and rehabilitation. But what in Asean have we done to mitigate the haplessness that prevails?

How. The Asean rejoinder has been the 2005 Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (Aadmer) and the creation within this framework of the Asean Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (Erat). The team was dispatched early on before Yolanda and is still working hard in Tacloban, Cebu and Manila.

What Asean urgently needs to be set up in this structure is what I would like to call “Arrive”—an Asean Rapid Relief Interstate Vehicle and Emergency Force. It is a facility that will be designed to allocate the “regional standby arrangements for disaster relief and emergency response” (Article 9, Aadmer). It is simply and solely for natural calamities. And it will complement the work of Erat by attending to the crucial element of emergency relief time.

It will be a force of multinational troops from the region—light, quick, mobile and fit to carry out aerial and amphibious operations with matching dexterity. Asean member-states are equal in status but they are economically uneven, and each standing alone may be daunted to deal with disasters. “Arrive” will thus be an open-ended coalition of Asean member-states who are willing, ready and equipped with the technical capacity and know-how. This is how we can

imagine cooperation.

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Who. That said, what led observers to suggest that perhaps a UN official or US general could step in? I reckon that international visibility and proven experience comprise the criteria, but think indeed of the affected country—first—and a third quality becomes indispensable: a sense of belonging. So President Aquino has decided to take over. But he should not forget that his primary task is national recovery and not just regional reconstruction. These two ultimately complement each other.

Natural disasters are a serious and imminent threat to the right to life and the physical, emotional and social integrity of the community and its people. They can in all likelihood transform acts of kindness into savagery, or distress into profound hope, for all those who are caught in its wrath. The President will need a point man—or woman—to help him and help save Tacloban. The task is heroic. And he, too, need not go it alone.

Kevin H.R. Villanueva is a research fellow of the HZB School of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Philippine Women’s University and a university research scholar in international politics and human rights at the University of Leeds (UK). The views expressed in this article are his own.

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