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Preventing disaster capitalism

I shudder at the word “czar”—meaning a very powerful person or someone imbued with great authority, according to the dictionary. It is being attached to the name of former senator Panfilo Lacson, newly named as the “presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery.” But contrary to what being a czar implies, what has become evident in the aftermath of “Yolanda/Haiyan” is the need for effective leadership imbued, not with much power, but with compassion and the ability to listen to people, however different their politics may be, and to respond accordingly and decisively; too, the ability to harness the efforts of organizations and individuals doing relief and planning to help in rehabilitation.

We can probably dispense with the word “czar,” which appears to be more of a media creation, though not necessarily with a shudder, or at least concern. Not after hearing Lacson’s first public pronouncements on the main thrust of the rehabilitation and recovery program. The government will “tap the private sector” so that “bureaucratic red tape” can be done away with, as the private sector is deemed more efficient. Certainly not after Lacson claimed as one of his main challenges “motivating investors” to invest in the reconstruction of the devastated areas. The government plans to allocate P41 billion for rehabilitation, but Lacson said he’d rather tap the private sector and the foreign donor community first.

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But the first claim about private-sector efficiency should not be taken as a truism. Even in developed and rich countries where the private (read: corporate) sector is more advanced in terms of organization, financing, and technological capability, this efficiency myth has been busted. At home, we are reaping the failures of the privatization of the energy sector. Twelve years after the passage of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, the promised level playing field, prevention of monopolies, and inexpensive but efficient power delivery have not materialized. And the Senate is now calling for the review of Epira.

Why is it always touted that the private sector is more efficient? Why can’t the government do its job and be efficient in doing it? After all, President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” is not only about honesty or fighting corruption; in his inaugural speech, he also underscored that his straight path would be about honest, principled, and effective governance.

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The alarm bells are not without basis.

In a conference on land rights and land-grabbing held last December by Focus on the Global South and the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services Network, peasant leaders from the Yolanda-affected Sicogon Island in Iloilo expressed concern over the alleged plan of the Sarroza family, owner of Sicogon Development Corp., to develop the whole island into a tourism area not unlike Boracay, with funding from a Singapore-based investor.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions more in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, coastal and farming communities have also had to face land and tenure disputes, as private firms, with government backing, found an opportunity to push their own business designs during rehabilitation.

A 2006 study of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Addressing Land Ownership after Natural Disasters,” based on a survey of the 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 government’s crucial role in putting coherence in the efforts of NGOs and donor/humanitarian groups to ensure that displaced communities are not left out of the process of reregistration, retitling, and reconstructing records on land claims and ownership.

In her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” Naomi Klein talks 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 such as natural disasters, while people are still in shock or traumatized, Klein recounts the experiences of fishing communities in Sri Lanka and other coastal areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. Governments created “buffer zones” and disallowed villagers from returning because of safety reasons, but allowed developers to construct beach resorts and hotels.

At home, we read about how Badjao families displaced by the Zamboanga conflict in September will be relocated away from the sea, their source of not only livelihood but also of life and culture. We hear of how the Romualdez family is now “locked in a battle” with informal settlers trying to rebuild their communities; the settlers claim that the family wants to develop the land.

There used to be communities of farmers, fisher folk, indigenous peoples, and entrepreneurs in the Yolanda-devastated areas. Where is the space for them to voice their concerns and express their own visions for rebuilding their homes, rehabilitating the land, and reclaiming their lives and future? Hopefully, this space will not be closed to them who have lost a lot. The devastation is something the Philippines has not experienced before. The tasks for rebuilding are enormous, but the government can tap the ongoing efforts of humanitarian, aid, and civil society groups, and of the survivors themselves.

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Helpless the survivors are not. They overcame nature’s wrath, defied loss and hunger, and are now prepared to rebuild their lives. With support from civil society, communities are rebuilding infrastructure for their water supply, building fishing boats, clearing the land, and preparing it to make it productive again.

The government can—should—make partners of them.

Clarissa V. Militante is coordinator of Focus on the Global South-Philippines and author of the novel “Different Countries” (Anvil Publishing, 2010; long-listed in the 2009 Man Asia Literary Prize).

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