New and old wineskins
April 30 was World Disaster Day. It was a day to which most Filipinos paid little attention, believing they already knew more than enough about disasters. Yes, we may know much, especially about the human suffering involved in disasters, but there are other aspects of the phenomenon we know little about, unless we are directly involved in the reconstruction.
From the beginning, for instance, there has been serious criticism of the manner in which the government has responded to disaster victims’ needs. For example, according to a recent Oxfam Briefing Paper on permanent relocation, 81 percent of the people interviewed “stated they are not aware of their rights regarding permanent relocation,” and only 7 percent of those interviewed said “they had been consulted by a government official at the barangay, municipal or national level about the relocation process.”
Sharing of information and consultation are the first steps in relocation demanded by law.
The government’s reluctance to talk to poor people can easily translate to actual mini-disasters in which people are brought to areas where there is no food, no jobs, no land tenure security.
Some people who work with the survivors of “Yolanda” believe that serious reconstruction problems can be explained by Jesus’ words, “Do not pour new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22). The new wine will burst the old wineskins, and the wine will be lost. The Philippines has attempted to pour the vast, unprecedented chaos created by Yolanda, the strongest storm in recorded history, into the old wineskins of our present laws and government apparatuses, expecting a good resolution. Despite the heroism of many people, the government in the most seriously affected provinces was overwhelmed. The wineskins were saved from bursting by aid from the rest of the country and from overseas. At best, it is bare survival.
We need new wineskins that focus the attention of our elected officials on the needs of the people, and not on the next election or other personal goals. There should be a provision for the appointment of new people who will have the power to cut through the red tape and rivalries that delay relocation and job creation. There should also be room for special provisions in law that will guarantee that poor people are treated fairly and are involved in decision-making in matters that affect their lives.
For the elected officials, the new wineskins can take the form of a change in their terms of office. Once a disaster is declared, the elected officials of the area involved will have five years added to their terms, during which they will not have to worry about elections. At the end of the five years, they must step down and stay out of politics for some time, for two years perhaps. They will be awarded a generous lifetime annual bonus, provided the people they represent vote in favor of their receiving the bonus for their good work during the reconstruction period. If they do not get the people’s vote, they cannot run for office again. Such steps, or similar steps, can help direct an official’s activities to the great work at hand and away from personal gain.
We need, as previously said, persons appointed to make the final decisions in all land disputes. And we need a person in each affected province to look after the needs of the poor. These persons will have the authority to remove people from office who do not treat the poor justly and effectively.
These suggestions may not be completely feasible, but at least they point to the need and possible nature of the new wineskins.
James C. Scott writes in his “Two Cheers for Anarchism”: “Perhaps the greatest failure of liberal democracies is their historical failure to
successfully protect the vital economic and security interests of their less advantaged citizens through their institutions.”
The people of Eastern Visayas, where we work, prove those words: They had always been poor—50 percent lived below the official poverty line before Yolanda—and they are poorer now, having lost homes, jobs and loved ones. They will become still poorer unless the government does a better job of helping them.
We suggest that early on in the reconstruction work, the President meet with representatives of all sectors of people, province by province, and spell out in some detail what the reconstruction hopes to accomplish. Will the end result, for example, include land reform? What are the nourishment goals for the children? What jobs will be restored or created so each family will have an adequate income? Will the schools be improved, and how?
I believe the people would welcome such a meeting with the President.
In a way, disasters are a chance to begin over and, as the slogan says, “build back better.” Most importantly, we need people who will work with the poor. We need people who will talk with the poor, visit them, find out what they want, and help them as best we can to come together and organize. This would seem to be work that comes very naturally to the churches, especially the Church of Pope Francis.
It is good to have legal steps in place in the hope that we can, in that way, improve reconstruction work. But it is more important to create in our people a “fire in the belly” passion for justice and a better life for all.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).
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