Homes, jobs and democracy

/ 02:06 AM January 10, 2015

Our small NGO, the Urban Poor Associates, returns to Tacloban City this month to continue its work among the survivors of “Yolanda.” Like all other groups working there we want to “build back better,” but we understand the phrase to extend to the social structure of the communities. We work with the people for shelter, jobs, and food for the children in such a way that a living democracy takes root among the poor communities, where before there was none or very little. We work for material improvement and the growth of a caring grassroots democracy.

In 2014 we met with the poor day after day, asked them about their problems, and how they believed these could be solved. We helped them make their own analysis of their situation, and plan their own solutions. We went with them to their meetings, sometimes controversial, with the government, the United Nations, and the large international NGOs.


Finally we helped them reflect on their actions—the lessons they had learned, the changes that must be made, and what the Gospel has to say about these.

We have resolved to stick closer to this formula in 2015 because it has proved to be the best way to bring the poor and the immense resources available for rehabilitation face to face.


When all the rehab work is finished and the NGOs and special government units have gone home, the poor of Tacloban will need their own people power to do well in the world in which they find themselves. Otherwise, the situation will be as it was before Yolanda—when the poor had no organizations of their own and very little awareness of their legal and human rights—and the poor will again become the playthings of the powerful.

We believe the rehab weaknesses in Tacloban and much of the stricken area are due to the fact that we are all, government and nongovernment people, very average, while the disaster called for above-average analytic and management skills and above-average dedication. In the stricken area there are many people doing their best, but, sadly, it’s not good enough.

Another basic problem is, to use Jesus’ words, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins and the wine and the skins are ruined.” (Mk 2:22). The new wine stands for the vast resources poured into the stricken area; the old wineskins are our suspect, partly corrupt and archaic government and social systems. The new resources further harmed the existing system. They overwhelmed it and emphasized its weaknesses.

We must prepare for the next big disaster by gathering people with above-average abilities and training needed to take over localities when crisis hits and run them for some time. These people can be helped by a regiment of disaster-trained soldiers and the latest communication technology. They and the support provided them may serve as the new wineskins Jesus calls for. An even better new wineskin is a well-organized, creative and democratic people’s organization.

Meanwhile, what can average people, average government and average NGOs do?

We have two principal suggestions for the government: First, provide in-city land where poor families can build homes near their places of work. It flies in the face of all experience to ship poor people so far away that they cannot commute to work. For sure they will return to their old homes. The government can also make it easier to get the many licenses and permissions needed to build. Surely the process can be speeded up. Second, the government should introduce cash-for-work programs for the tens of thousands of unemployed workers. Jobs are the big need and government can do its share. Individuals should be employed for at least six months at a minimum wage. Otherwise, the program will just be show and tokenism, and not a substantial help to the economy.

NGOs should not give up their right to criticize the government in a constructive way just because they are working in a disaster area. Very few NGOs, local or foreign, criticized Tacloban’s relocation plan that sent all poor families in need of shelter to the far north of the city to largely unused land, but where, unfortunately, there were no jobs. Few NGOs criticized the “no-build zone” regulation which wasn’t needed as a step toward saving life. People could live in this zone near their work whatever that work was, and move to evacuation centers when a typhoon threatens, as was done with “Ruby.”


We believe that NGO workers should spend much more time in the field talking to people and working out solutions with them.

We have nothing but admiration for Tacloban’s poor. They “play above the rim”—a phrase that describes how the great basketball players dunk and block shots. Tacloban’s poor and the poor everywhere affected by Yolanda and other storms play a special game. They play above the rim in a game of faith and trust in the Lord that amazes us very ordinary players.

We ask the poor not to settle for crumbs, to have confidence in the validity of their demands, and to keep slugging. Their only security lies in people power sufficient to win and hold on to their legitimate needs.

We want the poor people to understand that through continuous and determined community organizing, they can win a seat at the negotiating table where decisions that affect their lives are made. The people must know that the Philippines is a nation of laws. Landowners and the state cannot evict poor people anywhere and whenever they want. There are rules in Republic Act No. 7279 on evictions and relocation. There are laws on subjects close to the hearts of poor people—such as basic education, healthcare and benefits for the elderly—that were passed to benefit them. And whole sections of the Constitution are given to a detailed listing of the human rights that the government guarantees its people. The poor should act to enjoy these rights.

Sow the seeds of democracy and the whole country will enjoy dignity and freedom.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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