The politics of relief work
Relief work is not for everyone, not even for all the kind-hearted. Disaster brings one up close with pain, with suffering, even with death. It is not pity that feeds, that heals, that saves, but effective action from the helper, then food, medicine, maybe dry clothes. And to do all these, to distribute all these, the most important is presence.
There are relief work that go beyond distributing food and clothes. Often, one has to work with blinders, to see only what is in front of you and close the door on the periphery. Disaster response has little time for recrimination, for blaming others or even oneself. It has time only to do things for the victims of disaster. If an error has been made, simply correct it and don’t make the same mistake anymore. Do what you can because you cannot do anything beyond that anyway.
Especially, don’t see the bigger mess around you, if there is. Don’t see the great need and the pitiful lack of supply. In a disaster, volunteers who rush to the scene will not have enough, will never have enough. And even if you see that others, especially government, may have more, or should have more, do not be distracted from what you have to do. Do not mind their business, just yours, because you sometimes just want to scream at the callousness of others, at how they can remain exploitative or choose to play politics instead of easing the pain of many.
I knew that we would have a situation in our hands with Typhoon Lando (Koppu). There were many warnings about its destructive potential, and its slow speed allowed authorities to warn the communities most likely to be affected. As the typhoon was approaching, picking up more water and strength in its winds, we were told about the rains and the floods. Coastal communities in its path were told to evacuate because the winds and the waves could kill.
Days before Typhoon Lando (Koppu) hit land, there were preparations for food relief distribution. At the same time, we knew we may not be able to reach the ones most in need because their areas could be cut off by landslides and flooding. But one prepares anyway and simply waits until emergencies are heard, seen, identified and prioritized. When the typhoon hit Aurora and Neva Ecija last Sunday morning, we were responding by Monday.
We started with Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, because the mayor is a long-time Gawad Kalinga partner and a most conscientious official. She made an SOS for food as many farming barangays were cut off from food supply. The poor farmers among them were hit with a double whammy, losing their about to be harvested rice crops and unable to start replanting for lack of resources. Meanwhile, even potable water is not readily available.
It was not the first time that we had rushed to help the same mayor. The last typhoons and floods that badly affected her town and farmers also saw her in a most unfortunate situation. She is not allied with the governor and never expects anything from him. When help is sent from the province, it is mostly handled by others like her political opponents. The same with the national government – she is not allied with the political party of the administration and does not expect help from that quarter, too.
Except where she may have personal friends in government interceding for her. Despite the official rhetoric, politics is too pronounced in Philippine life and governance to be set aside even at the worst of times. It may happen, but not often. The one in need goes begging to a political lord with resources but from an opposing camp, and risks the shame of being refused. Worse, the political lord will go straight to community leaders even if he or she has no time to accurately assess the needs and bypass the town mayor. Later, the political lord will simply say, “It’s the people who need, not the mayor.” Unless the mayor is a partymate, or a favored one, that is.
Last week, I wrote about a learned view of a Greek philosopher, Thrasymachus, who asserted that justice serves the advantage of the stronger, that the very rules of any society is crafted by the stronger and, at the very least, cannot be disadvantageous to the rulers. This week, I was witness to the trusim, whatever Plato may have said to the contrary. In situations that veer away from the normal, the contradictions to what is said versus what is done usually become exposed. We will see this in disasters as ell as elections.
This is why there is always a tension between government and the private organizations and volunteers. I heard a congresswoman say that government was trying its best but the delivery was just delayed. But I did not her her say that there were a lack of volunteer groups eager to help that government could tap. If this were not a highly-charged political period, government may be more prepared to call on volunteer groups. But not today, not when preferred candidates needed exposure and could use the gratitude of disaster victims.
This is par for the course, sad but true. And it is no use crying over something that we cannot do anything about while people need help now, not next year. If anyone wants to do this kind of volunteer work, your kindness is not enough. You have to have a tunnel vision and focus only on the task at hand, nothing else. Because you will not be able to understand how politics works in disaster relief work, in disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction work. You may not be able to restrain your tears, or your anger.
But many people need you, and, for their sake, you must serve them first.
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