The world has responded with its usual generosity to the catastrophic typhoon, followed by widespread flooding from the resulting storm surge, that has devastated parts of the Philippines. The media has brought harrowing sights to the world’s television screens, giving the story its painful human dimension. As always, it is those least well-housed who are homeless first. Matched against probably the most extreme tropical storm ever to make landfall, there was little they could do to protect themselves. The better-off make for the airports; the rest have to wait until help comes to them.
This is where the difficulty is compounded, not just by geography but by the nature of Philippines society. Geographically, the worst affected islands are hard to reach. Local infrastructure was already poor; local government corrupt or non-existent. Armed gangsterism was already an endemic feature of this society, so some international aid agency workers have been refusing to move convoys of relief supplies unless they are accompanied by armed guards. Once again, as after the Haiti earthquake three years ago, one person’s suffering becomes another person’s business opportunity.
Pope Francis has launched something of a campaign on the evils of corruption in public life, describing those involved as “whitewashed tombs”, who appear beautiful from the outside, but “inside they are full of dead bones and putrefaction”. This is a lesson the heavily Catholic Philippines has needed to hear for a long time, but the habit of corruption, which the Pope likened to a drug, will take much time and effort to break. Meanwhile a culture dependent on bribery before things happen is not the only obstacle to providing help after a disaster, though it is a serious complication. The Philippines are not known for administrative efficiency, and its armed forces are not so well trained that they can deal adequately with this emergency themselves. So the relief of hardship for hundreds of thousands of Filipinos will have to rely on outside help, especially with logistics. Supplies are already in the region; they have to be delivered.
The question of money is less straightforward. The United Nations disaster relief does not have a good reputation, particularly after the muddle and confusion that hampered operations in Haiti, with all the wastage of food, clothing and shelter that failed to reach their destination, and the mysterious disappearance of relief funding into government coffers.
Those who donate privately need to be discriminating. Probably one of the most effective agencies in the Philippines case would be Caritas International, Cafod in England and Wales and Sciaf in Scotland. Governments wanting value for money in their own relief funding have recognised that those international non-governmental organisations that already have big networks on the ground are a fast and efficient way to channel aid, rather than giving all of it on a government-to-government basis. And if public confidence in international disaster relief is to be maintained, there needs to be accountability. The best remedy for corruption is the light of day.
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