October 15, 2009

Solutions or band-aid?

Who was it who said that the best way to ensure that nothing gets done is to create a committee? The Arroyo government’s announcement of the formation of the Special National Public-Private Sector Reconstruction Commission tasked “to study the causes, costs and actions needed to be taken in the wake of Ondoy, Pepeng and last year’s typhoon Frank” and “to seek fresh aid to fund the reconstruction (of damaged infrastructure)” appears to be headed precisely in that direction.

Going by the Arroyo regime’s track record in seeking the truth, upholding accountability and making money, this project is bound to turn into another whitewash, a fund-raising enterprise masquerading as an investigation and reconstruction commission.

Apart from attempting to deflect responsibility for the lack of disaster preparedness on all fronts, government is deliberately turning a blind eye to the real causes of the widespread destruction that took place and the lingering after-effects.

The favorite scapegoats are the so-called squatters living precariously on the banks of rivers and canals draining Metro Manila’s flood waters. The real culprits –the multinational logging and mining firms that denuded the forest cover critical to retaining the water brought by torrential rainfall and typhoons; the land grabbers disguised as real estate developers that build on esteros, riverbeds and other public spaces – are not targets for demolition. They have protection from officialdom, the bureaucrat capitalists from municipalities all the way up to Malacañang, who abuse their authority to amass immense wealth.

Landlessness and dire poverty are the main causes of migration to the cities; add to this, militarization of the countryside. People seek jobs and a way out of their stultifying and oftentimes perilous existence in the rural areas only to end up living in the urban fringes and wastelands, close to whatever livelihood they manage to scrape together to survive. Once they nestle in a place no matter how hazardous, they resist relocation especially when there are no job opportunities, no schools and other physical and social infrastructure in sites provided by government.

The very same desperate straits and lack of alternatives caused people to clamber to their rooftops when the floodwaters rose, even though doing so was fraught with discomfort, danger and uncertainty: it was the only remaining option to stay alive. It’s the same phenomenon on a macro level pushing Filipinos to do the dirtiest, most dangerous and cheapest-paid work overseas since government, instead of creating jobs at home, has made the export of labor its quick-fix to the chronic unemployment problem as well as the steady source of dollar earnings.

The rural poor eventually end up as urban poor. Most do not have regular-paying jobs but make a living hawking on the streets, driving pedicabs, washing other people’s laundry and doing all sorts of odd jobs – the millions of unemployed euphemistically described in government statistics as the informal sector. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and have absolutely no “safety nets”: social services are absent or inadequate and inaccessible. They are the ones most vulnerable to natural calamities because apart from being forced to live in high-risk areas they have little by way of fallback, economic and social.

Why are there no jobs? Why are there no social services such as housing? Why is the cost of living skyrocketing so that hunger and disease has become endemic?

The Philippines is so backward economically that there are no good jobs either in agriculture or in industry. Landlessness and abject poverty is still the basic condition of the people who work the soil. In the urban centers, an industrial sector that could process the country’s abundant natural resources has from the start been doomed to stunting and inevitable decline. The national patrimony, such as forest products, minerals, oil and gas deposits, are auctioned off to foreign companies whose main activity has been extraction and export.

Chronic shortfalls in foreign exchange to pay for imports from fuel to capital goods to consumer products are covered by incurring more foreign debt at usurious rates and laden with onerous terms. Government too has become hooked to borrowing in order to have spending money for bloated and wasteful expenditures, corrupt contracts and to wage costly counter-insurgency campaigns.

Denationalization and deindustrialization policies have been persistently pursued by post-colonial governments held captive by foreign monopoly capital interests. These peaked in the eighties with the liberalization, deregulation and privatization policies imposed by pro-“globalization” imperialist financial institutions, multinational corporations and big capitalist powers led by the United States of America.

Debt servicing and not social services has been the top priority of every government. The rationale for government’s privatization binge is to trim its budget deficit. The result is that hospitals, schools and housing projects have become fee-for-service arrangements where those who can’t afford to pay are simply left out. The same is true for public utilities such as water, power and transportation; these have been taken over by private, in particular foreign, interests. Government’s reason for being – public service - has been severely undermined in the name of “globalization”.

A glaring example of how privatization cum corruption has resulted in another gargantuan tragedy is the recent flooding in Pangasinan. The irresponsible and criminal release of millions of tons of water from the San Roque dam was beyond doubt the immediate cause of the flooding. But prosecuting the dam managers and instituting “protocols” to regulate the release of water are not enough to prevent another disaster from happening. As pointed out by experts, the dam itself, sitting as a catch basin to two other heavily silted dams and purportedly designed as flood control, power generation and irrigation mechanism all at the same time, is itself an invitation to disaster.

Before its construction, the prospective dam had already displaced thousands of farmers, mostly indigenous peoples, from their lands. With no benefit in return, the project was opposed from the start by the people most affected by it. The same goes true with those who had built their homes in hillsides and riversides made prone to landslides and flashfloods by the unabated denudation of forests and mining activities. Their opposition to these environmentally-degrading activities has invariably gone unheeded by both local and national governments.

Indeed, the wisest thing to do now is to sift through the debris of death and destruction in search for the "causes, costs and actions needed" to restore and rebuild the lives of the millions who have suffered from the calamities. But unless we unearth the real causes, unless we are prepared to pay the real costs of overhauling an iniquitous, exploitative and oppressive system, all courses of action will simply be a band-aid till the next disaster happens. #

*Published in Business World
16-17 October 2009


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