By Titon Mitra
Country Director in the Philippines
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

THERE IS AN ENDURING ADAGE that “the whole is only the sum of its parts”. Recent Press and commentary on the statement of Professor (Chaloka) Beyani, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, underlines the problems with highlighting certain issues in the absence of the whole. Beyani was complimentary about the Yolanda recovery and rehabilitation efforts. He commended the institutional and policy structures and frameworks that have been put in place, noting that the Philippines has much valuable experience that should be shared internationally. This is a view UNDP shares. Our then Senior Recovery Coordinator said that from his experience in many different disasters, he had never seen a recovery happen so quickly and so effectively.

But there is no question that significant challenges remain to be resolved in areas affected by Yolanda. This is neither surprising nor unusual. Remember that two years following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was in far worse shape. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, 230,000 people today are still in temporary shelters. Clearly the baseline in the Visayas (and for that matter nationally) relating to economic development, infrastructure, local capacity, financial resources, systems and processes for emergency and recovery management, were far below that of New Orleans and Japan. Benchmarking progress is important in managing expectations. The multilateral community had anticipated that reconstruction in Yolanda-affected areas would take at least 4-5 years. The usual period of time it takes for areas in similar circumstances to recover.

The issues highlighted in recent press coverage reflect a number of structural challenges that need to be addressed to expedite recovery from future disasters. Addressing these challenges requires the collaborative effort of the Legislature and the Executive and of national and local governments. It is far too convenient to point the finger in one direction, when collective responsibility and action is required. Let me comment on a few of these structural challenges.

DBM (Department of Budget and Management) has already released P88.96 billion for Yolanda operations. The total amount covers the releases from the end of 2013 to the first semester of 2015. For the second half of 2015, DBM plans to release P14.05 billion more. The transparency and accountability provisions within the law in part dictate the pace of release. Money from the center does need to move quickly. But as UNDP’s key mantra is good governance, we certainly will not be urging haste at the expense of appropriate financial controls. The structural challenge then is whether the public financial management system is ‘fit for purpose’. Stringent procurement processes prescribed under RA 9184, the Government’s Procurement Law are well intentioned, meant to ensure transparency and quality assurance. But it should be reviewed and amended, to include provisions on fast-track processes that will allow quicker recovery and rehabilitation following disasters. This requires legislative action.

Releases also have to be calibrated to the capacity of local governments and national agencies to effectively disperse allocations. Technical capacity to effectively plan, program and deliver is limited – if it weren’t, UNDP with our national and international partners, would not be working in the Philippines with programs focused on building that capacity.

Families still have to be relocated from bunkhouses. At least 2,000 families remain in temporary shelters. Government aims to move 70 percent of the 2,000 families into permanent concrete homes by year-end. But relocation is contingent on availability of land that is not vulnerable to future disasters. This requires effective use of hazard and vulnerability data and land zoning. Where appropriate land is identified, it needs to be purchased (at a fair price) or allocated and the land prepared by putting in place basic infrastructure including, roads, electricity and water. Housing and infrastructure has to be built back better. That is, re-engineered to withstand stronger hazard events than the last one experienced. This all inevitably takes time.

While families are in temporary accommodation, appropriate protection measures need to be in place. Protection is a basic right, but the draft bill on protecting the rights of displaced has languished in the Senate. Its’ appropriate formulation and passage would provide a clear framework and accountable measure for support to the displaced. Importantly, it will ensure that the UN Guiding Principles on displaced, which are based on key instruments of international human rights law, are enshrined in the national legal framework.

There is still much to do not only for those affected by Yolanda but also to prepare the systems and processes for any future event. The recovery process must continue apace. Now is also the time to examine closely what worked and did less so and make the structural fixes required to further enhance capacity to respond and recover in the future. This is a time for shared responsibility in building resilience to the new normal of a world affected by rapid climate change.

* Titon Mitra is the Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme in the Philippines.

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