Philippines

Relief Goons

Janet_Lim-Napoles_mugshot

At Escolta, the restaurant at the ground floor of the Manila Peninsula Hotel, there’s a private dining room in the far side corner, just beside the hotel’s pedestrian entrance by the Makati Avenue side.  It’s 9pm and the restaurant’s patrons are slowly exiting. Inside the private room, five men were assembled, enjoying sips of their Johnny Walker.

“May bagong release. Mga isang-daang milton. Sabi ng mga contact natin sa DOF at NDRRMC,” proclaims the man at the head of the table.

“Pagawan mo na ng dokumenta sa brod natin sa Leyte. Sabihin mo isulat niya na para sa food and medical para sa mga barangay na hawk niya,” says the man to his right, signaling the younger man in front of him who appears to be part of his staff.

“Magkano ang SOP natin, brod?” says the man at the far end.

“Pare naman, dahan dahan tayo rito. Maraming nasalanta eh. Baka magalit. Mainit pa. Lalo na nakadetain pa si ma’am Janet”

“Pero brod, kailangan din talaga eh. Sampung truck ko yung natangin sa bagyo. Sira negosyo natin. Baka mahirap maka pondo para sa 2016.” 

“Sige pare, ibaba nation at SOP from 50% to 30%.  Alam kong kailangan din natin. Thirty million parin yun. Hindi naman siguro mapapansin.” 

“Salamat, brod.” 

 “Pare, okay na ba yung pinsan mo? Natangin daw yung bahay diba?”

“Oo, pare. Sirang-sira. Pero nakatulong daw naman si Mayor. Kaso lang kulang pa rin.” 

“Sige, bigyan mo rin isang milyon. Sabihin mo galing sa ‘kin. Bilisan natin ‘tong operation na ‘to. Bago makilatis ng DOJ.” 

This is a fictional story, of course, a product of my cynical imagination. But it’s not really hard to believe that clandestine conversations like this will take place in the months ahead.

The worst effects of Typhoon Haiyan are yet to come. And these will be man-made disasters rather than natural ones. With the economic loss estimated to be $12 billion – $15 billion, or roughly 5% of GDP, rebuilding will take many years and a substantial amount of public funds disbursed, which we all know will be a seen as a bonanza for a rotten minority.

For the foreseeable future, preventing the hundreds of millions of international aid from falling into the hands of corrupt officials will be a major public interest battle. As of November 16, the Philippines has received over $124 million in aid from the international community, and the UN kicking off a $300 million pledge drive. Once the immediate relief gets into full swing, it’s time to start thinking about the next disaster, and getting the right policies in place to manage the deluge of funding into the system.

If there’s anything that the international aid community  has learned from the Aceh tsunami and Haiti earthquake, it’s that the resulting corruption after a disaster can be more be damaging than the catastrophe itself.

But if Facebook users, civil society and overseas Filipinos can show the same level of engagement and empowerment that they did with this week’s relief efforts, then I’m confident future would-be-Janets would think twice before dipping their hands in the aid jar.

Some possible immediate steps are: 

1. Publicly disclose the flow of funds.  While the government is right in announcing the launch of a website that will track the flow of foreign aid. Granularity will be the name of the game. Although public databases like the FTS can track the global flow of aid, we need tracking on a barangay level – with each barangay council showing in a very transparent way how much funds are coming in, where they’re being spent, and metrics for progress.

2. Time to pass the Freedom of Information bill. Local officials will of course use multiple layers of legalese to prevent 100% transparency on disbursements. That’s why it’s time to prioritize the FOI bill, as it allows citizens to accelerate requests for government records. This, combined with technologies to speed up transparency (Think of Google’s People Finder, but instead, use it as an open data platform showing a network map of corruption risk areas) will maximize its impact.

3. Make any crime related to the theft of Yolanda relief funds punishable by death. Tough one to pass into law – but a crime of this kind is essentially treason of the worst kind.

4. Enact whistleblower mechanisms on a barangay level. Think of a easy-to-use whistleblower hotline (via text, a board at the barangay hall, or phone) that can empower citizens with an immediate feedback loop to report instances of local corruption. This means also expanding the definition of corruption beyond fraudulent financial practices, such as cronyism, nepotism, and the using one’s control of resources in exchange for sexual favors, as we’ve seen in various embassies in the Middle East. Seeing a widely-shared Pinterest board for Epal practices like politicians’ names on food packs would be welcome.

5. Celebrate the success stories. When Mayor Arquillano of San Francisco, Cebu, evacuated an entire island prior to the storm, he ended up saving 1,000 lives. When all the island’s houses were discovered to have been destroyed, it became evident that years of disaster preparedness and adoption of best practices can indeed substantially stem the loss of life.

There are longer-term fixes, of course, such as rethinking the division of labor between the NDRRMC and local governments, expanding disaster insurance coverage, and accelerating housing finance for low-cost, typhoon-resistant housing, but these require navigating through immense legal and political quagmires. In the meantime, the above can be immediate fixes.

As for me, we’re trying to contribute as best we can. I help run AVA, an e-commerce website for design brands. Though no single company can make a dent on a number this large, all of our efforts combined can make a difference. To this end, AVA will be highlighting homegrown brands and social enterprises this Christmas. Homegrown and social enterprise brands will also play a more active role in our merchandising strategy next year. Your support for their products helps grow local businesses, sustains raw material suppliers, and creates new jobs. As a result, every peso you spend in supporting these jobs has a multiplier effect on the local economy.

I’ve also been having a number of conversations with friends in the startup community. A common problem we face as entrepreneurs is building the skill set and capabilities of the local tech industry in areas such as product management, agile development, lean startups, growth hacking, and performance analytics. One of these areas is using technology for disaster preparedness in the short term, and prevention in the long term. Hence, one our passion projects is in education – helping improve local talent by matching them with proven entrepreneurs and experts who have actually built businesses.  If you’re interested to learn more about our efforts, feel free to reach me here.

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