The local governance conundrum post-Haiyan

A Tacloban-bound jeepney served as shelter for some survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. International groups should understand the intricate system of local governance in the Philippines as well as some of the socio-political factors that will impact the way aid money is applied. Photo by: Romeo Ranoco / Reuters / CC BY-NC-ND

To drive up the Cebu island coast in the Philippines from Cebu city to the northernmost municipality of Daanbantayan is to take an evocative journey from the outer rings of Typhoon Haiyan into the eye of the storm.

As I climbed north with a convoy from the Cebu provincial disaster risk reduction and management office, scenes of people going about their everyday business among scattered debris evolve into rows of trees snapped in half or completely uprooted, nipa huts and other light material homes demolished, and families lining the streets holding signs asking for help, water and food.

Each mile, more devastation.

Approaching Bogo, through Medillin and finally on to Daanbantayan, nearly every structure in sight is destroyed beyond habitation. Large groups of people gather at the municipal and barangay halls waiting tolerantly for relief packs to arrive.

I learn that Haiyan displaced more than 17,000 families on the far-flung island municipality of Bantayan (off the northwest coast of mainland Cebu) and its five more remote islets. Even during non-emergency times in the Philippines, access to places such as Bantayan and its islets — poor communities almost completely dependent on fishing and seaweed farming — can be difficult.

Poverty and geography will undoubtedly be recurring themes as we come to grips with this tragedy.

“Devastating, but stable,” one Swiss relief worker told me as I arrived at the teeming coastline capitol building in Daanbantayan.

My time spent visiting typhoon-affected municipalities and barangays, talking with resilient victims from all over the Visayas, and monitoring the international relief effort in Cebu city gives me confidence that the region will be rebuilt after Typhoon Haiyan.

Yet, my experience over the years analyzing Philippine government policy and working with local government units reminds me of certain realities that international aid organizations should know as they descend on the country to support the long-term process of rehabilitation.

As Plan International’s Alex Jacobs and Roger Yates constructively point out, nongovernmental organizations and other aid groups should work with local elected officials and other community leaders when designing and delivering aid activities.

For that to work effectively, however, international groups should understand the intricate system of local governance in the Philippines as well as some of the socio-political factors that will impact the way aid money is applied.

Despite President Aquino’s declaration of a state of national calamity, which provides his government special command and control authority over the post-typhoon response, debate will continue over who controls aid inflows and the rebuilding process.

A local government code ratified in 1991 devolved significant power, decision-making and operational control to local government units. Inadvertently, the code has provided legal cover for local politicians and LGUs to ignore or reject mandates from Manila and stymied national-local coordination.

Other complex socio-political dynamics perpetuate a situation where local government executives wield near total power in their jurisdictions, creating fiefdoms of influence and control.

Owing to the Marcos legacy, some Filipinos naturally recoil at any government move that resembles martial law, even in drastic emergency situations like Typhoon Haiyan, so Aquino might feel pressure to restore the decentralized model at the soonest possible time.

Decentralization advocates will highlight the practicality of increased local government control to approve major infrastructure projects, carry out land reform, make budgetary decisions closer to home and accommodate cultural or ethnic differences.

At the same time, the absence of a central planning authority could impede a real opportunity to build sustainable social and physical infrastructure that traverse jurisdictional boundaries and contribute to long-term development. For example, building intra and inter-province roadways, railways, bridges, and education and health systems that actually result in a stronger Visayas region.

There aren’t many precedents for this level of cooperation in the Philippines. Notwithstanding the existence of a Metro Manila Development Authority, even infrastructure development in the capital region has been paralyzed for years due, in part, to incapacity to coordinate and garner the necessary support and approval across local government units.

The application of Haiyan assistance should also be viewed in the context of the very high-profile and ongoing pork barrel corruption case where several Philippine lawmakers are accused of stealing national government funds intended to go toward local-level development projects. The PDAF scam, as it is known locally, has provoked widespread distrust in the country’s political leadership.

In an apparent assurance to the public and international donors alike, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and other public sector agencies have even gone out of their way to stress that donations will not be channeled through the Philippine government. If discussions with friends and Facebook postings are any indication, there’s simply no tolerance for domestic and international assistance going anywhere other than directly to those affected.

So the way the aid effort is organized today will likely hold major implications for development across the Philippines. On the one hand, there’s never been a more severe need to engage and empower LGUs. But on the other, there are very valid questions over existing local government officials, structures and capacity, and whether or not reverting to a more decentralized mode of governance will work in a post-Haiyan environment.

Top donors to the Philippines will stand by the country, but ultimately it will be up to the Philippine government and Filipinos to recover from this tragedy and rebuild the Visayas region. It will require smart planning, logistical know-how and proper execution. It’s time to think about what changes in local governance are needed to make that happen.

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About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.