Government News Analysis

Home for Christmas …

Less than three weeks after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lit a fire under the Tacloban resettlement programme, 280 families – victims from the devastating Typhoon Yolanda which struck the city three years ago killing more than 10,000 residents – have moved into new homes. And by Christmas Eve, many more displaced families will be celebrating Noche Buena in new resettlement areas around the city.

It’s good news; but it’s also a sad indictment on the previous administration’s handling of the aftermath of the most deadly typhoon to ever hit the Philippines.

In addition to the death toll, across the Visayas, Typhoon Yolanda left 1.9 million people homeless and more than 6,000,000 displaced, while in Tacloban, 90% of structures were destroyed or damaged.

Last month, at a gathering in Tacloban to mark the third anniversary of the disaster, Duterte made ‘homes by Christmas’ a personal pledge as he fought against his frustration over the sluggish pace of re-housing Yolanda’s homeless. He said: “The Yolanda problem should’ve been finished within a year … I must admit the government has fallen short, very short of expectations from the people”.

That’s putting it mildly. The fact is that this project which was supposed to be a national emergency started to become entangled in red tape even before the tail winds from Yolanda had dispersed. Three years on, let’s call it what it is – it’s a national scandal. And it gets worse.

Chairwoman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) – aka, Vice President Leni Robredo – heading the authority charged with overseeing the resettlement programme said last month that the housing projects for the resettlement of the typhoon victims across Eastern and Central Visayas wouldn’t be completed until some time in 2018. By then it will be four years since many of these families have known a permanent home.

As of end September, according to HUDCC, of the 29,661 units that have been built, to that date only 4,278 were occupied, while a further 20,287 units are in various stages of construction.

According to the National Housing Authority, the Tacloban resettlement programme involves the construction of 14,443 houses. Of these, 4,346 have now been completed – 2,101 of which are now occupied – while 3,353 are substantially finished, and work is proceeding on 3,490. The remaining 3,254 are now being scheduled for building.

When Duterte was apprised of this – we can imagine how he expressed his displeasure; no doubt quite forthrightly – he instructed the Office of the Presidential Assistant in the Visayas to take control of the entire programme, which covers a number of sites in Leyte, and ram it into high gear.

Within days, Task Force Bulig was formed to handle the logistics of the move with government agencies and resources directed to help. The transfer of the 280 families and their belongings to North Hills Arbour at Barangay Sto. Niño, was carried out by the 53rd Engineering Brigade and 8th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, Civil Defense, as well as local government units and private-sector donors and volunteers. North Hills Arbour is one of 11 government-designated relocation sites in the Tacloban-North district.

It’s now expected that all the families presently living in bunkhouses and temporary makeshift accommodation in and around the dangerous waste areas close to the shore will be relocated by Christmas, and at the latest within the first quarter of 2017. This area took the full brunt of Yolanda.

In July, Duterte appointed Robredo to head up HUDCC and get this programme back on track after languishing during the previous administration’s stewardship since 2013. But three, for some four, years to erect simple block-built houses; what on earth was going on?

That’s easy to answer. It got bogged down in the usual quagmire of excessive paperwork, permit requirements, signaturing, time-wasting lawyers and notaries public, lazy and indolent clerical workers, in-trays, blame-exchanges, contractual disputes, materials shortages and heaps more red tape. And so, while public servants sat around their offices doing very little before they finished work for the day before returning to their permanent homes, these families were left in “temporary” accommodation for three years. It’s outrageous; but sadly it’s all too familiar as we’re sure many of our followers will agree.

HUDCC is supposed to be a coordinating agency; but it seems the only thing it actually coordinated was systemic inefficiency. It also begs the question: If this is how it handles something as pressing as re-housing the victims of a national disaster, what on earth is the state of the other projects under its watch?

In accepting the role of housing chief five months ago, Robredo had this to say: “We can now serve our homeless countrymen better, and we will be able to fulfill our promise to push for the development and provide comfort to poor fellow Filipinos”.

We’re pretty sure those words will ring hollow now for all those poor homeless families across the Visayas still waiting for that comfort.

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