Government News Analysis

Trial by nature

DSWD Former Secretary Judy Taguiwalo

The usual pictures of urban flooding appeared in the Philippines as Tropical Storm Isang dropped its payload of rain across much of Central Luzon and down as far as the Visayas over the past two days. Roads became impassable in parts of the capital – notably, the Metro Manila cities of Quezon, Caloocan and Marikina – as water levels rose to waist height in parts. Some flights were grounded as wind and rains lashed the tarmac at Manila International and the provincial airport at Basco, the capital of Batanes province. Damage to structures seems to have been minimal, though farmers – particularly rice farmers whose crops had reached flowering stage – can expect a bill from Isang.

This, then, was a relatively small test for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) – no massive evacuations were required; no huge amounts of emergency-aid packages needed to be rushed in to troubled areas; no large-scale logistical movements of people and resources; no rescue missions; no tent camps to organise; no galvanising of government agencies under DSWD leadership to bring safety and security to those caught up in a major natural disaster. There was none of that this time; it wasn’t required.

But the big test will come along with the inevitability of nature’s cycles. And if the DSWD then proves lacking in its task, who will members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) – those 24 individuals sitting as a bench drawn equally from each chamber of Congress who last week renounced Judy Taguiwalo (photo, left) as head of the agency; who will they point their fingers at in the event of failure?  Will it be the person at the end of the finger they point with, or will it be those at the end of the three fingers pointing back at them? Taguiwalo’s show trial.

The CA made a rod for its own back when it took the decision last week to reject Taguiwalo’s appointment as the country’s Social Welfare chief – she was, by all measures, a safe pair of hands and a good administrator in times of calamity. She’d proved it; several times in the past year while she acted in that role. She passed the test as far as doing the job was concerned.

But as everyone knows, the Philippines has not seen the back of natural disasters. Sadly, given its geography, it will always be at the mercy of nature’s destructive forces.

It’s in the direct path of all young typhoons and tropical storms which quickly grow big and strong after leaving their nursery in the Northwest Pacific Basin. Of the seven tropical-cyclone basins on Earth, this one is by far the most turbulent – more than a quarter of all tropical typhoons from this area reach tropical-storm intensity or above. And as they travel westward, the Philippines is often the first landfall in their path; the first place where they can wreak their havoc.

It also sits on the Ring of Fire – a 40,000-kilometre arch which passes straight through the archipelago – home to more than three quarters of the world’s active volcanoes. And in the last 11,700 years, 22 of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions took place along this bent horseshoe.

But earthquakes from this zone have an even more harrowing statistic: of all the quakes across the Earth, 90% are born in the Ring and 81% of the largest come from there also.

Tremors and relatively minor movements from the shifting of the Earth’s plates are commonly felt in the Philippines; but it’s known some big ones too – like the magnitude 7.9 quake that broke through the Moro Gulf in the southern region of Mindanao on 16 August 1976 leaving a human toll of 4,791 dead, 2,288 missing and 9,928 injured.

The last big one occurred on 16 July 1990 in Luzon at the complete opposite end of the country. That one killed 1,666 and left 1,000 missing and 3,000 more injured. In those two quakes and a further nine that hit the Philippines since then, more that 8,250 people have lost their lives and 3,358 more have been declared missing.

The Philippines can’t avoid those things; they go with the neighbourhood. All it can do is prepare well to deal with them and have the very best people at the helm when they strike. Disaster preparedness is the main weapon for dealing with these events and their aftermaths.

Taguiwalo, during her year in the job, handled a number of typhoons – the most traumatic being the Christmas typhoon which struck harshly at the Bicol region (photo below) in which 380.000 people had to be evacuated. She also dealt with an earthquake – the 6.7-magnitude, maximum Intensity VII quake that rumbled through Surigao City, Mindanao in February.

Typhoon Nina devastation, photo courtesy of Office of Civil Defense

These she handled well and was rightly recognised for that. As far as we know none of the 24 legislators who sat on the CA and rejected her appointment on 15 August, had any criticism of how she did the job. They didn’t seem to focus on that at all; it appeared to be peripheral to their enquiries.

Her shoes, at least temporarily, are now being filled by Emmanuel A. Leyco (top photo, right) who’s been made Officer-in-Charge until President Rodrigo Duterte nominates his next choice for the post. Leyco, however, was serving as DSWD undersecretary for finance and administration – and, no doubt, very capably; he’s eminently qualified for that role and will have paid a pivotal part in ensuring resources were available to meet the needs of disaster relief under Taguiwalo’s secretaryship.

He stepped into the breach – into a vacancy which should never have been made in our opinion – and for that he deserves support. How he turns out as a hands-on leader at the height of operations while combating a natural disaster, however, remains to be seen. He’s never been tested in that role as Taguiwalo was. Harvard educated, a financial crisis he seems well equipped to handle; but one thrown up by the wrath of nature? There’s no Harvard degree for that.

Leyco’s background is in financial consulting and financial-policymaking, and regularly in the health sector. He’s ‘on leave’ as a professor of Public Finance at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in Manila, where he’s on the core faculty of AIM’s prestigious Washington SyCip Graduate School of Business. His teaching field is analytical finance and his courses include asset-backed-securities analysis, credit rating, and project financing.

According to his AIM profile, he’s been a consultant for multilateral agencies – including the Asian Development Bank, USAID and the World Bank; a consultant to the Philippine government’s Department of Health, DSWD and the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation. He’s also been a president of Credit Rating and Investors Services Philippines, Inc., and an executive director for the Center for Legislative Development – an NGO which provides policy-development support for the Philippine Congress and policy groups.

As an academic, Leyco’s qualifications are impressive; as too is his CV in the world of finance. But the battles he’ll be expected to lead will not be in the lecture theatres or the board rooms; he won’t be dealing with students or bankers – Mother Nature provides a far more hostile theatre. And when she unleashes her fury it will be the huge masses which he’ll need to deal with. They’re the people he’ll answer to – and of course, the ever-ready critics in Congress if things go wrong.

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