Two Months After Yolanda: Lessons from the Bunkhouse Controversy
January 15, 2014
The recent controversy about temporary shelters – or bunkhouses – for victims in Yolanda-hit areas offers some lessons not only in emergency response but also in reconstruction efforts. These are not new lessons, but they are lessons the Philippine government looks bent on ignoring and about which local civil society here in Eastern Visayas needs some reminding.
In a press briefing last week, Secretary Rogelio Singson of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) announced they have already completed 126 of the 222 bunkhouses targeted for construction as temporary shelters for typhoon victims. In the original design, he said, each bunkhouse would have 24 units, and each unit intended for a 3-4-member family and measuring 8.64 square meters. The bunkhouses are expected to be structurally sound for two years until the government completes the construction of permanent shelters.
The press briefing followed widespread allegations that the bunkhouses are overpriced and substandard. Former Senator Panfilo Lacson, the designated rehabilitation czar, said he received information of alleged collusion between one politician and some contractors, who talked of 30-35 percent commissions. Contractors may have followed the price cap but they may have used cheaper materials to make a profit, he said.
One international organization was quick to point out that the bunkhouses are “non-compliant in many respects with internationally recognized standards and practices.” The design of the bunkhouses showed “disregard for the safety and decency of the families that will be living there,” said a well-known Filipino urban planner. While dismissing the allegation of overpricing, the DPWH quickly responded to the substandard issue by retrofitting the bunkhouses, allotting two units instead of one to each family.
In the midst of this controversy, not many bothered to hear the side of the typhoon victims. What are the victims saying about the bunkhouses? What was the extent of their participation in the design and construction of the bunkhouses? Did they even know that the government was building bunkhouses for them, and if so, where they would be located? So far, they have not been asked, and their input has not been part of the planning or implementing process.
The Sphere Project, a leading voluntary initiative that brings humanitarian agencies together to ensure standards and rights for people affected by disaster, prioritizes the inclusion of an affected population in planning and implementing humanitarian interventions. The Sphere standards are evidence-based and representative of best practices in humanitarian response.
According to Sphere standards, shelter sites can only be finalized when the shelter-assisted population agrees with the location. This does not seem to have been the case with the bunkhouses in Yolanda areas. One mayor complained he had difficulty finding a site for the bunkhouses in his municipality because he could not negotiate with lot owners as he was not informed by the national government of the required arrangements, such as the duration that the bunkhouses would stand on the owner’s lot.
Sphere also sets the standard of a minimum floor area at 3.5 square meters per person, much wider than the design of the bunkhouses before they were retrofitted. The government did not comply with the standards when it built bunkhouses with only 8.64 square meters for each family, and in some cases in Eastern Samar, they were build right along the shoreline.
But inclusion in project planning and implementation is not always offered on a silver platter, not even to the families affected by the world’s strongest typhoon. Thus, the victims, local civil society, and to some extent local governments, must take the initiative to work together. While this type of collaboration didn’t happen for the bunkhouses, it’s not too late to apply that lesson to the long-term reconstruction of Yolanda-devastated communities. It’s critical that all of these stakeholders be involved in reconstruction efforts to ensure that individual projects respond to the needs of the victims and their communities, and that funds for reconstruction projects do not leak to private pockets and render projects under-funded and substandard. Much-needed private and overseas donor investment in livelihood restoration, could flag in the face of potential leakage from the Php 8.2-billion proposed immediate investment for public infrastructures alone in the government’s Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda if the potential for anomalies such as a 30-35 percent kickback is not eliminated.
It’s not out of credulity that people so easily believed the story about the 30-35 percent commission allegedly discussed by a politician and some contractors. True or not, people are liable to believe the story since this range of kickbacks in many government projects is openly talked about, and some people have come to think of it as normal and acceptable.
It’s also important to make sure that local politics does not get in the way of fair distribution of projects and benefits to those who have been affected, regardless of their political association. Local civil society can take up this concern, and the Eastern Visayas Network of Development NGOs and the Roman Catholic Church’s Social Action Centers can take the lead. They will be most effective because of their experience and influence in the communities. Recently the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines declared 2014 as the Year of the Laity. Indeed 2014 is the best time for the Catholic laity to get involved in social concerns, during the time of Yolanda and the papacy of Pope Francis.
While victims of Yolanda endure the monsoon rains inside flooded tents and leaking houses, it’s urgent that the government and international partners prioritize plugging up these leaks and leaks of all sorts so that effective reconstruction efforts can move forward.
Eric Aseo is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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