The Philippines

In the 1950s Manila was the banking capital of Asia. The Philippines had more telephones per head than Hong Kong. The Philippines looked resurgent. Then came military dictatorship, assassinations of opposition politicians, including the father of the current President and levels of institutionalized corruption that matched anything Indonesia could offer.

A good example of what would be considered institutionalized malpractice was the creative accounting methods of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) — the running of which was in the hands of what in Asia people call “cronies” or friends of people in power.

To milk the company for as much profit as possible, a large portion of its current expenditures were recorded as capital expenditures. In that way, short term costs against revenues were minimized and so were the taxes. Funds that should have been going into infrastructure development went instead to wealthy private shareholders and most likely to their overseas bank accounts. When challenged in the 1990s by the author of this article, the PLDT responded innocently that “it was not illegal”. Under then Philippine law it wasn’t. What may have been illegal was for a PLDT lawyer to write the verdict handed down by a judge in the company’s dispute with Cable & Wireless over network interconnection. Unfortunately, legal malpractice remains a problem despite the current govt’s genuinely sincere efforts to root out corruption. They face a long-standing legacy problem.

Fast forward to recent times, the Philippines has for the past 2-3 years recorded 1 of the best economic performances of any emerging economy. There is also a renewed sense of optimism among more Filipinos following the election of a President who won on his anti-corruption credentials. He presides over a govt that is, at last, trying to tackle a series of urgently needed reform measures, none more pressing than the need to accelerate infrastructural improvements.

Albeit slow, the past 3 govts began introducing some reforms. Telecoms, for one, got a much needed reform boost in the 1990s under President Ramos who signed the telecommunication liberalization law. There are, however, more areas of concern. The country desperately needs to raise its energy production levels – “brownouts” still occur in Manila – and to upgrade its road and rail networks. To (re)build a house the foundations have to go in first.

There is also a pressing need to fast-track the upgrade and the building of new infrastructures outside the capital of Metro Manila. For decades, investments in key infrastructures were concentrated in the capital and in the country’s key cities. As a result, the imbalance between Manila and the rest of the country remains, despite recent reforms. It also leaves the outlying provinces under-resourced and vulnerable.

These were well known issues before the awful savagery of Typhoon Haiyan, which locally was known as Typhoon Yolanda. It was 25th typhoon of the year and was immediately followed by a lesser Typhoon, Zoraida. Haiyan is the latest evidence for the claim that typhoons are increasing in frequency as well as in strength. Despite its longer and unprecedented preparation, the Philippines proved to be unprepared for Haiyan. Attempts to re-establish lines of communication to coordinate immediate Typhoon relief supplies have shown that its infrastructure cannot cope and the information systems were inadequate on this occasion at least. Tragically, familiarity with typhoons left the residents of Leyte and nearby islands and provinces completely unprepared for the sea surge of tsunami proportions. So what can be done to minimize the risk next time?

The background to this tragedy is clearly the climate change debate, but even if nations started to take serious action, it wouldn’t stop these tragedies. One view is that it is simply too late. Another view is that the weather patterns and the Pacific Ring of Fire that surround the Philippines are likely entering a new and dangerous phase, climate change or no. So the issue is not so much whether climate change is cause or an exacerbation, but how can societies, especially poor societies, protect themselves?

At the individual level, 2 solutions are to climb the social ladder and to relocate to safer places. This, however, can never be the answer for most folk. The World Bank has shared the lessons of Haiti saying that providing better quality buildings that can withstand quakes and floods and winds is 1 immediate answer. In this sense, the sheer level of destruction of dwellings offers an opportunity to reconstruct in a smart way. This will require a determined commitment of resources to be focused on reconstruction as a long-term solution. And is a task that is achievable. Rebuilding houses does not demand the same level of resources as building hydroelectric dams and power stations. Countries like the Philippines cannot be expected to find the financial resources, but they are not lacking in local resources of resilient people.

Haiti and the Philippines could and should become international examples of what the global community is capable of. Similar to Haiti, the international community rushed to help the typhoon-battered areas in the Philippines. This offers a glimmer of hope that making the planet a better place to live is actually very achievable.

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