TACLOBAN, Philippines – When a newspaper for Filipino workers in New Zealand told readers how to donate to the typhoon relief effort in their homeland, it mentioned agencies like the Red Cross but not a list of government bank accounts that the Philippine Embassy had sent over.
“I’m not going to mince words,” said Mel Fernandez, the editorial adviser for the Filipino Migrant News. “We would like every cent to reach those poor people there rather than getting waylaid.”
Corruption is a concern after any major natural disaster, as millions of dollars in cash and goods rush in from around the world. But those worries are especially acute in the Philippines, where graft has been a part of life for decades.
The government of President Benigno Aquino III, who has made fighting corruption a priority, is promising full transparency in reconstruction spending in areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda. It announced Monday that it has established a website called the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub where funds given by foreign donors can be tracked.
“There’s an urgent call now for us to monitor the movement of foreign aid funds for Yolanda so they will go exactly where they’re supposed to: to the survivors of the typhoon,” Undersecretary of Budget and Management and Chief Information Officer Richard Moya said in a statement.
More than $270 million in foreign aid has been donated to help the victims of the Nov. 8 typhoon, which killed at least 3,976 people and left nearly 1,600 missing, according to government figures updated Monday. More than 4 million people have been displaced and need food, shelter and water. The typhoon also wrecked livelihoods on a massive scale, destroying crops, livestock, coconut plantations and fishing boats.
Several battered communities appeared to be shifting from survival mode to one of early recovery Monday. Markets were reopening, though with very limited wares. Some gasoline stations were pumping and residents were repairing damaged homes or making temporary shelters out of the remains of their old ones.
“The darkest night is over but it’s not yet 100 percent,” regional military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda said.
On Sunday, Aquino toured the disaster area and promised to step up aid deliveries.
Aquino said he was happy to see typhoon-battered areas slowly rising from the devastation. The aid effort remained daunting, he said, adding that the government is feeding about 1.4 million people a day.
“One is tempted to despair,” Aquino told reporters in Alangalang town in Leyte province, where he met with officials and survivors. “But the minute I despair, then everybody gets hampered in the efforts to get up.”
Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Aquino would stay for a second night in Tacloban city and visit more typhoon-battered towns on Tuesday.
In one sign of how much work is ahead, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla pledged to restore power in all typhoon-battered regions by Dec. 24, a job that will require erecting about 160 giant power transmission towers and thousands of electrical posts toppled by the typhoon. He said he will resign if he fails.
“It’s difficult to celebrate Christmas without light,” Petilla said.
The government wants to show that it will be more responsible than previous administrations were following other natural disasters, when that funds intended for reconstruction were allegedly siphoned off. Prosecutors are investigating allegations that $20.7 million in government funds for rebuilding towns devastated by a 2009 storm in northern Luzon island were stolen by local officials via bogus nongovernmental agencies.
On Nov. 7, a day before Typhoon Haiyan hit, Filipinos were glued to their television screens, watching Senate testimony in which Janet Lim Napoles denied allegations that she masterminded a plot to plunder millions of dollars of government funds intended for projects to relieve poverty.
It is far too soon to say how much aid intended for victims of last week’s Typhoon Haiyan might end up in the wrong hands. Foreign donors demand strict anti-graft measures in projects they fund, but privately admit that “leakage” of funds is sometimes inevitable.
Much of the assistance in the early phase of a disaster response is in the form of food, water and other supplies. Far richer opportunities for graft occur later when rebuilding occurs and contracts are up for grabs.
But corruption probably has already made this typhoon worse. Money for roads was diverted, giving people less ability to evacuate. Hospitals didn’t get the resources they should have. Some houses might not have been flattened if they had been built to code.
“Petty corruption in urban areas means that building inspections don’t happen and building codes are not enforced,” said Steven Rood, the Manila-based representative of The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit development organization. “Even middle-class homes are not built to withstand a typhoon, much less poor homes.”
Filipinos working abroad and sending money home to their families are an important source of cash in the country under any circumstances, but Fernandez, the New Zealand editorial adviser, expects that they will be skeptical about giving money to the government. He said he thinks they will simply donate to nongovernmental agencies providing aid to typhoon victims, but Rood wasn’t certain even of that.
“There’s a lot of cynicism, particularly in the expat community,” Rood said. “People are put off. You see it in the social networks. People are saying there’s no point – if they give money, it will just get stolen.”
The typhoon has come at a time when some feel the Philippines might finally be cracking down on corruption. In its latest global corruption report, Transparency International found the Philippines was just one of 11 countries in which people said they were noticing an improvement in corruption levels.
Rood said he believes Philippine government agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development are less corrupt than they once were and can be relied on to take the lead after disasters like the typhoon.
Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, a Filipino and research fellow at the Australian National University, said the recent debate in the Philippines on corruption has been intense and people are demanding improvements. She said media scrutiny on places like Tacloban, a city devastated by the typhoon, will help ensure aid gets distributed.
“But some victims will be marginalized because they are not aligned politically,” she added.
Tecson John Lim, the city administrator in Tacloban, said the city is recognized for its good governance and its accounts are transparent. He added that corruption concerns tend to center around people like cement suppliers, and “right now, you can’t even buy anything.”
Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said in Manila that the U.N. is not expecting to find widespread corruption as it responds to the disaster. “Everyone’s concern is focused on getting the maximum aid to the people who need it,” she said.
Aid agencies are taking their own precautions to avoid corruption.
Chris Clarke, the chief executive of World Vision New Zealand, has visited areas affected by the typhoon. He said World Vision has its own supply chains, collects donations directly, and even issues microchips to victims to record the amount of aid delivered to them.
“It’s always an issue we’re asked about,” he said. “Does the money get there, and does it get to the right people?”