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Corruption fears grow in wake of Typhoon Haiyan emergency

January 2014

Rights workers fear that irresponsible businesses will be drawn into the corruption that is already weakening typhoon relief efforts in the Philippines.

There were reports after typhoon Bopha devastated the southern Philippines in December 2012 that companies, especially in the mining sector, were involved in bribery and plundering.

“It will happen again, for sure,” predicted Rafael Maramag, secretary of the UK group of the Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines.

In the wake of Bopha there were stories of companies overpricing shelters for the homeless, of aid funds being grabbed by police and government officials, and of scarce supplies being distributed to those who were politically acceptable rather than victims in need.

In March local councillor Cristina Jose, who had protested that officials were refusing to hand out relief goods, was shot dead by a ride-by motorcyclist, and in October Professor Kim Gargar, a university scientist and lecturer, who was doing rehabilitation work, was arrested and accused of possessing arms.

On the day before typhoon Haiyan, known by Filipinos as Yolanda, hit the islands, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles was denying to the senate that she had masterminded the theft of millions of dollars of relief money.

After Yolanda officials have been accused of diverting funds for work on damaged and blocked roads so that victims cannot easily move from affected areas, and of holding back hospital resources.

They face renewed allegations of favouring people who do not support the administration. “Some victims will be marginalised because they are not aligned politically,” said Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, a Filipino who is now a research fellow at the Australian National University.

In one incident several international humanitarian agencies from Germany flying in to conduct relief and rescue operations were prevented from leaving Manila airport until their vehicles and goods were taxed and transferred to the government’s jurisdiction.

Diplomats negotiated their release and the internal revenues chief ruled that all goods from foreign countries could escape tax – but only if agencies turned them over to the government. This allowed the government to choose the recipients.

However, aid agencies are trying to circumvent corruption with their own precautions. World Vision New Zealand uses its established supply chains, collects donations directly and issues microchips to victims to record the aid they receive.

Even the UN ordered US Marine contingents escorting relief goods to prevent politicians from touching any items.

The corruption has had a deterrent effect. Steven Rood, the Manila-based representative of The Asia Foundation, a non-profit development NGO, said: “There’s a lot of cynicism, particularly in the expat community. 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.”

Rood observed too that some buildings collapsed in the typhoon because builders and planners ignored regulations.

He said: “Petty corruption in urban areas means that building inspections don’t happen and building codes are not enforced. Even middle-class homes are not built to withstand a typhoon, much less poor homes.”

There are, nevertheless, hopeful signs in the Philippines. Prosecutors are investigating allegations that officials used bogus NGOs to steal $20.7m (£12.7m, €15.1m) in government funds for rebuilding towns flattened by a 2009 storm on Luzon, the country’s largest island.

Transparency International reported recently that the Philippines was among eleven countries where people said they noticed less corruption.

Meanwhile, the government itself has created the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, a website through which outside donations can be tracked.

Asia | Corruption

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