Rehab czar pushes for disaster agency

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Rehabilitation Secretary Panfilo 'Ping' Lacson urges Congress to create a 'permanent department to address disasters'

CAN'T HANDLE BUDGET. Rehabilitation Secretary Panfilo 'Ping' Lacson pushes for a wider range of powers to deal with disasters. Photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Left powerless over the budget, Rehabilitation Secretary Panfilo “Ping” Lacson is pushing for a stand-alone disaster agency to help him run the P360.9-billion ($8.17-billion) rehabilitation program after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

Kailangan na rin ng – not for me, ha – permanent department to address disasters, to address calamities, to address rehabilitation,” Lacson said Wednesday, December 18, after the government presented its rehabilitation plan to foreign donors. (READ: PH needs P361B for post-Yolanda rehab.)

(We need – not for me, okay – a permanent department to address disasters, to address calamities, to address rehabilitation.)

Lacon said this “entails legislation.” He said he is “glad” that Senator Alan Peter Cayetano has filed a bill to create a stand-alone disaster agency.

Like Cayetano, Senator Grace Poe also pushed for a department on disasters. (READ: Poe: Make NDRRMC separate department.)

Senate President Franklin Drilon said the government is studying a model from the United States. (READ: Drilon: Gov’t studying FEMA for new disaster body.)

“We’re looking for an author in the lower house,” Lacson added.

FOR THEIR FUTURE. The Philippine government needs P361 billion to rebuild the lives of over 16 million people affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). File photo by Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children

On Monday, December 16, the retired general said greater authority will “definitely” help.

Kasi ang natutunan ko sa military… kailangan commensurate ‘yung authority doon sa responsibility. Kasi kung hindi commensurate ‘yung authority, kulang, tapos ‘yung responsibility masyadong malaki, baka kulangin kami ng pagkukunan,” Lacson said.

(Because I learned in the military that the authority should be commensurate to the responsibility. If the authority is lacking, and the responsibility is too huge, we might end up lacking resources.)

His proposal resonates with experts. In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña also called for a stand-alone disaster agency with power over the budget. (READ: Urgently needed, a new disaster agency.)

President Benigno Aquino III appointed Lacson as presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery – a position with Cabinet rank but without its own department. (READ: Order out: Lacson powerful rehab czar.)

Like Indonesian counterpart

To be sure, even without a disaster agency, Lacson noted he has the “inherent powers” of any civilian “to look at possible misuse” of funds. Under the current set-up, however, he said he is limited to “more on coordination.”

On Monday, he explained that his appointment has no “legal weight.” He also said he has no power over the budget. (READ/WATCH: Lacson as rehab czar: Does he need more powers?)

In pushing for a disaster body, Lacson said he draws insights from Indonesian Senior Minister Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who led the rebuilding of Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Kuntoro visited the Philippines from December 12 to 14 to share his experiences with the Philippine government. (READ: Lessons: How Indonesians dealt with their own tsunami tragedy.)

Lacson said the Philippines needs a stand-alone disaster agency “just like” what Kuntoro had. Saying Kuntoro had “near-absolute authority,” Lacson said the Indonesian official handled all funds and donations, and had the power to hire and fire employees.

But of course, sabi niya, ‘yung biggest challenge pa rin niya at that time was coordinating with all entities kasi ang dami niyan eh – national government, local government, NGOs, civil society, international donors. Lahat i-integrate mo yan, iko-coordinate mo. Otherwise magkakaroon ng overlapping,” Lacson said.

(But of course, he said, his biggest challenge at that time was coordinating with all entities because there were many of them – national government, local government, NGOs, civil society, international donors. You’ll integrate and coordinate everyone. Otherwise there will be overlapping.)

The rehabilitation czar said this is precisely his job: “to be the conductor of the orchestra.” He said, “The notes must be right. If there is someone out of tune, we will correct.” (READ: Aquino to Lacson: Take care of funds.)

More than 16 million people affected by Yolanda will be listening. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email