The calamity of mistrust

Pia Ranada
During a disaster, the lack of trust between officials and people, rich and poor can be deadly

If a disaster were to befall your village, would you trust your barangay captain to save you?

Do you even know the name of your barangay captain? Where does he live?

During a disaster, these questions may be all that stands between life and death. Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was proof of this.

We’ve heard stories of locals refusing to leave their seaside homes even after repeated warnings from their local government leaders – only to perish hours after from the forewarned storm surge.

In Tacloban, some evacuees ran back to their houses to save their belongings despite being told it was unsafe. The storm took their lives too.

The refusal to follow authority even in the time of calamity is not unique to the Yolanda-hit areas where these incidents were reported. In almost every news coverage about Philippine disasters, there always seems to be at least one report about residents refusing to leave homes beside steadily overflowing rivers or landslide-prone hills. (READ: Some Marikina residents refuse to evacuate)

Many have attributed these acts of disobedience to love of their home, ignorance, apathy, even the Filipino optimism that everything will turn out all right. 

But during a forum on Typhoon Yolanda and rehabilitation, sociologist Dr Emma Porio pointed out that their hard-headedness – frustrating and exasperating as it is to hear about – could simply be due to a lack of trust.

“We are a society of limited social trust,” she said during the January 28 forum in which she discussed how vital “social capital” is to disaster preparedness and risk reduction.

Social capital refers to the relationships and norms that determine the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value.

According to the World Bank, “social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper…Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.” 

Trust is a major ingredient for social capital. 

According to a 2008 World Values Survey, only 10% of Filipinos believe they can trust other people in their society. Compare this to countries like Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands where 60% trust their society.

Bonding, bridging

The statistics may strike some as incongruous. After all, aren’t we one of the most sociable, carefree and happiest people? Aren’t we famous for our hospitality and warmth? Aren’t Filipino communities among the most tight-knit and loyal? When a Filipino-Mexican made it big in American Idol, didn’t Filipinos all over the world root for her? 

Sociologist Ricardo Abad, who authored the World Values Survey, affirms that Filipinos, in general, are rich in bonding capital.

Bonding capital is a type of social capital that refers to horizontal associations. This means relationships among family members, friends, people in your immediate circle. It is the solidarity between like-minded people that reinforces similarity and homogeneity. 

This creates strong ties but can exclude people who are different. College fraternities is one example of bonding capital. 

AFTERMATH. Residents push a tricycle converted into a funeral carriage. Photo by AFP/Ted Aljibe

If Philippine society abounds in bonding capital, it is limited in bridging capital, a second type of social capital that refers to connections between people from different walks of life.

Though bridging capital leads to connections that are more fragile, it is said to be more valuable than bonding capital because it fosters social inclusion. Only through bridging capital can different groups reach out and cooperate. 

In the Philippine setting, the research shows that while our connections with family and friends are very strong, our connections with people different from us – people from different religions, different social standings, different economic classes – are weak or virtually non-existent.

We are suspicious of people who are not like us.  

Abad found that bridging capital in the Philippines is much higher among the upper income class, professionals and formal sector employees. In short, there is more trust among the privileged.

Conversely, bridging capital is lowest in the marginal and vulnerable populations.

The lack of bridging capital among the poor means they are less likely to trust and seek help from authorities who, in the Philippine setting, are usually wealthier, have received higher education, live in gated communities, enjoy better quality of living – in short, people far removed from the realities of the poor. People “not like them.”

More trust, fewer casualties

Porio set out to see if the survey results could be seen on the ground. She visited people living in flood-prone areas in Metro Manila like Pasig-Marikina Basin, Kamanava area, and West Mangahan area.

She asked them, “Whom do you ask for help during floods, tidal surges and emergencies?”

The results were revealing.

In case of an emergency, 45% of respondents said they would ask help from their “kamag-anak” or relative. Only 13% said they would seek help from their barangay captain, councilor, mayor or other government officials. 

In times of flooding and typhoons, more people (38%) trusted their immediate family to help than government officials. Only 31% trusted their officials.

For tidal surges, more people answered they would go to the government officials – 36%. But this was matched with 36% of respondents who still said they would only trust their immediate family.

In times of disaster, when speed, coordination, efficiency and cohesion can save more lives than the most high-tech equipment, trust is a lifeline.

“Rich social capital means zero casualty,” said Porio.

If there is trust among all sectors and groups in society, no matter how different they may seem to each other, more lives can be saved even amid the chaos of calamity.

Porio likened society to a broom formed by slivers of wood. “Kung watak-watak tayo (If we are scattered), we cannot do the work. But if we’re together, we can do the work.” 

Before the next disaster strikes, we have to build our trust in each other by translating our richness in bonding capital to bridging capital, she concluded.

Trust networks

One way to do this is to connect “trust networks,” connecting neighborhoods with other neighborhoods, barangays with other barangays, government agencies with other institutions, private sector and people from the community.

Some model communities have already accomplished this. 

Porio cited Pasig City which in 2011 won a Galing Pook Award for its Green City Program. The program enlisted 500 “green police” volunteers from 30 barangays as implementors of the program. Commercial and business establishments joined in by incorporating green practices. 

The mayor at the time, Robert Eusebio, was able to create and connect extensive networks under the banner of the program. He tapped all groups – from the Catholic Church to the jeepney drivers association – to help the city attain the goals of the program.  

“Good mayors have mastered what you call network governance strategy. You build networks in each of the sectors, connect them horizontally and vertically,” observed Porio. 

She also mentioned the leadership of Albay Governor Joey Salceda who was able to turn his province’s weakness – vulnerability to typhoons – into a strength. Today, Albay is known all over the world as one of the most disaster-ready and climate-resilient communities. 

So how do we build trust in a country that is always one day closer to the next typhoon?

Porio used the example of a tiny town beside Sendai city in Japan.

Lacking a sea wall, the mayor enforced monthly evacuation drills in case of tsunamis and earthquakes that have been known to occur in those parts.

The monthly evacuation drills forced the townspeople to meet each other, get to know each other, as they ran up to the evacuation site and stayed together until the end of the drill. They knew where the other lived and how vulnerable their neighbors were to future tsunamis.

On March 11, 2011, the East Japan Earthquake shook the country with 9.0-magnitude shocks. Resulting tsunami waves as high as 10.35 meters (34 feet) also caused massive damage and loss of lives.

The number of casualties in the town? 

Zero. –


Pia Ranada is a Rappler multimedia reporter covering the environment and agriculture beats.

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at