UN hit for not funding Yolanda shelters

Paterno Esmaquel II
Three months after Yolanda hit the Philippines, the UN hasn't promised to build permanent shelters for typhoon survivors

BETTER SHELTERS NEEDED.  Filipino children walk on a wooden path on the way to their makeshift house in the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban on Dec 24, 2013. File photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – Tension rose at the Senate after two senators rebutted each other about the lack of assistance by the United Nations (UN) in building permanent shelters for Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors.

Minutes before this, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson disclosed that the UN’s shelter agencies “have not said that they will get involved in the construction of permanent or transition housing.”

“They will stop, at the moment, in terms of providing tents and tarpaulins,” Singson said in a Senate hearing Thursday, February 6.

Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, chair of the Senate public works committee, said this is related to the substandard bunkhouses that the Philippine government built. Marcos said the UN wouldn’t fund permanent shelters unless the Philippines adhered to international standards.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, an ally of President Benigno Aquino III, responded by criticizing the UN. He noted that nearly 3 months after Yolanda struck on Nov 8, 2013, “we have not seen a single unit funded by the international agency for temporary shelters.”

The exchange between Drilon and Marcos – cousin of Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez, who has blasted Aquino over Yolanda – came after humanitarian groups criticized the government-commissioned bunkhouses. (READ: Erring Haiyan contractors off the hook?)

These groups said the bunkhouses failed to meet the standards in the Sphere Handbook, a widely recognized benchmark for disaster response. Singson himself said it was his first time in January to read the standards in Sphere. The Palace, for its part, said “we don’t necessarily have to follow the international standards.” 

‘If they want to help…’

“So much has been said about these international standards,” Drilon said. “From my experience, these international agencies are fond of coming here over the weekend and suddenly becoming experts of local conditions.”

Marcos responded to Drilon minutes later. He cited his conversation with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) over Yolanda. (The two invited UN representatives declined to attend the hearing.)

Marcos said: “I think the issue of the international agencies coming in and telling us that the structures were substandard, has to do with the fact that they would’ve come in with some funding, but they have to follow their own standards. That was the reason that they even make a judgment on the standards of the structures that were being built.”

To this, Drilon immediately replied, “There are never enough shelters.”

“I don’t know how many hundred thousand families would need a shelter. If indeed they are serious in providing meaningful assistance, regardless of how government came up with these temporary shelters in order to save lives, I would like to think that they have funds. They should’ve put up their own permanent shelters,” he said.

“But it was very clear from what I read in media,” Drilon added, “that they were only involved in emergency shelter. And emergency shelter simply means tents, Mr Chairman. The UN agencies were involved in emergency shelters, which translate into tents, not temporary shelters, meaning bunkhouses, which could last for two or three years.”

‘Nothing to prevent UN’

Marcos repeated that the UNDP specifically informed him that “had the standards been followed, then it would’ve been easier for them to fund it.”

Drilon shot back, “Why don’t they fund it now?”

Marcos said, “Because the implementing agency would not be them. It would be the government or private contractors, so that the standards that they set would have to be followed.”

Then Drilon told Marcos, “The UNDP could engage any private contractor. If they have funds, they could put up these temporary shelters. There is nothing to prevent them from engaging private contractors.”

Marcos replied, “I think they did not feel it was in their place to come in and conduct these projects without partnership with the government.”

Marcos ended their exchange by saying that “despite this kind of problem, we cannot say enough about the help that was brought by the international agencies.”

Drilon agreed that their discussion is limited to shelters, “lest we be misinterpreted.”

In December 2013, after all, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the UN wants to “mobilize at least $800 million,” or about P33.6 billion, over the next 12 months to help Yolanda survivors. 

The UN’s $800-million aid appeal is about 42% funded, said Russell Geekie, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, late January. 

He said the component for shelters, however, was “only a fifth funded.” – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.