How Yolanda cancelled progress on poverty reduction

JC Punongbayan

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Anti-poverty measures will have a limited impact unless they take into account the growing threat of extreme disasters in the coming years

It can be said that Super Typhoon Yolanda single-handedly reversed years of progress in the war against poverty — not only in the Visayas, but in the whole country as well.

To begin with, many of the municipalities and cities devastated by Yolanda are very poor. Using poverty data as of the first semester of 2012, we know that a whopping 59.4% of families in Eastern Samar were below the poverty line — this area comprising Guiuan town, where Yolanda landed first.

Northern Samar and Western Samar also had high poverty rates of 44% and 36%, respectively. In Leyte, nearly 1 in 3 families were poor; in Aklan, 1 in 5 families were poor.

Not only were these provinces poor, but they have also experienced little to no reduction in poverty over the years. In the past 7 years, poverty even increased in Eastern Samar by a considerable 20 percentage points!

You can just imagine how much more families were added to these statistics in Yolanda’s wake. Years of efforts to bring the poor out of poverty were set back by a single storm.

Note, too, that the poor are more likely to live in houses constructed using light or makeshift materials (such as roofs or outer walls made of cogon, nipa, iron, or aluminum sheets). Hence, it is no wonder that the widespread poverty in these areas, plus the poor’s likelihood of living in relatively unsafe shelters, can easily magnify the devastation brought by typhoons such as Yolanda, which was already very strong to begin with.

One might even claim that had Yolanda struck areas in the country that were less riddled with poverty, the devastation would not have been as catastrophic.

POOR AND HOMELESS. Makeshift tents for poor families that have lost everything due to Super Typhoon Yolanda. File photo by EPA

Missing the target

Yolanda’s onslaught is of course very bad news for the country’s effort to reduce poverty in general, what with the upcoming 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) just around the corner.

A few weeks before Yolanda struck, the Palace conceded that the country is likely to miss its target of reducing poverty in time for the 2015 deadline. It already took us 19 years to reduce the poverty rate by a mere 6.6%. It is therefore obvious to anyone that the MDG on poverty will not be met, given the abysmal rate we’ve gone for the past 2 decades or so.

With the onset of typhoons such as Yolanda (not to mention devastating earthquakes such as the one originating in Bohol), the possibility of meeting the deadline has become more unlikely.

Indeed, let 2013 be the year underscoring the crucial link between poverty and disasters in the Philippines. If there’s one thing Yolanda (and the Bohol quake) have proven, it is that efforts to reduce poverty in the Philippines will continue to be derailed as long as we’re not fully disaster-prepared as a nation.

In fact, a recent report by a UK think tank underscored the crucial link between disasters and poverty worldwide, saying that there is a considerable overlap between countries with extreme poverty and those with the highest disaster risks.

More importantly, the report claims that disaster risk management should actually be at the heart of any program or policy intended to reduce poverty.

To be sure, we have in the past years put in place many anti-poverty programs. We have the flagship Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), which aims to reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty by broadening the opportunities of children in terms of education and health. We also have the National Community-Driven Development Program (NCDDP) which aims to promote bottom-up and inclusive growth by enabling local communities to formulate development projects suitable to their particular context and environment.

However, the report suggests that anti-poverty measures such as these will have a limited impact unless they take into account the growing threat of extreme disasters in the coming years.

To this end, it is crucial for policymakers and planners to be armed with sufficient and accurate data in designing anti-poverty measures. Proper targeting, for instance, can only be done with baseline data on poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters. Mapping disaster-prone areas should also be conducted more widely, and promoted even at the grassroots LGUs. And to spur sufficient preparation among communities, results of disaster risk assessments should be clearly and effectively communicated to the people.

Rethinking the strategy

In spite of the growing occurrence of extreme weather events, the world is actually delivering on the anti-poverty front. In fact, the World Bank has set 2030 as the year when extreme poverty is eradicated (not just reduced) worldwide. Given the time left, is it actually possible?

Setting targets shows that poverty reduction cannot be a project with an indefinite deadline. And the Philippines, which is due to miss its commitment to halve poverty by 2015, cannot afford “business as usual,” lest we become a perennial basket case in the global war against poverty.

In this regard, maybe it’s high time to rethink our anti-poverty strategy, mainly by taking greater account of the impact of extreme weather events, climate change, and natural disasters in general. How many more Yolandas and Bohol quakes must it take for us to realize that disasters do matter a lot? As long as we — the citizenry and our leaders — continue to take a blind eye on disasters, and deny their real threat to both property and lives, we risk being more and more helpless as even more powerful disasters come our way.

In other words, if the Philippines is to avoid more years of stagnation in its already protracted fight against poverty, we better get our acts together on both the anti-poverty and disaster risk management fronts.

And as our recent experience with Yolanda has shown, one cannot be tackled in isolation (or at the expense) of the other. –

Visit #HungerProject for stories on efforts to stop hunger in the Philippines and around the world. 

JC Punongbayan holds a master’s degree in economics from the UP School of Economics. He is also a summa cum laude graduate of the same school. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for He is also co-founder of and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.