What’s the relief in relief goods?

In a recent working visit to Laguna, which is still in a State of Calamity, I learned of a local initiative by the Provincial Government, a twist to the distribution of relief goods: Barangay LGUs are giving out relief goods stamp (good for a kilo and a half of rice) to affected locals in exchange for sacks of garbage they .

In the context of community-based livelihood programs and toward a more equitable redistribution of aid, schemes such as food- and cash-for-work are laudable, pro-poor, and just.

But, in emergencies wherein locals lost much – their homes, properties, and productivity – mostly through no fault of their own as many are subdivision homeowners who bought their homes on those locations on the faith that the developers will deliver on their promises of good and secure site, etc., the 1 sack of garbage = 1 relief goods stamp is the opposite of humanitarian. In fact the scheme contradicts the minimum humanitarian standards such as those outlined in the Sphere. This is exactly what ignorance or little knowledge does. Its effect is the opposite of the intention.

When this was brought out in the focused group discussion I facilitated, the word f**** loomed large inside my head. I didn’t say it out loud in front of the group, of course. Instead, I tried a bit of humor which Filipinos even in the face of great adversities can identify with. I asked if by then they were able to accumulate at least a cavan (50 kilos) of rice from the exchange. Although seriously if I were one of them I’d have gone and collected tons of garbage to barter tons of rice with. A cavan of premium rice grain costs at least PhP6,000 (USD143), but with the offered terms of exchange it’s like nothing. Garbage is everywhere nowadays. This is the economically rational (opportunistic) regard toward the scheme – Entrepreneurship 101.

But no one from the group has actually tried picking and organizing garbage in return for the stamps. Some said they didn’t know about the scheme, that it was their first time to hear about it during the discussion. Others said there’s a lag time from when they collect on the value of their stamps until they finally received the rice such that the prize is not worth the hazardous task of garbage picking. The rest were not convinced of the justice in the scheme. Which is exactly my point.

The scheme in the face of the disaster is like government forcing its citizens who are stricken by famine to go down on their knees to beg for a fragment of a bone. Moreover, instead of Barangay officials going around to assess the situation, monitor whatever needs to be monitored, and act accordingly, the scheme can make them rather passive, that is, they’d rather wait for the affected residents to go to them. This is double entendre for these residents because not only are they rendered homeless and traumatized but they are also asked to work in exchange for a meager amount of relief goods. In such cases, how can the affected experience relief in the goods? Further, the symbolism presented by affected locals collecting garbage for relief goods comes off as a punishment to these locals for littering the village. But, who are in fact dumping garbage on the environment where these locals live? How did Laguna de Bay become severely degraded? Who allowed it?

Indeed, DILG has a lot of house cleaning to do.

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