Economic recovery post-Haiyan

For some reason the hotel did not have freshly-brewed coffee but they gave me a thermos of hot water.  It meant I had to go out and buy me those three-in-ones (i.e. ready mixture of coffee, sugar, and milk).  It wasn’t seven in the morning yet and it was a weekend, which meant shops were still closed. There’s a fast-food resto somewhere, if not McDonalds then Jollibee, but I didn’t want to venture out that far yet.  And a hot cuppa was all I wanted.  I phoned the front desk and asked if there’s any store close by.  There’s one just across the building, she said.  I ran out then, and saw strung on a wire in front of a small and tumbledown wooden house various packets of three-in-one coffee brands. There wasn’t a signage anywhere on the house, no one about, and the front door was only slightly opened.  It looked like the folks weren’t up yet.  I debated whether or not to call out and while at this I stood there taking in the sight of the house some more.  I noticed that the wood was very dark, almost black and I suspected that it hasn’t dried that well yet, after, I presumed, going under the storm surge.  Or, did it caught fire? A man across the street was watching me watching the house and I asked if he’d noticed people inside.  Yes, just call them out, he said.  So I did.  After the third call, the door opened and a reed-thin man shuffled out.  He looked depressed, in fact the most depressed-looking man I’ve come across.  The morning was bright and sunny and he looked like a walking dead.  Most would try to hide depression but apparently the man didn’t bother to. It was on his face, limbs, demeanor.  His state must be to such a degree that the tail end of his depression reached me. Recovering from my surprise, and guilt at having to call him outside, I quickly asked for several packets of the brand I’d like to buy.  I asked how much was each and he said ten pesos.  I almost blurted out, what! are you kidding? because in fact these packets cost five pesos per.  Just in time, I remembered that surely he must be a victim of the calamity and the least I could do was to just pay him and shut my mouth.  And, he really was depressed.

The City’s economy, six months after Haiyan, is still in a state of emergency, so to speak.  Except in certain shops where price is set by their headquarters (e.g. Jollibee), cost of goods and services are unusually high.  Van service from airport to the downtown area which is only a ten-minute ride is three hundred pesos minimum.  Tricycle drivers charge fifty pesos or more from downtown to, say, Leyte Park which is just nearby. Food stalls have now up the price of “ulam” (viand) to twice the normal amount.  Restaurants have maintained their usual prices (e.g. two hundred plus pesos for, say, beef brisket, and sixty plus pesos for a cuppa cappucino).  Small (sari-sari) stores have increased the price of their merchandise as, what I’ve experienced, to as much as twice the normal amount.  The parish even passes around the donation boxes twice “for the renovation of the church” (this is alright under different circumstances but not when you see that majority of church goers do not look like they can afford to give twice.  I saw in the seats in front of me several people silently crying at some point during the Mass, probably still reeling from their personal loss.  At the moment, many church goers I believe are relying, wishing, on the parish to be the one that will give this time.  A sensitive parish therefore would organize a separate fund raising event whose list of invitees are residents who are able and happy to give for the church’ renovation.)

The local economy is thriving, buoyed up, on the rent of office and housing spaces and development projects and activities of supranationals and international aid agencies that have temporarily established bases in the City, as well as on the daily consumption of hundreds of aid workers and their clientele coming into the City to assist or take part in the rebuilding.  Local residents who are financially well off (who were also affected by the typhoon but recovered quickly) are also fueling up the City’s economy, by reopening their businesses and spending on repairs and reconstruction of their properties, among others.  Also, it has been observed that the flights to and from the City are almost always full and this is to a large extent due to this group’s mobility.

But what I’d like to point out is, it is, once again, the City’s have-nots who are unable, or barely able to participate in these transactions.  Let me return to the man who I bought the coffee packets from.  He probably figured that by raising the price to twice its amount he’d be able to rake in so much gain. But he won’t because then nobody, not even his equally poor neighbors, will buy from him (which may be one reason he’s depressed).  People would rather walk to the supermarket to buy, where a packet costs four pesos and thirty pesos will get them seven packets instead of three.  I bought from him because it so happened that I badly wanted to have my cup of coffee that very hour, I didn’t yet want to go to a food shop and decided that if ten pesos can make a depressed man and a victim of the calamity feel some joy at least then why the hell not?  But otherwise, in usual circumstances, he won’t make a sell.  This is presently the case of small and micro businesses in the City.

Those who gain and much in the market will always be people and businesses who have substantial capital and are able to mobilize this to where they can make the most profit, naturally.  In the case of Tacloban the disaster has created such an extraordinary gap between people who have bounced back quickly and those who have not and, because of losses which left them penniless and traumatized, could not even if they wanted to.  Those who’ve received boats from the government have been thrown so far back, financially and materially, that it would take them years, on their own, to recover, if ever. Disasters inadvertently widen the inequality gap some more. After taking care of emergency needs, livelihoods, especially of the affected poor, are the next critical issue that needs addressing.  

image#BangonTacloban, in the equitable sense, won’t happen when it’s poor are financially distressed. Is economic recovery part of the City’s post-Haiyan master plan or core strategy?  It should be. The pace and extent to which Tacloban City, being the region’s core city, will recover economically sets the pattern of recovery and growth in the regional towns also affected by Haiyan.

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