Even before the typhoon hit, one look at poverty-stricken regions in the Philippines such as Tacloban only seems to underscore the contention that just a fraction of the public money has been used to help those who need it most. The Philippines has the lowest percentage of paved roads in Southeast Asia, and only a few airstrips big enough to receive wide carrier planes for fuel and food, a problem that has come back to haunt the country as relief efforts face obstacle after obstacle. One wonders to what extent the tragedy could have been mitigated if only local economies had access to the funds earmarked for them.
The Philippines has had torrential storms in its past, from catastrophic floods triggered by typhoon Ondoy in 2009 to disasters dating back more than a hundred years, with reports of a massive hurricane in Leyte that left more than 6,000 people dead and 5,000 missing in 1898. Every year local media broadcast news of small towns and villages wiped out by floods or strong winds, but the attention has not been as urgent or important as the devastation caused by Haiyan.
No single administration can be blamed for the failures wrought by a crisis of such proportions. But political corruption spanning decades has led to misplaced priorities which have compromised the possibility of a stronger socioeconomic structure today. Look no further than former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was arrested in 2011 on criminal charges of electoral fraud. In 2012, she was accused of misusing $8.8 million in state lottery funds during her term in office from 2001-2010.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Tax evasion in the private sector has also left the public coffers more depleted than they should be. In March this year President Aquino expressed shock at the “incredibly low” to zero taxes being paid by certain members of the Chinese-Filipino business community, a demographic comprising many of the richest people in the Philippines, including business magnates Henry Sy and Lucio Tan, whose combined net worth totals $19.5 billion. Of 207 firms registered with the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc. (FFCCCI) only 16 were found to have paid taxes. FFCCCI President Francis Chua has noted “corruption on a regular basis” in dealing with government functions such as the tax bureau and customs department, compounding problems in the public sector.
In a country where there is a lack of transparency and political corruption is rife, where the wealth of its 50 richest families account for one-fourth of GDP, typhoon Haiyan’s fury may prove to be a much-needed wake-up call – a stark and urgent reminder of the need for change both broad and deep. The Philippines can no longer turn a blind eye to the mounting socioeconomic and political obstacles blocking President Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” (The Straight Path) program. A bitter pill to swallow perhaps, but a necessary one if the country is to cure itself of its endemic corruption.
Tanya Ileto Diaz is a journalist in the Philippines.