“She [Social Welfare Sec. Dinky Soliman] is very patronizing. She showed no compassion – here there are typhoon victims who are crying because they are getting no help, but she is not bothered.” – Monique Wilson, director, One Billion Rising
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Social Welfare Sec. Dinky Soliman and officers of People Surge, an alliance of victims of supertyphoon Yolanda, finally met for a dialogue this Wednesday March 12 at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) office in Quezon City, despite Soliman’s protestations that typhoon victims should have been in the Visayas and not in the capital. The officers of People Surge, led by its chairwoman Benedictine nun Edita Eslopor, had travelled to the capital last month to bring to the national government’s attention “the real situation in Eastern Visayas” after Yolanda.
Their dialogue lasted an hour, while outside other members and supporters of People Surge were conducting a picket-protest.
The Yolanda (Haiyan) typhoon survivors and supporters were asking Soliman why the DSWD has announced it would stop relief distribution by the end of this month despite the fact that many in the typhoon-ravaged areas have not yet recovered their livelihood, and why, among others, the government’s relief distribution has been very slow and has failed to reach many underserved villages including those near the highway in Leyte.
People Surge leaders also tried to follow up on a petition they submitted to the Office of the President 100 days after Yolanda. Signed by 17,000 petitioners from Eastern Visayas, they were asking the Aquino government for P40,000 ($888) immediate cash relief per family, to help them survive as they struggle to get back on their feet; for the continuation of relief distribution until such time that the people have recovered their livelihoods; and for the scrapping of the policy called No-Build Zone, which bars typhoon victims from rebuilding their houses in its former coastal location.
Soliman said the government cannot give the P40,000($888) cash relief to every affected family in Eastern Visayas, because, at 280,000 families, that would amount to P5 billion ($111 million). She did not give any reason why the government cannot spend P5-billion for cash relief, but she later said the Commission on Audit is watching them and they will be asked: ‘What is the basis for releasing funds?’
Instead of cash relief, Soliman cited the government’s upcoming new batch of cash-for-work program involving a 15-day minimum-wage paying work for cleanup or rebuilding tasks. But members of People Surge said cash-for-work is not sustainable. They would have wanted to rebuild their livelihood and the cash relief they are demanding would have helped.
Soliman said the families under the CCT program (Conditional Cash Transfer) have also twice received aid. But members of People Surge said not all of the typhoon victims urgently needing relief and rehabilitation are covered by the CCT program, which they also criticized as a dole-out, stop-gap solution to poverty.
A clash of expectation, a clash between report and reality
Soliman denied they had announced a stop to relief distribution by end of March. But by then, she said, only those “truly in need” would be given relief. She branded as “impostors” those who put up signages announcing the end of DSWD relief distribution. Sr. Edita Eslopor said she saw such announcements posted “in many corners of the airport” and in other places in Eastern Visayas. Soliman claimed she did not see such signages when she was there on March 5.
How would the DSWD determine who are “truly in need” and who can stand on their own feet? How it defines “typhoon victims in need of relief” has already clashed with the definition for example, of Gabriela members in the Visayas. The Aquino administration has supposedly mapped the areas most severely devastated by Yolanda. According to Soliman, they are focusing relief on municipalities within the radius of the most severely affected areas. But People Surge and Gabriela are saying that there are families in upland and other villages not within the government-determined radius who are also hungry and devastated.
Joan Salvador, Gabriela’s officer for international relations, said even some of their members in Leyte who live within the government-marked radius and within sight of the highway have also complained of nil relief from the government.
By end of March, Soliman said they would conduct an assessment where it would be determined who are qualified to continue receiving government relief packs.
Soliman parried complaints of meagre to no relief reaching the needy by ticking off figures of how many foodpacks the DSWD had released to municipalities in Eastern Visayas.
But when asked how such foodpacks were actually distributed and if the DSWD has a way of monitoring the situation of those in need, Soliman “washed her hands off the problem,” stage actress Monique Wilson told Bulatlat.com by the end of the dialogue.
Citing the devolution of functions under the Local Government Code, Soliman said “We have no mandate to go directly to villages.”
Because of the devolution, the DSWD, which is a national agency, has to coordinate with the local government unit who, in turn, coordinates with their barangays or villages. Soliman said they could not command the welfare officers employed by local government units.
“Every time we go to medical missions we hear complaints that the people are not receiving any relief,” Eslopor said.
Soliman again cited the devolution, saying they are “incapable of going from village to village”. The only monitoring the DSWD can do is “spot-checking.”
The data Soliman cited to parry complaints about nil relief from government “came from municipal welfare offices.”
Soliman said they will investigate if there are reports reaching them. But four months after Yolanda and amid persistent complaints from people on the ground about meagre or no government relief, no one has yet been charged.
Salvador of Gabriela said they have given names of places complaining of little action from the government in a dialogue with the DSWD Regional Director on Feb. 24. “But, until now, there has been no action. Nothing has moved forward,” Salvador told Bulatlat.com.
Reacting to complaints about the scarcity of relief, Soliman said “Stories can be easily made up.”
An officer of People Surge countered, “So can reports of distributed relief – it can also be made up.”
Asked about what the DSWD has done in response to the list of areas that scarcely received relief packs, which was submitted to their regional director on Feb. 24, Soliman told Bulatlat.com they have not received such a list, adding that claims saying the DSWD had been given such list were just “lies.”
Soliman told reporters after the dialogue that she cannot understand why they (referring to People Surge) don’t want to give the DSWD the names of the families who are complaining.
During the dialogue, Sr Eslopor had said there is fear among the people in Eastern Visayas, because of experiences where those who criticized the government had been punished, harassed or even murdered.
“Here (In Eastern Visayas), if someone reports a wrongdoing by the government, they fear its repercussion because it’s their life and livelihood that’s on the line,” Eslopor said. For example, a government employee who witnessed a truckload of expired rice hastily buried away cannot easily disclose this for fear of losing his or her job, Eslopor said.
“This is why the people would rather ask the People Surge and organizations such as Gabriela to bring their message across,” the members of People Surge said.
Soliman’s CCT has also been criticized as being used for counter-insurgency, as the government seems to be using this to conduct surveillance and to control certain families especially in what they consider as “rebel-infested” areas.
During the dialogue, on top of asking for names of complainants, Soliman had also proposed to send “people” to members of People Surge to help them craft proposals and apply for cash-for-work program.
Soliman also said the DSWD can only transact with local governments (and not the likes of People Surge) in matters involving relief distribution. However, toward the end of the dialogue, she expressed a desire to partner with international NGOs who received millions of Yolanda (Haiyan) donations.
The dialogue with Social Welfare Sec. Dinky Soliman was frustrating for Monique Wilson who sat and participated. During the dialogue, Wilson had asked Soliman why the DSWD gives “the onus of responsibility to people who are already hungry, have no means to communicate and who fear for their life if they identify themselves when they complained about government neglect.”
Asked about her take of the dialogue, she said she was struck by Soliman’s lack of humility, of her inability to accept responsibilities.
“She is not bothered by reports that relief packs are not reaching the people,” Wilson said.
“She’s very patronizing. She showed no compassion – here there are typhoon victims who are crying because they are getting no help, but she is not bothered.”
As far as Soliman is concerned, what the Aquino government is doing has been approved by the typhoon victims in Eastern Visayas, citing the results of the December survey of the Social Weather Stations, which supposedly showed that the respondents approved of their efforts.
Asked why she keeps citing that survey, where only 650 people from the Visayas were asked, compared to the 17,000 who signed the People Surge petition submitted to Aquino 100 days after Yolanda, Soliman replied: “Where are those 17,000?