Squabbles blamed for stalling Philippine aid

A picture emerges of an aid campaign driven with rivalries and vulnerable to abuse.

Residents walk through debris as they rush to a rescue helicopter delivering relief foods in Hernani town, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines on 11 November, 2013, four days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the country. Picture:AFP

PALO - Nena Obrero and her family survived without government aid for three weeks after Super Typhoon Haiyan churned across the central Philippines and reduced much of her hometown to rubble.

Obrero lives in Guindapunan, a barangay, or district, of the city of Palo, on the east of Leyte island, where more than 1,000 people were killed on 8 November.

The family of seven got by on handouts from a charity and local church. But they missed out on the initial shipments of rice from the municipal office, the main channel for redistributing aid in the disaster-prone Southeast Asian archipelago, due to political squabbling, Obrero said.

Even in a tiny barangay, residents say the biggest loyalties are at play - in this case to the clan of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos's widow, whose supporters belong to a collection of opposition parties, and to rival assassinated politician Benigno Aquino, whose son is now president.

The mayor of Palo, Remedios Petilla, is the mother of both the provincial governor and a minister in Aquino's cabinet. In Guindapunan, her barangay "captain", the highest elected official, was Annalisa Yu, an ally of two nephews of former first lady Imelda Marcos. Following elections in October, Yu's husband took over as captain at the end of last month.

Obrero, 49, claimed a longstanding feud between Yu and Petilla was the reason her family failed to receive anything from the four initial shipments of rice to Guindapunan in the first three weeks after the storm.

"Those two are always quarrelling," Obrero said outside her gutted coconut lumber and chainsaw-rental store, speaking two days before the mayor delivered food packs to her area. "We are caught in the middle."

Petilla said she had distributed aid through other leaders in Guindapunan because Yu had not come to her seeking help, and that if anyone fell through the cracks, it was unintentional.

"We cannot really be perfect. Maybe one or two didn't get (anything), but on the whole they were given," Petilla said.

Allegations of "colour-coding" - the selective distribution of aid along political lines, or by the colours associated with different parties - were common along the typhoon's path.

In assessing the veracity of those allegations, it is difficult to draw a clean line between the influence of politics and what may simply be the unintended consequence of a massive and often chaotic relief operation.

But in interviews with more than 50 government officials, local leaders and residents across Leyte province, a picture emerges of an aid campaign driven with rivalries and vulnerable to abuse.


The partisan battles are also playing out on the national stage, threatening to bog down a reconstruction effort expected to cost billions of dollars and take years to complete.

Haiyan, one of the biggest cyclones known to have made landfall anywhere, killed more than 6,100 people, many in tsunami-like sea surges metres high, destroyed most structures in its path and left millions homeless.

In recent days, Aquino has defended himself and his interior secretary against allegations from the mayor of Tacloban that clan rivalries slowed the government's initial response in his city, which bore the brunt of the storm. The mayor, Alfred Romualdez, is a nephew of Imelda Marcos.

Aquino's office denied the accusations, saying it had allocated resources based on need. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said there was no truth to Romualdez's accusations.

The conflict comes with Aquino already under fire from a scandal that erupted before the storm in which lawmakers, including some of his allies, were found to have misused funds allocated for local government projects. Aquino has tried to stay above the fray, saying that he too is outraged by the misconduct, but the row has raised doubts over his pledge to clean up one of Southeast Asia's most corrupt economies.

The government's launching of an online portal to provide information on how donations are being used has not dispelled worries that some typhoon relief could fall into the hands of corrupt officials, experts said.

"The way his administration implements the rehabilitation plan and uses the assistance from foreign countries and international organizations could become his greatest political challenge yet," said Richard Jacobson of the security consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments.

People in the disaster zone have been receiving aid through two main channels: from their municipal office, redistributing the flow of relief controlled by the national government, and from charities and other non-profit groups.

Some international aid agencies interviewed by Reuters said they had worked with politicians in their relief programmes. But, as in past disasters, most are bypassing the municipal and barangay leaders to ensure it gets to those who need it most.

"Politics runs deep in this country," said an executive at one of the largest non-profit aid agencies, explaining that selective aid distribution had been a problem before.

"If you give it to the mayor or the barangay captain there will be a partisan dish all the time," he said on condition of anonymity, citing worries his comments could impede his agency's work. "It will go to certain people first. That's the sad part about it."


Several complaints of uneven aid distribution could be traced to the relationship between the mayor and the barangay chief, according to interviews with mayors of three municipalities and residents in more than a dozen barangays.

Reuters found at least three instances in Palo where the custom of distributing relief through the barangay captain had been circumvented and the mayor was dealing with a political ally. Petilla said there were several instances where she was coordinating relief with someone other than a captain, and that some were not members of her political party.

In Guindapunan, Petilla turned to Maximiano Pajares and other councillors to help her distribute relief among the barangay's seven zones. She said this move was necessary because Yu had not attended meetings or reported to the town office to pick up goods like other barangay chiefs.

"She is the one politicking," Petilla, the septuagenarian matriarch of one of Leyte's most powerful families, said of Yu. "I don't know why she doesn't come to me."

Yu said she had not been kept in the loop about the municipal office's distribution plans for her barangay and had focused on delivering relief secured through her own means.

Whatever the cause, interviews with residents suggest the initial supply of rice sacks and sardines to Guindapunan had been uneven depending on which of the seven zones one lived in. Those goods were meant to be rationed out by the councillors acting in Yu's place.

Some residents of zone 3 said they saw none of the 27 sacks of rice and three boxes of sardines that had been delivered to Guindapunan between November 13 and November 16, according to a master supply list outside Petilla's office.

Nor had they seen the 110 food sacks - each containing about 10 packs designed to feed one family - that councillor Pajares said he received some two weeks after the typhoon and distributed equally among the seven zones.

Rather than seek Petilla's help, Yu said she had secured food packs from the provincial government and the corporate owner of the gasoline stand she operates. But by the time she got around to zone 3 - where the Obrero family live - the supplies had run out.

"I have two zones, 3 and 4. They have received nothing from the beginning," Yu said - before Petilla delivered food packs - accusing her of distributing to supporters of the Liberal Party, associated with the colour yellow, first.

"Only the yellow team gets the food from the mayor and her allies," Yu said. "When I give out to the barangay, it is by zone, not colour."