Philippines: Typhoon a ‘political storm’?
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Philippines: Typhoon a ‘political storm’?

You have a better chance surviving a disaster in a poor democracy than a rich autocracy

– Alastair Smith, political scientist, New York University

Apart from large looming threat of climate change, which is in real terms virtually being ignored, Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan reveals what many natural disasters do – that politically induced poverty is often the difference between life and death.

Take the comparison between the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, both of which occurred in 2010. Chile’s quake measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, while Haiti’s was 7.0. Destruction was widespread in Chile, with 370,000 damaged homes and a final death toll tallied at 525. Haiti, however, was flattened. Though fewer buildings were reported damaged compared to Chile, deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands. 8.8 may not sound so much stronger than 7.0, but according to this piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which compares the earthquakes, Chile’s quake was 500 times more powerful than Haiti’s.

What made such a huge difference in the loss of life between the two countries’ disasters? There are some clues: political response, bureaucracy and disaster preparation for one. And of course poverty. Media coverage and monetary aid for Haiti dwarfed that of Chile, but charity and attention after the fact are no replacement for a functioning government that is responsible to its electorate. Similar comparisons were made between the US hurricanes of Katrina and Sandy.

Now on to the Philippines and Typhoon Yolanda, the most powerful – and likely most deadly – storm in recorded history.

Like Haiti, many victims of the typhoon lived in inadequate housing that was unable to withstand a natural disaster. In a country like the Philippines, which gets around 20 typhoons per year, a flimsy home can be a death sentence, as can the income inequality and uneven development between economic centers and the rest of the country, highlighting that money means more than votes.

While the US and UK governments pour cash into sometimes baffling strategic wars, which turn into resource grabs for corporate interests, development aid to impoverished “allied” countries is comparatively small. The Philippines is still in a state of post-US colonialism, following America’s lead in both international relations and economic policies. But has recent economic growth and following the US benefitted the poor? Apparently, not by a long shot.

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Tacloban, Philippines. Pic: Caritas/ CAFOD, November 2013

What all countries need – especially poor ones – is investment in public services. In the Philippines, however, most investment is private. High levels of perceived corruption and low expectations regarding the government are understandable, but also stifle accountability. Only a government that depends more on its voters’ support than that of business will choose to serve the people.

For more on this topic see this blog in Slate, this article in the Inquirer (Philippines) and this piece in the Socialist Worker.

How to help Philippines typhoon victims