Resilience Legalese

Today I joined representatives of numerous City Government offices, UP Tacloban, the Coalition of Yolanda Survivors, several regional governing bodies, UN HABITAT, and leaders from existing resettlement sites in a “writeshop” for a proposed “Resilient Human Settlement” legislative bill. This baby’s on the national policy stage, but the technical working group behind it, largely facilitated by Oxfam, recognizes the extremes endured in Tacloban and the resultant experiential knowledge owned by the local actors, so the city got a bit of extra attention. An Oxfam coordinator began the session noting existing laws are not capable of meeting the challenges of 21st century storms. “Haiyan changed the old…it’s the new normal. As far as climate change is concerned we are on a new page right now.”

Divided into huddles based on our respective offices – I’m still an adopted member of the Local Government Unit – we critiqued the working draft of the legislation and provided feedback. Our collective suggestions, broken down by section of the bill, culminated in this:

2016-08-11 14.20.59

Readers of previous posts must think I’m in the Philippines spending an unusual amount of time writing bite-size reflections on small slips of paper. Not exactly the pictures you were hoping to see me post while living on a beautiful island, huh? But don’t give up reading just yet!  Today’s session was a six hour microcosm of what motivates my dissertation. By the end of the post, I hope to convince you that there’s a story worth investigating on these little slips of paper.

I mentioned we were divided into homogenous teams, each stacked with players from complementary offices and organizations. Members on my team, that of the Local Government Unit plus an National Housing Authority representative (and two wonderful French urban planning friends I invited along), were, and still are, all highly integral in making decisions for Tacloban’s recovery. They’ve seen the reconstruction and relocation progress from a very specific vantage point. And although I obviously wasn’t around for any of it, after seven weeks with the city government I’ve built a blurry but functional pair of LGU-glasses that I put on in moments like these. I say this because I did actively participate in today’s session, but I believe my input was a fair reflection of the general concerns being voiced in the city government camp. As I continue to make my case about why today is so intriguing, I don’t believe my intervention skewed the outcome.

My team worked in a disjointed fashion, uniting our ideas on the wall first instead of open discussion. Nevertheless, when it came time to present, coherent and cohesive themes emerged.

2016-08-11 11.38.42
Can you pick out the comments I contributed?

A good number of our paper strips addressed creating a Department of Human Settlements, not just the coordinating interagency body suggested by the act under deliberation. My team members have all been subject to imposed and ineffective coordinating agencies, and they were loathe to get behind the development of another one. Apparently there is a law in Congress right now proposing some sort of a housing and human settlements department. My teammates stressed if that’s so and it passes then 1) independently progressing with this bill and not tying it to that department is a waste and 2) we need to ensure that department is holistically designed and equipped with the multidisciplinary individuals necessary to live it out.

We also were caught up on the bill’s fuzzy definition of short and long-term timeframes and what’s expected in each. Ma’am Mariya Lagman of the City Housing and Community Development Office (my LGU alma mater) gave a wonderful soliloquy about the need to un-vilify mid-term options. In fact she spoke movingly several times, I’ll jump back that later. The government team was the only one to speak on mid-term solutions in detail, singularly stressed that noncompliance penalties need to be added, named the most ‘missing’ agencies from the act, and was alone in questioning the role of assigning NEDA to the primary leadership position. Not to rag on NEDA (the National Economic and Development Authority), they’ve been wonderful partners and pivotal in planning Tacloban North, but is NEDA really the government agency with the most expertise in disaster recovery? And if recovery is not what it was designed to do, could we do even better with an agency constructed for recovery?  – Which brought us back to a healthy suspicion over the proposed housing settlements agency.

I know, I’m not able to lend you my LGU-glasses over the internet, so you may be a bit muddled. Here’s what I took away: Our team had largely high-level critiques. Coordination is a huge, sticky, tricky task, and not one that can be solved with the wand-wave of a new law. The seven pages of the act were much too vague for actual implementation, and lacked the muscle of consequences to enforce its holistic intentions.

Now let’s look at the 2016-08-11 13.13.15notes coming out of the teams comprised of community representatives. Those speaking most directly for project beneficiaries were either nominated representatives from relocated communities themselves or leaders in grassroots organizations for Yolanda survivors. They are some of the best types of people on the planet, with an unparalleled level of selflessness and drive to improve conditions for the urban poor. Here’s a selection of what their papers said:

2016-08-11 11.41.00

The community-minded teams expressed issues as experienced by the communities themselves. When community teams said M&E, they meant monitoring of every concrete pour because they are the ones who must live in these homes. The community teams alone emphasized gender equality, livelihoods, and ownership. The community teams also mentioned creating a dedicated department instead of just a coordinating body but other than that their critiques were about the experience, not operations at the institutional level. Their boards look sparse but this is only because, in appropriate community-like fashion, they collectively discussed their concerns first and then wrote them down together. I could hear their collaboration easily over the lack of ours.

2016-08-11 11.39.14

So what’s so significant? Yes the teams expressed different concerns, but isn’t that the point of bringing together the diverse swath of stakeholders?

Absolutely, I agree that’s a good thing. Today the meeting accomplished the goal of hearing from a range of concerned parties (note I didn’t say full range…) and the act will improve accordingly.

Some difference though, I find very significant. I want to know how those differences came to be and if they will affect project outcomes, especially risk reduction. For instance, I care that the community teams were the only ones to inject in-city relocation into the conversation. How and why has this option been torn from the list of options referenced by higher levels of decision makers? Given it’s necessary to fund massive infrastructure development to make the North viable, I doubt the case against in-city relocation is as compelling as the dominant pro-North narrative suggests.

I care that two of the major problems pervading relocation development are issues of infrastructure: water access and construction quality. Thus Tacloban North parables are also stories of project programming, contractor management, and construction oversight. However, the conversation is colored differently depending on the speaker. Take poor construction quality and oversight. The government actors see a need to reign in cowboy contractors. On the community side there’s a desire to take over ownership of their own homes,  I don’t mean just a literal deed but also ownership over the process so they have the capacity to prevent construction errors themselves.


Maybe you don’t see it, but when I take off my LGU-goggles, I see different priorities, different vocabulary, and different concerns surround the shared project of relocating to Tacloban North.

Before I end, let’s return quickly to the reason we were all there: Oxfam gathered us to review a bill tentatively short-titled “Resilient Human Settlement”. The idea of the bill is to make holistic, collaborative, disaster-resilient socialized housing a law. I supposes there’s nothing bad about such bill. At its worst, it’s an admirable goal that if passed will have benign effects. I’ve learned that the government hierarchy runs on ordinances and written directives, so it’s likely the bill will motivate a bit of resiliency gumption in a few agency directors.

But the goal is transformative change in the way we design and manage post-disaster housing. Can legalese about resiliency actually cultivate resilient communities?

Sorry policy folks, I just don’t believe it can. Better put, I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t believe the wisdom and empathy I saw in Mariya’s speeches today can be replicated through carefully crafted legislation. And I think that wisdom and empathy are necessary to stage a revolt on recovery-as-usual practices. Mariya wasn’t alone. Grassroots organizers shared concerns we were humbled to not have remembered ourselves. A UP professor articulated the both the glory of community-led reconstruction and the caution that must be applied in how much time and effort we really expect of community members.

I’m not implying Mariya or anyone else there wants the job… but I kept thinking to change the system, those with experience in disaster recovery shouldn’t just be consulted, they should be headhunted to fill leadership roles in whatever sure to be enthusiastically-named Department of Holistic, Resilient, Sustainable, Equitable and Economical Human Settlements is formed to do disaster recovery differently.


PS: The UP professor cited work of an American researcher so insightful that we all should read it… it was the work of my compatriot Aaron Opdyke! I just about jumped out of my seat with excitement. Could there be a cooler moment for a researcher than having your work contribute to policy making!? Despite the doubts I mentioned about a resiliency law above, it is nevertheless incredible that Aaron’s work was suggested as a resource. Congrats Aaron!

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