Rebuilding communities

When one looks at pictures of the devastation wrought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the rehabilitation work that is required to make the affected cities and towns livable again. The sheer planning and logistical problems it implies so boggle the mind that we are led to focus exclusively on what the effort demands in terms of financial resources, political will, expert advice, and managerial capability.  Little thought, if any, is given to the people who will live in the rebuilt landscape.

Neighborhoods are not just physical structures. They are, above all, networks of social relationships founded on tradition, memory, and trust.  In Eastern Visayas, families lost not only their homes but also many of their members.  The surviving residents emerged from the desolation with no hope of quickly returning to their sources of livelihood.  Many of them have been injured physically and psychologically.  The storm shattered not only their houses but also what remains of their fragile communities.

The vulnerability of these communities is attributable not just to their poverty but, ironically, to the supplanting of the organic community by the functional agencies of the state.  It is a point I have asserted in previous columns: that today’s barangay, representing the most basic unit of government, is not the same as the old barrio that used to bind households together into a strong community.

The traditional barrio’s strength lay in the people’s pride of place, solidarity, mutual trust, and spirit of volunteerism.  In contrast, the barangay, having made its appearance in our people’s lives as a formal instrument of government, is the local face of contentious politics.  Over the years, despite its avowed nonpartisanship, the barangay has evolved into nothing more than the local vote-getting machine of political forces vying for power at the higher levels of government.

Most barangays as they exist today can hardly be expected to function as the first line of defense or as the organ of first response in the event of a massive disaster.  They are not only ill-equipped to respond to the challenges posed by calamities, they also tend to lack the moral authority that a leader needs to harness the collective energy of a community during times when everyone is prone to look after his own family.  And yet, the burden of responding to the threat and consequences of a disaster—at least for the first three days after a calamity has struck—is made to fall squarely on the shoulders of the local executives.  This policy, I believe, rests on certain assumptions that need to be reviewed.

It was pathetic, I thought, for Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez to feel so besieged and helpless that at one point he urged his constituents to leave the city and find shelter and food among their relatives in other towns.  “I have to decide at every meeting,” he said, “which is more important, relief goods or picking up cadavers.”  He did not have to feel so alone, for indeed we have only one government. No barangay, town or city executive in our country would have had the capability to confront the complex challenges posed by Yolanda and its aftermath.

In light of this, there is perhaps one question that all of us need to ask ourselves if we are to learn anything from this tragedy: How unified and organized are we in our respective communities to be able to act as one in the face of a monstrous calamity like Yolanda?  Time and again, we have proven our boundless generosity as a people when it comes to offering assistance to survivors of disasters.   But, do we care enough for our own communities to prod ourselves and our neighbors to get organized so that when the next disaster strikes, we will not be so helpless?

The answer to this surely depends on the existence of organized communities.  It may be too late to hope for the revival of those traditional communities that were bound together by similarities in beliefs, values, and customs.  Widespread migration and urbanization have made such communities a rarity, to be found only in remote tribal settings.  If that is the case, then the organization of the local community has to be an integral part of nation-building itself.

The late Jesuit scholar Fr. Horacio de la Costa perceptively summed it up in one of his essays as the ideal of patriotism:  “To the ideal of a people united by a national consensus (pagkakaisa) to build together by a neighborly sharing of goods and services (pakikisama) a society in which every man can develop himself fully as a person self-possessed (pagsasarili), it adds the demand for total dedication to the nation as such—pagkabayani….  Our ideal of pagkabayani is balanced—or more precisely, is completed—by our ideal of pakikipagkapwa-tao.”  Heroism, unity, and solidarity—none of these qualities is alien to us.  Indeed, De la Costa believed they are constitutive of the Filipino national tradition.

It would be foolish to think, however, that these ideals grow spontaneously wherever Filipinos live.  Rather, they are slowly cultivated in the course of building a nation.  By themselves, planners, architects, and engineers can rebuild and transform devastated towns and cities into the most modern and environmentally-rational places.  But without strong communities to inhabit and run them, they would amount to nothing.

We must not underestimate the value of involving the people themselves in the rehabilitation of their communities.  This whole venture can be an intensive exercise in active citizenship and nation-building.