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The politics of the Philippines' vulnerability to natural disasters

- December 8, 2014

A Filipino typhoon victim pleads for help in the town of Taft, Samar island, Philippines, on Sunday after Typhoon Hagupit knocked out power and flattened houses there. (Francis R. Malasig/EPA/Landov)
The evacuation of thousands of at-risk households along the path of Super Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) is prompting renewed interest in the role of infrastructure in disaster preparedness. By almost any measure, the Philippines is particularly vulnerable: The country is consistently near or at the top of the list for disaster mortality rates and economic damage.
Previous research has highlighted the link between these disaster-related outcomes, the unlucky geography of the country and deficiencies in infrastructure linked to poverty and corruption. However, new research in the Philippines suggests that improvements in infrastructure are only a first step: Even after prioritizing infrastructure spending and reducing corruption in the sector, political factors can still create the wrong incentives for the allocation of funds, with devastating results for efforts to build long-term disaster resiliency.
First, reelection strategies can encourage politicians to delay construction projects to maximize visibility before the elections. Julien Labonne argues that such temporal distortions were previously difficult to detect using yearly expenditure data because politicians could balance their spending increases prior to the election with sharp reductions shortly afterwards. Using a novel approach with quarterly data on employment, he is able to provide evidence for political business cycles in the Philippines: Local politicians allocate funding to spur construction sector employment ahead of elections through short-term contracts.  This suggests that instead of planning construction projects with a long view (for example, upgrading roads and sewers to reduce flooding before typhoon season), politicians opt for the electoral gains associated with increased construction spending during the campaign season.
Second, electoral incentives and politician networks can also affect the way that infrastructure funding is allocated to specific areas. This is especially salient in a decentralized country like the Philippines, where local and national level politicians have overlapping constituencies. Ron Mendoza’s research on the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) shows that one consequence of giving politicians discretion over funding is that it leads to family dynasties controlling a staggering amount of public funds. In addition, Yasuhiko Matsuda and I show that local and national politician networks affect the way that these funds are allocated for infrastructure spending. Regrettably, we find no evidence that poverty, vulnerability to disasters, or other objective measures of infrastructure needs are determinants of road construction and repair expenditures at the local level. Instead, our evidence highlights the importance of political connections and electoral strategies. Consistent with the story in many other countries in the developing world, we find that mayors divert construction funding to electorally contested areas where they need to win more votes, while congressmen use their discretionary funding to shore up political connections by allocating funding to localities where the mayor is an ally.
In a previous Monkey Cage post, Allen Hicken, James Atkinson and Nico Ravanilla pointed out that political connections matter for the allocation of disaster relief spending. Similarly, the politics of disaster resiliency look to be just as complicated and perhaps even more pernicious. This is because the already difficult tasks of prioritizing infrastructure spending and reducing corruption in the construction sector are simply not enough. Until we figure out a way to make disaster prevention as politically beneficial as disaster relief, we’ll need to do more than just increase infrastructure spending for long-term solutions to build resilience and reduce vulnerability.
Cesi Cruz is an assistant professor in the Institute of Asian Research and Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. She teaches policy analysis and program evaluation for UBC’s new Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs program (@ubcMPPGA).

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