November 8, 2014 marked the one year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the strongest storm ever to hit land.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen, founder of People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance (PREDA), visited survivors of the typhoon just days after the disaster in 2014, and reported: “I have been through ferocious typhoons during my 44 years in the Philippines but have never seen or experienced anything like this for the sheer savagery of this destructive force of nature.” But there was also hope, as Fr. Cullen observed: “We witnessed the resilience, courage and bravery of many Filipinos that are rising above the tragedy.”
As a result of the wide-spread destruction caused by the typhoon, 6,000 people died and 4.1 million people were displaced. Those who were already poor became even poorer, part of the 16 million Filipino people living in extreme poverty.
According to a recent study, the number of people displaced by natural disasters is triple the number of people displaced by wars, and 80 per cent of those displaced are in Asia, (Norwegian Refugee Council article).
Similarly, the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has once again confirmed the human factor in climate change, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan.
So we can connect the dots between carbon emission, climate change, extreme weather events, destruction of lives and homes, displacement and migration, and extreme poverty.
Now, one year later, people are still struggling to rebuild. One of the biggest challenges facing the survivors is epitomized by one woman’s struggle to repay the debt on the loan she took out for the materials to build a simple shelter. And as if that were not enough, she added: “I’m still paying the debt on my house that was destroyed!”
Recently, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach joined sister faith-based organizations in the Jubilee USA coalition to address these concerns at a meeting set up by the faith-based liaison at the World Bank. We met with one of the special assistance to World Bank President Jim Kim, as well as with one of the officers for the Asia Pacific region to ask for an immediate moratorium of debt repayments as the Philippines rebuilds in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
One of the response we received to our request was that the Philippines is a “middle-income country” and therefore not qualified for debt relief. The problem, however, is that such per capita income does not take into consideration the distribution of resources and the needs of 16 million people living in extreme poverty.
We also raised the question whether the World Bank’s laudable goal to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2030 took into account the possibility if not likelihood that future storms and natural disasters will grow in frequency and intensity due to global warming, displacing millions more people and driving them into extreme poverty.
The burden of the foreign debt will certainly be felt by those living in extreme poverty, as every dollar spent to repay the debt is a dollar not spent on development to benefit the poor. Years ago, the Latin American bishops observed: “The poor cannot pay the debt, should not pay the debt, and have already paid the debt many times over in interest.”
Currently, the Philippine government owes $60 billion to international creditors, including the World Bank, and repays more than $8 billion a year to service the debt. Even much needed disaster relief was made in the form of loans, not grants, increasing the burden of debt on the poor.
According to Christian Aid: “Debts that should have been cancelled years ago are limiting the capacity of the Philippines to respond and rebuild after the typhoon. Action on this is clearly needed before any new debts are added.”
A creative way to look at this is the following: If the Wall Street banks were “too big to fail,” and qualified for massive debt relief in the latest recession, why not consider the world’s poor living in extreme poverty as “too big to fail,” and thus deserving of massive debt relief from their international creditors with an eye to sustainable, equitable, and participatory development?