What ought to be

Some of us are dismayed over the behavior of bitching about and blaming government for the slow, disorganized, or powerless response to the Typhoon Yolanda devastation.

Here’s a sample of Facebook comments that I liked:

· Please, if you are not doing anything to help, just shut up. We are all hurting, especially those in the affected areas. Let us unite in helping in any way we can. Criticizing, spreading false stories, predicting failure and all that negative stuff have got to stop.
· I hope all those know-it-all critics of the typhoon relief efforts sit down together and produce a magic master plan for the survivors. I’ve been waiting days for them to stop bitching and to come up with an alternative to what the government is doing.
· The damage from Yolanda is incalculable. The worst is psychical. The aftermath has made bitching a national pastime.

Don’t get me or us wrong.

First, everyone is not faultless. Even PNoy. Recall that he criticized the local government of Tacloban, expressing doubts over its preparedness. In times of great distress and disaster, emotional outbursts are difficult to control. In fact, they are better released.

Second, criticisms are necessary. Government is not omniscient. Criticisms make government awake and responsive.

But the type of criticism we have to avoid is one that weakens the collective effort to provide relief and rehabilitation to the suffering millions.

Some criticisms or complaints stem from the thinking of what ought to be. Government must or should do this or do that. Dapat ganito, dapat ganyan.

What ought to be is the best situation; it is the ideal. But the ideal is not the real world. We face too many constraints to achieve our objectives. Apply this to the response to the devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda: The information and logistics failure overwhelm the people on the ground. Without information, infrastructure, and logistics, we can expect chaos.

Thus, attributing the absence of government’s presence as a cause of the worsening situation is misplaced. Government’s invisibility in some areas is but the effect of an objective problem—information and infrastructure facilities having been knocked off, leading to inefficiency and miscoordination.

It is also true that in remote areas, government cannot be found. But this has been the case since time immemorial. It is thus a constraint in the context of the ongoing relief and rehabilitation.

Another example of the “what-ought-to-be syndrome” is the tendency of some, particularly the foreign commentators, to compare the Philippines’ poor response to that of advanced countries like Japan. In other words, we ought to be doing what Japan is doing. Again, that is the ideal, but far from real. How can we become a Japan that soon?

This reminds me of the weakness of the most incisive analysis of Douglass North on the role of institutions, which earned him the Nobel laureate. North and his colleagues distinguish between countries (developing ones) that have limit access orders—characterized by corruption, rent-seeking and oligarchic rule—and countries (the advanced market economies) that have open access orders. So what ought to be for developing countries is to achieve open access orders. But North et al. so far cannot provide the concrete answers how to get there.

When next time, we say government must do this and must do that, we better exercise prudence and caution. Let us be sensitive to the constraints. Let us also acknowledge our own constraint that we ourselves do not have enough information that will be the basis of the most appropriate response.

But below is one example where our commentary can be most helpful to the relief and rehabilitation effort. Note that the writer EJ Galang, a young, internationally awarded creative professional, avoids saying we must do this or must do that.

To my friends in government, I know it’s a tall order, but can we expect a transparency report, an accounting of the donations that are meant for relief. I know it’s a hard task but this recent expose made the people lose its confidence on how the government keeps track of the people’s money. It will do the government good if you can restore a little bit of that trust.

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