Launch of the 2014 TWSC Public Lecture

Written by the Third World Studies Center    

I. Rationale
The Philippines is increasingly known, among other things, as the "world's most disaster-hit country" and parallel to the surge of occurrence and magnitude of natural disasters has been the clarion call for accountability: who can we turn to in time of unprecedented risks? When one of the world's most powerful storms made landfall in central Philippines, just weeks after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit an en even bigger expanse of the same region, headlines of pork barrel scams did little to comfort the public of the miniscule funds left for disaster relief. Calamity-stricken residents have begun begging on the streets for food and women were reportedly forced into prostitution to fend for their families. In the midst of the scandal and the rubble emerges what seems to be the one saving grace: the unique Pinoy trait of resiliency sung in societal chorus, that “the Filipino spirit is waterproof and unbreakable.” Attempts to recover from the systemic loss of life and property—“Tabang Na” shirts, run for a cause events, including the adaptation of the charity anthem “We are the World”—served to invigorate the downtrodden Pinoys. We are survivors, not victims. Indeed, in the face of unprecedented risks, never has “Pinoy pride” been beamed more brightly. Such rhetoric suffuses the reality of magnified vulnerabilities in the country, lest it moves down several notches in the Happiness Index. The Pinoy smile in the face of adversities that gained world-wide admiration, remain plastered on our faces, immortalized in the good vibes Pinoy adaptation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Yet eight months after the Bohol earthquake and typhoon Yolanda struck central Philippines, the disaster-stricken areas—apparently unable to catch up with the rhetoric that was cast only too soon---languish in their recovery and rehabilitation. Portraits of Filipino communities run counter to metaphors of pride and imagined invincibility—“mga basang-sisiw” in soiled tent cities, drenched in their losses and lost causes. In the aftermath of large-scale disasters, the good-natured incantations grow louder as if to drown out the wailing of those in mourning, the clatter of pots and pans emptied of hope. What is more, Pinoy pride deflates when set against actual figures for disaster relief. The calamity fund, the primary resource for disaster relief, shares less than one percent of the national budget. Resources allocated consistently pale in comparison with the extent of damage to life and property caused by natural disasters. The calamity fund for 2014 has been set to P13 billion despite the P24 billion estimate of the damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda alone. Thus, in close scrutiny incantations of pride and resilience function in some ways as crutches—more appropriately stilts wobbling in the damage and debris.

In this view, the risk from natural disasters have revealed how Filipinos have been equipped with resources that are contingent at best—where given the corruption controversies of disaster relief, spaces can be opened up for other modes of recourse, and oppressive at worst—where resiliency has become a self-imposed burden of responsibility and accountability among Filipinos. How Pinoy pride has been fomented by societal institutions, can be described, in the words of sociologist Ulrich Beck as a form of “narrated attention”—where the parlance of resiliency ultimately detracts from, rather than allow for, a critical stance towards the zeitgeist of our time. Living in a time of unprecedented risks, can Filipinos find other practical and meaningful modes of recourse, aside from the bipolarity of disaster relief corruption and feel-good incantation?

The 2014 UP TWSC public lecture series aims to broaden the scope of narrated attention on risk from natural disasters and serve as a platform for the various forms of resources, what can be inferred to as knowledge practices on the Philippine encounters of natural disasters. The public lecture series, following sociologist Piet Strydom, posits risk to be not simply as an “objective problem” that can be addressed by scientific and technical knowledge and bureaucratic and administrative processes. The contemporary phenomenon of risk can be considered as “a new discursive culture of perception, communication and collective attempts to identify, define and resolve an unprecedented problem turned into a public and political issue.” How collectivities and institutions creatively generate and strategically utilize symbolic and material resources for different ends, unwittingly blurring the line between the protection and loss of life and property, compels us to rethink resources that have been taken for granted, simply taken at face value, remain untapped, or simply forgotten. In a time when risk looms as the currency and its mediations the product put forward on the pretext of trust and accountability, there is a need to reflect on how these create, maintain, and transform knowledge practices, in anticipation of more frequent and stronger disaster threats. Risks from natural disasters served to encourage interiorization of the unique Pinoy trait of resiliency—a mode of self-regulation made manifest in Pinoy pride among Filipinos. However, the precarious present does not privilege specific forms of knowledge, as averred by risk theorists; but in fact invokes disparate and divergent rationality claims. The public lecture series thus aims to serve as a dais for what social scientists posit as “contradictory certainties” without privileging one discipline over the other but possibly towards their potential alignment to meaningfully reflect upon the precariousness we, as a country, are confronted with.

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