EDITORIAL - Identifying the real victims
There are some people who think nothing of cheating the vulnerable and taking advantage of their misery. And Hurricane Sandy has awakened many of those who would seek to gain benefit from a tragedy.
If history is any guide, the distribution of hurricane relief will leave room for corruption, partiality and inefficiency. Who can forget the zinc scandal after Hurricane Gilbert? Even after a commission of enquiry examined the matter, no one was ever held accountable for tons of missing zinc.
Many stories were told about collusion between hardware merchants and shopkeepers who facilitated the misuse of relief funds to buy items that were not considered essential. But the merchants got their cut and the so-called victims were able to acquire goods.
And in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson found it necessary to scold his colleagues in the National Executive Council, saying he would not tolerate the intrusion of politics into hurricane recovery efforts.
We expect that this week's announcement that hurricane vouchers and other relief aid will be distributed has sharpened expectations of some who will try to fake their way into benefits. Given what we know about partisan behaviour, we can foresee supporters gathering around the trough.
Therefore, there is justifiable concern that the relief fund could be used to gain partisan advantage, especially as parts of it are being administered through the highly political programme JEEP, which was conceived with a bellicose edge.
The relief process calls for transparency. The secretariat established at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, under the aegis of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, with oversight from MP Luther Buchanan, has to ensure that relief benefits flow to the 4,000 who suffered hurricane damage in the badly hit parishes of St Thomas, Portland and St Mary, without regard to party affiliation. The path to the successful execution of this mission should be clearly stated.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller observed in Parliament Tuesday that Hurricane Sandy was not partisan when it ripped through Jamaica on October 24, as it poured misery on all in its path, oblivious of what party one served. In other words, we interpret the prime minister to be saying that politics should become secondary in times of disaster.
This can only happen if there are effective checks and balances by independent agents such as non-governmental organisations, because relief largesse has a way of flowing around, under and over the barriers of scrutiny.
And on the question of rebuilding houses for those left homeless by the hurricane, one important question is how to deal with structures that were located in vulnerable areas like riverbanks and gullies. It would be insane to rebuild in those areas when the Government has signalled its intention to outlaw construction in environmentally challenged locations.
In fact, the prime minister issued a strong warning that this would not be tolerated. Again, the country needs to be assured that any rebuilding programme will take into account the suitability and ownership of the land.
During periods of disaster, victims look to their government for relief. And governments are expected to act decisively to alleviate human suffering. But one of the challenges to a government must surely be how to go about modifying expectations of support for an army of mendicants.
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