Having written a column last week about the lack of attention given to relieving poverty and pointing out that some 12 percent of the Philippine population were living at a level below subsistence, and that 27 million Filipinos were living below the poverty line, I was literally aghast to see an item in the news about the Bureau of Customs’ intention to burn used clothing donated for Yolanda survivors.
The article didn’t say how much used clothing there was, but it is fair to assume it is quite a lot. One might reasonably wonder why nearly three years after the Yolanda disaster the clothing is still in the hands of the Customs rather than having been distributed to Yolanda survivors.
It would seem that the Philippine bureaucracy is exceedingly picky about what it allows victims of disasters to receive in the way of well-intentioned aid from overseas. I recall that there was much churlish grumbling about food donations, which were near their “sell by dates” being unacceptable. Used clothing is apparently also unacceptable as it is considered tainted and may contain micro bacteria. The stuff that they sell all over the place in the ukay-ukay shops and garage sales is presumably absent these sorts of risks.
Such pains are taken to protect people for whom the state cannot itself provide, from the remote risk of their coming to harm because some surplus donated clothing from the advanced economies may contain some harmful micro-organisms.
Better to let them go without any benefit, leave the stuff with customs who, no doubt, would exact some rent from it if it were used as intended, and then later just burn it because it is clogging up the warehouses—when there are 27 million people living below the poverty line?! Is the remote risk of being contaminated by some hidden microorganism worse than the risk of living in the street without food or shelter?
The rule, which in this particular case, is being slavishly and unthinkingly followed, is the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines, which apparently prohibits the sale of donated clothing and rules that it must be destroyed.
Alas, the code does not say that it may be given away to the poor and needy. Because it doesn’t say that, to give it away is, therefore, not an option.
Rules cannot cover every single circumstance, there is not a written and enshrined into law prescription for every eventuality that may happen. Sometimes people have to make decisions themselves based on their own judgement.
But people are reluctant to do that, the comfort and safety of a law, a rule, a policy or a procedure will always be looked for as a surrogate for the risky business of thinking for oneself.
I admit that I do not have an exhaustive knowledge of the Philippine rules regarding the disposition of used clothing donated by foreign organisations for use by the victims of national disasters. But frankly, I don’t think I really need that knowledge to decide what is right in the disposition of such donations now languishing in the BOC warehouse. I also think that I would be disinclined to spend too much time hunting around for a rule, which in all likelihood doesn’t exist to cover the precise circumstances I am talking about here. If I was in charge I would just say wash the clothes and then give them free of charge in an orderly sort of way to the people who clearly need them and would benefit from them. I wonder why nobody seemed to think to say that?
People don’t think to say something like that because it is not the way things work. We must follow the rules, we must follow the process and if there isn’t a rule we will reference the nearest thing we can find in the way of a rule and which is undeniably going to keep us safe from any criticism regardless of the consequences for anybody else—in this case any potential beneficiaries or even the foreign benefactors. The intended beneficiaries are probably totally unaware that kindhearted foreigners have sent a warehouse full of clothes for them.
Of course, the rules can be ignored if doing that suits the purpose of those with power.
The result of this systemic need for rule “cover” is that it prevents decisions being considered from a morally justifiable or even common sense basis. Moral justification is not a valid defence against non-adherence to the rule, no matter how irrational the result of strict adherence, even if there isn’t a rule!
If, which heaven forbid, there is another Yolanda-type disaster that people overseas will again go round looking for donations to send to the Philippines, and they will send stuff which they consider to be useful just because that is the way that many people think—help one’s fellow men. I don’t suppose that they will feel a need to check out the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines, or all the other rules, before they do it.
Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.