Cash-flush Buddhist org comes to rescue in storm-hit Philippines but breaks NGO rules

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 27 February 2014 10:46 GMT

A sign thanking the Tzu Chi Foundation hangs at a street corner in Tacloban, on Jan. 30, 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Thin Lei Win

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In the three months after Haiyan, the Tzu Chi Foundation provided $27 million in aid, violating some NGO guidelines, disquieting aid circles and becoming a saviour for survivors

TACLOBAN, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The coastline on a narrow peninsula near Tacloban airport still bears the scars of super storm Haiyan. Almost every home in San Jose district was destroyed and rubble is everywhere. The few concrete pillars left standing provide a makeshift playground for children.

But parked at the water’s edge is a conspicuously brand new fishing boat, painted green, white and blue. “Because of Tzu Chi,” a young man said, pointing to the boat, his face beaming.

The Philippines branch of the Taiwanese Buddhist organisation doled out 8,000 pesos ($180) cash, allowing him to buy a new fishing boat while other fishermen in neighbouring towns were fretting over how to earn a living. 

Here in Leyte province, one of the hardest-hit areas, Haiyan survivors have put up simple, scrawled posters outside people’s homes and on street corners, thanking donors from around the world. 

However, one name came up much more frequently than the others in this staunchly Catholic country: the Tzu Chi Foundation, whose founders include a Buddhist nun known as Master Cheng Yen, recognised with Asia’s Nobel Prize equivalent, the Ramon Magsaysay award, for community leadership in 1991. 

The Buddhist organisation told Thomson Reuters Foundation that in the three months since Haiyan destroyed more than 1.1 million homes and displaced 4 million people in central Philippines, it has provided more than 1.2 billion pesos ($26.9 million) in assistance to survivors in Leyte.

This includes medical help, cash for 60,000 families who lost their homes, and almost 300,000 shifts of a cash-for-work programme that pays 500 pesos ($11) per person per day, said Alfredo Li, chief executive officer of Tzu Chi Philippines, set up 20 years ago.


Some of Tzu Chi’s methods - especially the payment for debris-clearing work that is almost double the area’s minimum wage - have raised eyebrows in the traditional aid community, whose pay was in line with the minimum wage. 

Cash-for-work programmes are short-term, unskilled jobs in which people are paid for public work such as removing rubble. Although relatively new, cash-for-work has become an increasingly common element of humanitarian assistance because it is quick to implement, gives people flexibility on how they want to spend the money, and helps revive the local economy. 

Guidelines for implementing these programmes ensure they do not distort the local economy, and affected communities do not become overly dependent on these jobs.

But Tzu Chi is breaking these rules by paying such a high wage, say experienced aid workers. They are also concerned the organisation’s cash-for-work may have diverted people from traditional livelihoods. No one would speak on the record, citing sensitivity.

Li defended the programme, which was employing 34,000 people a day at one point.

“Some people complained 500 pesos is too much, but it is a relief fund. It’s not salary, so they should not compare it to the minimum wage of 260 pesos ($5.80) a day in the area,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Manila in a phone interview.

“After the typhoon, there were no jobs available. People had no money. We asked Master Cheng Yen what to do and she said we must help all of them - an unlimited number.”

After two or three days of Tzu Chi’s programmes, stalls started to reopen from the injection of cash into the economy, he said.

“The most important was that after a few days (of work), you see the smile in their faces and the hope in their eyes,” he added.


Another bone of contention was that Tzu Chi was absent from most humanitarian relief coordination meetings arranged by the United Nations and other aid agencies.

When asked about this, Li said the organisation works independently, coordinating with local and national governments.

“Sometimes our way of doing things is a little different. We go directly to the people because the money to us comes directly from the people,” he said.

Donations from Tzu Chi branches in Myanmar, Honduras, the United States and East and South Africa helped the organisation provide extensive support, Li said.

He said the organisation is now focusing on medium-term assistance such as restoring the roof of the Santo Niño church in central Tacloban and building about 5,500 prefabricated schools and houses.

“In the long-term we will build permanent housing and schools, but permanent homes will depend on the availability of land which is the biggest problem,” said Li, adding that officials in Ormoc and Palo, two towns hit by Haiyan, have helped identify possible plots of land.

Whatever the criticism within the aid circle, Tzu Chi has been a saviour for people who lost livelihoods, homes and families to Haiyan.

Marvin Tabataña, a 33-year-old tricycle rickshaw driver in Tacloban, said he only managed to rebuild his home because of Tzu Chi’s cash assistance and cash-for-work.

“At Tzu Chi, there are two things we do not do - we do not convert people and we do not get involved in politics. Our challenge is that there are so many disasters in this country,” Li said.

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