Sometimes working in emergencies is a lesson in frustration. On the phone with my sister the other day, we were laughing about how we were both working in fields where it is an uphill battle for change (she works in education and development); a battle we'd likely never win in our lifetimes. We were laughing about it then but there's a tinge of non-humour when thinking about the fact that you keep working in an endless battle. There are days when I go to one of our areas and see things not changing in spite of the work, energy and non-stop effort we (and others) pour into it. Sometimes, working in emergencies can make you feel like you're not often helping to change things for the better, but just working yourself to the bone being the stopgap so things don't get worse.
While reviewing the accomplishments of the work we're doing here for Bohol Earthquake, I was thinking to myself "wow, we kind of have done a lot!" But for every latrine we build, I feel the burden of not building three more in other areas. For every water system we fix, we get more people asking us to expand our areas because their systems are broken as well. For every intervention or accomplishment we finish, there's the thought of "well, you only answered one need, what's going to happen with the rest?"
My previous blog "The Competition of Emergencies" was excerpted into an op-ed piece on Philippine Daily Inquirer on 19 December 2013.
BOHOL—With the recent spate of emergencies hitting the Philippines, there’s a need for it to be smarter and think more about how to approach the scale-breaking disasters we should come to expect. But we need to start thinking not just about what happens during a disaster but also the ramifications. A disaster doesn’t truly become a disaster unless the response falls short of what the affected people need.
Not being able to prepare and respond well to disasters actually causes another issue that hampersresponse and recovery. This is what I call a competition of emergencies. What we’re not realizing is that the inability to address the increasing frequency and scale of disasters is the perfect setup for disaster. That we’re not preparing on a scale proportionate to the disasters we are experiencing just means that we will continue to respond and play catch-up with the rotation of disasters.
So there are many things hard about working in an emergency, that downright suck in fact (warning, this is not a serious blog). This job, much like any other job, has its down moments. There's many but so far, these are the things that are reaaaally not my favorite part of the job.
This year, I'm facing the first Christmas away from my family (boohoo, I sound like such a baby). But you don't understand. Christmas in the Philippines? Epic. Celebrating is supposed to start as soon as the -ber syllable begins in the calendar (... September. Just making sure you get it). Christmas carols will start that early. Pinoys will identity crisis in shopping malls when stores start putting up Halloween decorations right next to Christmas trees and wreaths (and believe me, sometimes only foreigners get the irony). We'll take a quick break and celebrate Thanksgiving in between the Christmas season (because you know, Pinoys understand the value of celebrating the Pilgrims and eating turkey because we can). The traditions are incredible. Simbang Gabi or early early morning mass was one of my favorite traditions growing up. Waking up while it was still pitch dark and cold (cold for the tropics, okay, don't judge my warm-bloodedness) and then dozing off in the middle because it was way to early and then jolting back awake at the end of the celebrations in time for hot bibingka and tsokolate-e. And the food, dear God, the food. In my mom's side of the family, Noche Buena is epic, with my aunts outdoing themselves by cooking their best dishes in an effort to mercy kill or at least food coma their children. On my dad's side, it's a different kind of epic when tsokolate-e is served in a silver tea service and there are 500 different kinds of ham and meats. Every person in the world should experience Christmas in the Philippines.
With the spate of emergencies hitting the Philippines in the last few years, more than ever, there's a need for the country to be smarter and think bigger about how to approach the scale-breaking disasters we will most likely get in the next few years. But we need to start thinking not just about what happens during a disaster, but also the ramifications following it. In Oxfam, I was struck by what one of my work idols, Lan Mercado, said "The lawlessness that erupted days after Haiyan was an unfolding secondary disaster that abated after relief trickled through." As dramatic as it sounds, a disaster doesn't truly became a disaster unless the response that follows it falls short of what the affected people need. Japan, for example, is hit by earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, but we are continually amazed by how quickly they rehabilitate and go back to normal. The Philippines will continue to deal and feature in disaster, if we don't start thinking differently about how we shall approach these.
Many things about Haiyan have been dissected and analyzed to death (me being one of those people that did the dissecting and analyzing) but what I'd like to write about right now is something I'm dealing firsthand with, here in the aftermath of the Bohol earthquake. I'll take you through a picture of what's happening literally right outside the bubble that is Haiyan. Buried under the many issues of meeting basic needs for huge numbers of people in the quickest period of time possible, how to overtake the serious threat of an already poor region sinking further into poverty due to the increase in their vulnerability, and many many other issue, is the issue of the competition of emergencies.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.