When I think about what got me started in my career as a humanitarian worker, it’s the moment of clarity standing in front of the haunting photos of prisoners in Tuol Sleng on my birthday. The prickles in the back of my neck as the blank stares of the dead look though me, mixed with a strangely misplaced sense of frustration almost three decades after the fact. How could the world have just stood by as millions of Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge?
That sense of injustice disillusioned me straight through my first year of law school. Facing a long stretch of corporate work or slow moving human rights law, I took the deep breath I wanted and returned to Phnom Penh a year later to become a legal intern in the Center for Social Development and a researcher for the Orphans Class in the Khmer Rouge Tribunals. I came back to the Philippines that summer with more awareness of the atrocities of the world, a sense of responsibility that I felt owed to people in countries I’ve never had a connection to, and the certainty that I wasn’t in the path I wanted to take. Five years ago, with no real sense of what I wanted to do, I accidentally started my career as a humanitarian worker.
I’ve been based in Tacloban for barely a month now and walking around the city never ceases to amaze me at how devastated these areas have been, how much work has been put in to get to this state seven months after Supertyphoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan), and how much more work is still left to do.
While walking back from the book launch of this beautifully moving book entitled “Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change”, a colleague was telling me of her experience doing the rapid assessment in Tacloban City only 3 days after Yolanda. Seven months ago, the road we were travelling in was strewn with debris. So much so, that she said you could barely walk on the road. In my month in Tacloban, I can imagine what this debris was like… trees, parts of homes, rocks, water from the sea… sometimes dead bodies. She told me that the communities along that road were in confusion and pointed out the little eskinita (alleyway) into one barangay where she was led to talk to some of the community members… the community where the barangay captain had broken down in tears in front of her and she didn’t know what to say or do.
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.
The rush and panic of the first week of responding to a disaster has somewhat faded for TY Haiyan. Donations have poured in, aid is more firmly established, and a number of humanitarian agencies have set up camp for a good 3 months to a year (or even longer) to deal with the aftermath of this monster of a disaster. So what next? Well, now it's time to start talking to your communities again and in-depth.
It's not uncommon for aid workers and agencies to have the mentality that they are 'swooping in to save the day' and fall back on arrogance that because we've done this several times, we know what the affected populations need." No worries, we got this in the bag." Hang on and hold up. Sure, aid workers get the general outline right but you can never say you know what an affected population needs until you actually pause and take a second to talk to them.
It's happened before that humanitarian agencies have not done well by the people they're trying to serve. In 1994, there was pretty strong criticism for the NGO community responding to the Great Lakes Refugee crisis (aftermath of the Rwandan genocide) and there was a move to create a set of international minimum standards called the Sphere Project that should be achieved for each response. By minimum standards, it's basically the very least that you can do... but feel free to do much better than that if you want to really launch a great response. (To read up an article that can break it down, here's Rodolfo Ticao's article entitled "Guide for aid-givers: Beyond good intentions you must do no harm"). There are also other great standards you can check out, like the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP).
Also published on Oxfam's blog here.
When our rapid assessment teams came back from Leyte and Eastern Samar, they came from a total information blackout into a storm of angry and combative debate on the efficiency of government response to supertyphoon Haiyan victims. A couple of my colleagues marveled at how negative the atmosphere was and admittedly, the debate has gotten pretty exhausting and polarizing. Everywhere I go, whether it's a dinner, a team meeting, an email exchange or social media, the conversations run along the same questions. Why is government response so slow? With so many donations pouring in, why are people still saying they aren't being served? Where are our donations going to if we're still not moving fast enough? Why should we give it to the government when they are moving so slowly?
It's interesting to be in the position I find myself in, working for a humanitarian agency and having relationships with government and other aid agencies, while at the same time being as involved in the public's reaction as you inevitably find yourself in when you're using social media. Early on in the week, when I could tell that the general feeling towards this response to Haiyan was going to get very heated, I made the conscious decision to step back and not get involved in these debates. But there is a lot of context in what's happening now that I feel is not explained comprehensively enough to understand why we're not moving as quickly as we should.
A few days ago, I was asked to be on the panel of BBC World Have Your Say (BBC Why) on the Analysis of an Aid Mission with representatives from some of the larger aid agencies all around the world. In spite of it being at 2AM in the morning, it was an interesting conversation because it was a rehash that a lot of the problems we're currently encountering were also experienced in a few of the larger disasters in recent years. The Haiti Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina are two such disasters frequently mentioned in line with Supertyphoon Haiyan, and from the aid workers on the panel, there was a sense of "well, we're not learning from our mistakes if the same situations keep happening!"
With the goodwill pouring in from literally all corners of the globe, the relief goods are coming together more and more quickly (while unfortunately, aid is not keeping up pace -- but that's another blog for the next time). I find it amusing (in an "awwwww" sort of way) that people are packing massive gymnasiums... and then slowly edging themselves out of the building as the food packs begin to take over. In the US, my uncle sent word that Americans curious about the commotions around huge Fil-Am communities are stopping their cars to ask what's happening and then handing over fistfuls of cash when they find out what for. These are truly Christmas stories in the making (oh yes! It's Christmas season!).
But before the well of generosity runs out (after all, we're not limitless pools of cash), let me put out there the idea of alternative kinds of relief. These may not be answering to the basic needs of food, water and shelter, but supports families in very convenient ways. There is such a thing as volunteer fatigue (which thankfully, hasn't seem to have started yet) but there might be such a thing as volunteer boredom also. And so here's a list of alternative relief items that might peak your interest to give. (P.S. This post may grow, especially if ideas are shared!)
Earlier in the afternoon, while stuck in the constant Manila traffic, I was (as always) scrolling through my phone and monitoring what was coming out of Yolanda. In the middle of the rants, complaints and doubts, I came upon a post about positive stories that grew out of the concern for Yolanda victims.
What struck me the most was a photo of a half-full bag of Bear Brand milk and the story of the elderly laundrywoman who gave it to a man asking for donations for Yolanda victims. The genuine heartfelt donation came with the explanation that the half bag of milk was all she had to give because she had absolutely nothing... but if you mixed it with water and gave it to the children, it would make them happy because it was Bear Brand milk. Tears welled up in the eyes of the man as he thanked her and walked away, dissolving into tears as soon as he got to the privacy of his home.
So did I, man. So did I. Stuck in the normalcy of Metro Manila traffic and the world moving forward as it must do, I scrunched down in my seat so the cabbie couldn’t see me surreptitiously wipe my tears. I continue to be floored by people who think they have nothing still coming up with something for people who have lost everything.
With local and international aid pouring in, there are several questions being raised about where aid will go and how people can track their donations in the Philippines. There’s an understandable wariness in light of the pork barrel scam and the discovery that billions of taxpayer’s monies went to line the pockets of a chosen few. It might be one reason Filipinos are driven to raise money themselves and figure out ways to deliver relief direct to the affected areas.
I get asked quite a bit on how donors can track their money and whether NGOs I work for or know are legitimate. It’s a bit of a lesson in frustration (The blowbacks of Napoles include the reputations of legitimate and valid NGOs). I personally would never stay in an organization that raises questions in ethics and finances but at the same time, I totally understand where donors are coming from. As a donor, you deserve to know how money is spent.
In work such as mine, I’ve learned to deal with scenes of disaster by keeping myself a little apart from the situation. Not so much that I don’t understand what is happening, but enough so that I don’t get overpowered with emotion and find it so difficult to work. It helps that in my country, Pinoys are resilient and cheerful, smiles ever on our faces, even after hardship and tragedy. We may not always know how we will recover from a disaster but there’s never-failing hope that we will. That is the indomitable spirit of the Filipinos.
In the last few disasters, as they get more severe and more frequent, it’s gotten more difficult to keep that part of me impartial and neutral. Not when I can see trauma and panic in people’s eyes at the possibility of another disaster when they haven’t recovered from the latest one yet. I see the emotions much more completely and in turn, it’s beginning to affect me more.
Our day starts at 7AM and our team is split into 2 to cover as much ground as possible. We’ve deliberately chosen affected areas that we feel have not gotten much coverage and between our teams, we hope to cover at least 4 municipalities: San Isidro and Sagbayan (mountainous municipalities) and Clarin and Calape (coastal municipalities). With the advice of our drivers, we take alternate routes to get to our areas. This adds about 30-45 minutes to our drive, but an hour on the road is still much better than the 6-8 hours we spent crossing Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Tagum City for Typhoon Pablo. The drive is surprisingly smooth, and I only occasionally see collapsed buildings and rubble. This is a direct contrast to reports that these areas are inaccessible. What we find striking are the number of concrete houses that have collapsed while the wooden houses were still left intact and standing, having absorbed the shock of the earthquake better.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.