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.
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.
Even from the vantage point of a descending plane, I can see the gaps in the landscape of Tagbilaran City. Where there used to be buildings or structures in place, interspersed now between standing buildings are collapsed roofs, crumbling buildings or cordoned off rubble blocking off streets. Around it, Boholanos are going about their business but I know that every once in a while, people pour out to the streets to wait out an aftershock. Just yesterday, they were as intense as a 5 or 6, strong enough to be an actual earthquake, but actually just echoes of the 7.2 earthquake hitting just off-center of Bohol last October 15.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.