diary of an aid worker
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!"
So to take a step back, I'm going to take a look at what hinders aid delivery in the context of supertyphoon Haiyan. Once again, a caveat; this is not meant to be the end all and be all on this topic, only meant to give you a better picture of what humanitarian workers experience on the ground when we're struggling to give aid at the quickest possible time. Some of them are quite difficult but they aren't, by all means, insurmountable obstacles that can't be prepared for or remedied.
Just to review the situation (bear with me if I get a couple of details wrong), Haiyan hit Visayas region on November 8. Tacloban was one of the first areas to get media coverage and the photos and videos of the devastation were amazing, in the worst sense of the word. As it swept through Visayas, images from other areas started trickling in, from Eastern Samar to Northern Cebu to Northern Iloilo. There was a pretty validated sense that people’s belongings were next to zero and for the next couple of days, people were scrambling to get food and water for their families by any means possible. Local government units were either non-functioning or too severely short-handed to cope with the immense needs of entire populations. There was a sense of being taken aback by the scale of Haiyan. Infrastructure was down, including roads and bridges, power, communications, airport and ports (and in fact, only just improving). Markets were washed away or wiped clean. Government and aid agencies started coming in around Sunday onwards by C-130 and choppers but even aid through that was hampered by people inundating air transport with requests to leave the area or for aid. (When recounted, I have to step back and wonder if this is embellished or factual. Sadly, from people who were on the ground... it’s not.)
So why is delivery of aid not as quick as it should be? Here are some key things that affect it:
One reason why Haiyan is capturing the attention of the world is the incredible and unprecedented scale of this disaster. The winds, radius and strength of the storm was literally unlike anything ever seen in the world. I know firsthand from my vantage point an island over how early warning came in, which enabled a number of areas to prepare for the supertyphoon. Preemptive evacuations were called, standby funds and relief were prepositioned and classes/work were cancelled in advance. But measures which have worked well for other instances, were insufficient for Haiyan. Communities talked about how they just had never experienced a storm so big, that the sea came to swallow them. They were warned against storm surges, but no one thought that the waves would be so high, they would reach up to 16ft and higher. Though I would prefer that you prepare for the very worst, the question is, how do prepare for it when you can't even imagine what the worst is?
In the last few years, the Philippines has been sorely tested by intense typhoons. We're at the point that we're constantly readjusting the scale, from the Ketsana rains that poured a month's worth of rain in the span of a day, monsoon rains that are now flooding cities for months out of a year and typhoon Bopha, which was the storm of the century... at least until Haiyan happened. Bopha, which was considered, the worst storm, was just the little brother of Haiyan. Lessons learned for Bopha and other storms, which would have prepared us for Haiyan, needed to be enhanced a lot more to contend with the scale of that supertyphoon.
I won't go into a lot of detail about government capacity because a lot has been said about it already. But to be brief, government capacity deals with both national and local government. The way disaster management has been set up in the Philippines is that it's been largely decentralized to the local governments with the national government supplementing local capacity. Local government is considered to be the first responder and carries a major chunk of the role in disaster management.
So what happens now when a supertyphoon of the scale of Haiyan completely overwhelms entire municipalities and cities, including the local government? You lose your first round of defense. In Tacloban, they talk about the police force being cut down from the hundreds to the tens. Not only have actual offices been damaged or destroyed, but the people themselves are missing or worse, dead. The ones who are still alive are also concerned for families and homes that have been completely damaged. Sure, I do believe that there are government offices and roles that should operate 24/7 during an emergency but there is the very humane concern that these people have families as well. Personally, I wouldn't want to be put in the position these officials find themselves in because I wouldn't know what I would do. Moving outside the human resources, the actual resources of the local governments also seem to have been damaged or destroyed (or in some cases, even looted). Equipment is missing, information isn't accessible. In many areas, the bare minimum of what is needed to respond is not there.
When that happens, the national government is expected to step in. Once again, I won't be sharing my (very) strong opinions on that but just to put it in the Philippine context, let's talk not just about scale, but also frequency of disasters. In the latter quarter of the year, we were hit in quick succession by the Zamboanga crisis on September 9, Tropical Storm Santi went through Northern Luzon in the first week of October, the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol woke citizens up from a holiday on October 15 and then Supertyphoon Haiyan blasted Visayas region on November 8. The first three emergencies may have faded into the background because of Haiyan but Zamboanga continues to struggle with prolonged displacements in the thousands with houses and streets damaged by the armed conflict, TS Santi inflicted billions in agricultural damages and Bohol has still not completely gotten back on its feet and continues to feel the aftershocks. The national calamity fund, by the time Bohol earthquake rolled around, was definitely taxed and would have been wiped out by a much smaller disaster. These emergencies may have faded into the background of the public's consciousness but continue to need resources as recovery needs to be supplemented by national capacity.
Infrastructure involves roads, bridges and highways; power; communications; airports and ports, etc, and the affected population is not just dependent on that, but responding agencies as well. Unless you have prepositioned stocks inside affected areas that are undamaged and ready to be distributed, aid will not be instantly given the day of the disaster. And as evidenced by Haiyan-affected areas, local government units did not have that. When it comes to giving aid, infrastructure plays a large role in speed and timeliness of delivery.
This is what we look at as soon as a big disaster hits:
time x resources x efficiency x priority
What do I mean? For example, as in the case of Haiyan, with no commercial flights coming in and out of the area, you have to ask if chartering private choppers is a good option. It's fast and can get you into the areas (all you need is a flat plain or piece of land) but it is very expensive. Some would argue that the cost of chartering a private chopper is wasting more money that could be spent on aid. But when there is no one able to access the areas immediately after, sometimes it's worth going in just to get an accurate sense of what's happening. But in rushing to get in as fast as you possible, you end up forgoing being able to bring enough aid with you. Private charters or choppers as quick and fast but can only carry so much.
Every emergency and every aid agency, though they coordinate or collaborate with each other, inevitably will find itself competing with each other for the same pot of resources. I've talked about the Philippines being hit by a series of emergencies with the fund largely being the national calamity fund. But that's not even talking about the pot of resources the world has. I've felt in the last few big disasters that there is always a shortage of funds. Big ones, like Haiyan, will have a huge influx of donations and aid but will end up trickling as the world gets to the end of its available pot of resources. In the last few years, big emergencies have not realized the full amount needed to completely support disaster-affected areas (i.e. Syria and Bopha).
It's also not just a question of competing in the same pot, since this isn't really what's happening right now for Haiyan and the world being so generous. It's also about the kind of donations that have been coming in. Donations are flowing for food and for clothing, but they aren't necessarily the best things to be donated. Immediately following a disaster, when access is difficult and a little extra has to paid for access and relief delivery, then money is the best option (and agencies might not necessarily have this available). Food packs and clothing will be assembled wherever a big part of the population are, but they aren't necessarily in disaster-affected areas. Relief packs can end up accumulating but will still need money for logistics in order to deliver this quickly to disaster-affected areas.
Security is a huge issue in Haiyan for areas like Tacloban. For any humanitarian agency, there's always that wariness of sending teams into insecure areas for many reasons. Humanitarian agencies aren't necessarily the best people to deal with the situation (not having expertise dealing with a certain group or not having the right security measures in place, for example) and most likely have a mandate not to deal with armed groups, as an impartial or neutral organization. And of course, there's also the reluctance to send teams into a situation where there is a possibility that your people could be harmed.
With reports populating the media like choppers being mobbed by hundreds of looters or that armed groups are wandering the areas, agencies are understandably wary about putting their staff in that position. Aid workers are minimal compared to the actual affected population and if placed in that kind of position, would be at risk. But more importantly, given the current problems with access and the limitations with how much can be brought in, humanitarian agencies also don't want to put the affected populations in harmful situations. For example, only being able to bring in food packs for 100 families, when there are a thousand hungry ones who will do everything they can to get the first food they've had in days might create a terrible situation for the affected. Instead of helping the people who are in need, you might actually be adding to their insecurity.
I read an extremely interesting and informative article on Time magazine the other day entitled "Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines" Information can be tied up with security that in the sense that when communication systems are minimal, we do rely on news and media to give us ideas of what's happening on the ground. When there are cases of looting or armed groups, then that will put pause in plans to ensure that distributions or any kind of relief delivery has a contingency plan for any kind of possible situation.
Information or the lack of, also causes obstacles to aid delivery. For example, the kind of blanket devastation in Haiyan tells you that you need to give to everyone but you also need to how many families that are affected to give everyone sufficient aid. Without knowing how many people to give to and then hearing about looting makes it more difficult to be able to deliver relief right away. You'd want to ensure that you have a complete set for everyone to minimize security risks.
So with that laundry list of obstacles to aid delivery, what can be done to make it faster?
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.