Before last weekend, it was tempting to believe that the Philippines could take whatever nature threw at it – an earthquake just last month, around 20 typhoons this year, and still the archipelago always seemed to bounce back.
But then came Haiyan. A Category 5 typhoon, it brought winds of around 235 kilometres per hour, a tsunami-like storm surge and intense rain. Meteorologists believe it may be the strongest storm ever recorded. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005, even wealthy countries like the United States struggle to cope with storms like this.
For the Philippines, a much poorer country, the challenges are greater still and are exacerbated by its geography: In this archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, Haiyan didn’t make landfall once but eight times, says the UN, hitting a succession of islands in the central Visayas region. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, many islands were cut off, making it hard to determine the full scale of the calamity. The UN estimates the storm affected just under 10 million people, while the UNHCR says it displaced around 800,000. That agency says it has been receiving reports of “growing tension and trauma on the ground, especially among vulnerable women and children”.
In the aftermath of the storm, the Philippines’ experience of coping with the impact of typhoons and earthquakes will be vitally important. Also key are the lessons learned by the international community from previous disasters, notably the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
High on that list is the need to ensure corruption doesn’t undermine relief and recovery efforts. At a time when people are dying, it might seem strange – heartless, even – to worry about corruption. But it matters. That’s because there are physical limits to the amount of humanitarian relief that can be delivered in a crisis like this. If corruption means shelter, food or medicine are being steered in the wrong direction, then they’re not going to people who desperately need them.
Regrettably, major disasters are prone to corruption. For one thing, they demand a rapid response, but at a time when the state’s services are usually overstretched. To save as many lives as possible, aid agencies may opt to act first and think later. Lack of information can mean too much assistance goes to some areas and too little to others, creating a risk of black markets.
Another problem lies in the nature of the humanitarian aid system, which consists of an enormous range of agencies, both public and private. As Peter Walker of Tufts University has written, aid agencies, especially those that rely on voluntary funding, are sometimes “drawn” to disasters as a way of raising their profile and to promote fundraising. Flush with cash, they may spend “fast and furiously” leading, again, to resources going to the wrong places.
As our colleagues Hans Lundgren and Megan Kennedy-Chouane noted here on the blog after the Haiti earthquake, coordination of aid efforts is essential, especially, where possible, by the local authorities. That message is being repeated in the Philippines: As the BBC’s Mike Wooldridge wrote, “One danger to avoid, says [World Food Programme spokesman Greg Barrow], is throwing too much aid at an affected area too soon, in a way that makes it difficult for it to be absorbed … proper co-ordination is vital.” Of course, as Wooldridge, also points out, the need for coordination may need to be balanced against the need to act now: “Some chaos – at least in the early days of such a complex operation and with so many hungry people – may be inevitable.”
Unfortunately, the coordination effort will be hampered by the loss of local officials, according to The Guardian: “Local authorities are saying that so many of their officials have died, they’ve been bereaved, they are struggling to feed their own families, their vehicles are damaged.” That will only add to the pressure on the national government.
There are lessons, too, from previous disasters for people who are outside the humanitarian system but would like to help. One is to think carefully about what you donate: As Hans Lundgren and Megan Kennedy-Chouane pointed out, after the earthquake in Haiti, “Some items sent were not appropriate, including expired medication that had to be destroyed.” That message was echoed by former humanitarian aid worker Jessica Alexander, who wrote on Slate: “There is one simple way that people who want to help can help. Donate money – not teddy bears, not old shoes, not breast milk.”