Philippines: After the storm

Typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines

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.”

Useful links

Curbing Corruption in Tsunami Relief Operations (OECD-ADB)

Policy Making After Disasters (OECD)

The tsunami: Some reflections and Tsunami reflections: Turning pledges into action (OECD Observer)

OECD International Network on the Financial Management of Large-scale Catastrophes

Disaster Risk Financing in Asia-Pacific (APEC) Economies

OECD work on risk management

After the disaster, who cares?

Click to read the report
Click to read the report

Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on regional development at the OECD.

Earthquakes. Droughts. Tsunamis. Landslides. Floods. Fires. Tornadoes. Epidemics. Hurricanes. Volcanic eruptions. Stories of disasters punctuate recorded history and resonate even now. Consider Pliny the Younger’s detailed account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculanum, or Daniel Defoe’s journal recounting the 1665 plague in London, or even the less carefully documented tale of the cow that set Chicago ablaze in 1871.

Today, however, disasters unfold live and pass quickly. They fill our televisions, computers, even phones, as events are happening and in their immediate aftermath. Striking photos, heart-wrenching stories. But then, it’s all over. Once the initial shock has passed, the material and economic damage assessed, a death toll announced, the media often goes home and we turn our gaze away, back to our regular lives, until the next “big one”.

It’s easy to forget that the effects of a disaster linger long afterwards, shaping the places and regions in which they took place.

The Italian region of Abruzzo, already in economic decline, was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2009. Concentrated in the capital city, L’Aquila, the quake also affected more than 50 other small towns nearby. Nearly half the region’s population was displaced by the quake and 309 people died. Thirty-seven thousand buildings were damaged, with devastation concentrated in the renowned historic centre of L’Aquila. Emergency relief in the immediate aftermath of the quake totalled around EUR 3 billion, and another EUR 8 billion was earmarked for reconstruction.

The biggest challenge of reconstruction is not just financial, however, as a recent OECD report, Policy Making after Disasters: Helping Regions Become Resilient – The Case of Post-earthquake Abruzzo, explains. Rather, it is simply how to “get it right” going forward. Reconstruction should help make the afflicted area more resilient, which means not only better able to weather future exceptional shocks or disasters, but stronger than before, with a sustainable local economy and a long-term development strategy. Citizens’ voices should be an important part of this process, the report argues. Authorities should create spaces for community deliberation, both physical and online, and should ensure that the opinions expressed can influence the decision process.

Yet in the three years since the quake, community engagement in strategy setting for the future of L’Aquila has, in fact, been very weak, though first steps towards improvement started in 2012. This has worsened social fragmentation and distrust of local governments.  Nevertheless, international experiences show that community engagement does have an important role in post-disaster regions. It can help decision makers to  determine redevelopment plans and can help ensure that these fit local circumstances, thus creating a sense of community ownership.

In Christ Church, New Zealand, for example, University of Canterbury has publicly shared its own experiences during and in the wake of the city’s 2010 earthquake, while Lincoln University has made public its research into the economic impact of the quake. In New Orleans, a local non-profit research group, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center has been monitoring the quality and pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, through its New Orleans Index. The index tracks key social and economic recovery indicators, chosen based on input from local residents and when published, the limitations of each indicator’s data set are clearly spelled out in plain language to ensure transparency.

The experience of these cities, of Abruzzo, and of other regions examined in this report, provide valuable lessons to areas where natural disasters have forced a rethinking of the development model, or where long-term decline has done so. The report concludes with a list of eight practical recommendations for building resilient regions of interest to governments, decision makers, opinion leaders and community residents alike.

Useful links

 L’Aquila earthquake: relaunching the economy Workshop organised by the OECD in partnership with the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Recommendation of the OECD Council on Good Practices for Mitigating and Financing Catastrophic Risks

Large-scale disasters: Lessons learned

OECD Methodological Framework on Disaster Risk Management

OECD International Network on the Financial Management of Large-scale Catastrophes