From the middle of the response to Typhoon Haiyan, Lan Mercado, our Deputy Regional Director in Asia (and passionate campaigner and Filipina) reflects on what lies ahead. She was the one who asked me to pick your brains on disasters as opportunities – thanks for the responses.
The massive impact of Typhoon Haiyan claimed thousands of lives and destroyed physical assets, but it also felled institutions and tore the community fabric apart. The lawlessness that erupted days after Haiyan was an unfolding secondary disaster that abated after relief trickled through.
The shell-shocked national government was initially in denial about the extent and complexity of the destruction, until officials individually started to admit there was something wrong with the system. A top Cabinet secretary whom our assessment team met on the ground on Day 3 told them that if they wanted to take over, they should take over everything. This, in the Philippines, a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) poster country.
Two weeks have passed since Haiyan struck. International humanitarian assistance has picked up pace; yet, many remain unreached. As it was on Day 1, what’s needed for survivors to access relief materials and essential services is the combination and coordination of solutions that include logistics, technical interventions, the protection of civilians and humanitarians, the restoration of local governance institutions and the decisions and action of leaders that people trust.
For those who survived, life changed right after the storm’s unprecedented fury. Women are now widows, and the shift in status means their burdens are heavier. Households are reassigning roles amongst members. Fifty-one urban centres no longer resemble the places that they were. Production and consumption patterns are altered, at least temporarily. People have fled from the disaster zones to seek refuge with relatives. Many will contribute to the swelling population of informal settlers in the cities that took them in.
Obviously, this has implications for those cities’ resources, which were not very well planned to begin with. But a number of those who fled on C130s have no options other than to stay in the makeshift evacuation centre in the airbase where they landed or in temporary shelters that the government hastily put together.
‘Building back better’ is a phrase that’s being thrown around. President Aquino formed a task force to coordinate rehabilitation efforts, and gave it five days to come up with a comprehensive program. Recovery and rebuilding will be gargantuan and complex tasks, not made easier by the multitude of experts on ecology, land use planning, architecture, infrastructure, building codes, better preparedness, the science of early warning and risk mitigation—they are as many as the opinions published in editorial pages. Like Haiyan’s murderous winds, ideas are swirling, and at their centre are the Philippine government and the Filipino people, who must find their bearings.
The creation of this task force answers questions raised about the lack of a central planning authority needed to ‘traverse jurisdictional boundaries’ that are features of the Philippine’s decentralised political landscape. The task force includes key Cabinet officials to tackle shelter and reconstruction, resettlement, power, livelihood and employment, resource generation and allocation, local government coordination and, crucially, the engagement of the citizenry at the grassroots level. Aquino said that it is important to ‘enable people to attain greater self-reliance while participating in the rebuilding of their communities.’
The private-sector led Disaster Recovery Foundation has convened and will get its direction from this task force. But it has also met with the UNDP and Oxfam to get ideas and learn how Aceh, Haiti and other places picked up the broken pieces of their disaster-hit societies and recovered.
The ‘contributions to change’ of international actors like Oxfam begin at the point of the disaster’s impact. But Oxfam does more than just respond to disasters in the Philippines. Over the 25 years that it has worked in the country, it has pushed reforms in the humanitarian, risk reduction and development spheres, sometimes operating on its own, most of the time working with partners, and always guided by its own analysis and engaged with others.
A significant part of our contribution was political. Writing about Oxfam in the Philippines, Edicio dela Torre said ‘Oxfam’s international character and connections have… supported the political choices made by partners… and these include the politics of resistance.’
Oxfam speaks and works on behalf of the marginalised, excluded and vulnerable. Oxfam does this because ‘we believe in their strategic potential for achieving equity and sustainability,’ says dela Torre. He cautions that ‘it is not easy to link our work from the edges with our advocacy work toward those in power, especially if we do not want to be permanent substitutes for the relatively voiceless and powerless. And as we succeed in our advocacy work, we must be wary of the temptation to become simply new inside players in existing circles of power. The ability to work simultaneously outside and inside the dominant system is what we need to hone and handle well, if we are to be effective in pursuing our common purposes.’
Opportunities for Transformation
In Haiyan’s wake is a swathe of destruction and a window for disruptive change. Opportunities for transformation abound. They include transformations in gender relations and women’s increased political participation. Gender roles may, in fact, already be shifting as a consequence of Haiyan. Men have lost their usual livelihoods and are desperate to restart them. Meanwhile, wives still have to feed the children and will be breadwinners one way or another. Children, too, will have to help find food or money. Relief distributions must attend to their impact on household dynamics. One woman came to a distribution line with visible bruises, beaten by an angry husband because she failed to get hold of relief packs the day before.
The Philippines’ location and geography make future disasters a given, and countermeasures should be both for possible mega disasters and for smaller, repetitive and certain disasters, whose occurrence erodes whatever physical and financial assets poor people are able to accumulate. Influencing the country’s development paradigm so that it front-loads risk reduction, promotes sustainable livelihoods that raise resilience, and rides on government-civil society-private sector multi-stakeholder partnerships is not just logical, it is moral.
The near obliteration of buildings and other infrastructure in Haiyan’s hardest hit cities clears the way for urban development and land use planning to be set aright, which could tip the balance for the rest of the country. The proposed National Land Use and Management Act (NALUMA), advocated by civil society but languishing in Congress for years, may now become law and defy it’s acronym’s unfortunate Tagalog meaning—’to become old’ and forgotten.
It’s possible to think about a DRR body that has more political clout and credibility. Grassroots people’s empowered participation in governance can be facilitated if they can use scientific risk data. Having understood how bad development underpins risks, a few municipalities and provinces that suffered the wrath of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 have learned to say no to risk-producing corporate investments.
Haiyan broke existing storm records, and established a new benchmark. For NGOs that respond to disasters, Haiyan has profound implications for how to manage a sudden, massive and complex emergency: rapid assessment methodologies, preparedness and actual capacity to respond, the role of advocacy and influencing alongside emergency response, working with governments and regional inter-governmental bodies. We need a thorough review, if not a total re-imagination.
As an international NGO, Oxfam may look like an outsider in national transformations. But in the Philippines, Oxfam has a mostly Filipino staff and we do not consider ourselves external actors. Some of these staff have family that went missing. We wrung our hands even as we continued working. Even the loss of someone unknown to us sent us weeping. We bore each other’s sadness, propped each other’s hope. Perhaps this is what it means to be a people. Tenuous and transient these bonds might be, we cling to them as we would to lifelines.
Five thousand lives lost but most likely many, many more. We must make each one count. If Haiyan does not transform us as individuals and the Philippines as a country, we are cursed to be haunted by ghosts.
If you would like to donate to Oxfam’s Philippines response, please go here. And just because I love the photo, here’s Lan back in the day, stirring up trouble.