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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Philippines in disaster : Typhoon Haiyan

In the days since typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc on the Philippines, aid workers on the ground have quickly reached for the only comparison they can think of: the best way to describe the devastation is to say it looks like just like the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

That is a daunting comparison. Both from a human perspective and because of the immediate questions it raises about whether, a decade on, the world has absorbed the lessons from its response to the tsunami and will apply them in the Philippines.

For those who landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province in the hours after the Boxing day tsunami in 2004, the disconnect between the eerily familiar pictures emerging from the Philippines and the death toll now put at 10,000 there is frightening. The human toll is bound to rise. And it could very well rise substantially.

Two days after the tsunami hit, Indonesian authorities put the toll at 20,000. By the end of the first week a UN official had put it at 50,000-60,000, drawing an incredulous response from some. In the end, the wave that raced up Aceh’s western shore left more than 130,000 dead in the province alone, the bulk of the more than 200,000 killed around the Indian Ocean.

The public outpouring and aid response to the tsunami was unprecedented. About $13.5bn was raised and for the first time since anyone could remember humanitarian workers landed on the ground with every bit of the financial backing they needed. No longer could the excuse for any shortcomings be a lack of money.

The record sums meant the affected people received disproportionate help compared with other disasters. According to a July 2006 independent report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, “total funding was over $7,100 for every affected person”. That contrasted starkly with the $3 per head spent on victims of floods in Bangladesh that same year.

Even with all the financial backing – and partly because of it – the response to the tsunami was messy. Numerous reports released in the years after the disaster cited examples of lack of co-ordination and charities competing – often in an ugly way – with each other to deliver help.

Aid agencies forgot what they were good at and instead embraced high-profile projects. Badly designed and poorly constructed houses were thrown up at speed. Latrines were built in inappropriate places. And a year after the tsunami more than 100,000 people were still living in tents, prompting a costly push by the UN to throw up temporary houses.

All of which led the authors of the TEC report to offer a damning assessment of the state of the global humanitarian system: “The quality and capacity of the international relief system is inadequate given the scale and frequency of modern emergencies.”
Philippines typhoon map

In his introduction to the report, former US president and then UN special envoy for the tsunami Bill Clinton, called for the world to “translate good intentions into meaningful reform”.

There were “critical systemic challenges for the humanitarian community”, Mr Clinton wrote. Moreover, many had been identified following the Rwanda crisis a decade before, he said. But, he added, “we continue to struggle to turn these principles into practice”.

So has the world learnt the lessons of the tsunami? Is the humanitarian system up to the litany of disasters we are told that climate change is sending our way?

“The answer is probably no,” says John Mitchell, who co-ordinated the writing of the 2006 report and is now the director of the London-based Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), set up after the Rwanda genocide.

Each year $12bn-$13bn is spent on humanitarian aid by OECD donors, Mr Mitchell says – as much as was raised for the 2004-05 tsunami response alone. But it is distributed disproportionately and many emergencies, such as the one under way in the Central African Republic, receive too little attention.

“The scale of the true humanitarian need is well beyond the capacity of the system to respond,” he says.

Some lessons have been learnt. Co-ordination among agencies tends to be better, Mr Mitchell says. A general move away from distributing food to instead handing out cash has given victims more control over their fate. It also has helped reduce the distorting impact free aid can have on local economies.

Big international charities are better at working with local players. Technology and the ubiquity of mobile phones have also helped. About 70 per cent of people could be reached by text message after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Mr Mitchell points out.

Still, on the ground the response often remains messy. After the Haiti earthquake, Mr Mitchell says, there was a “feeding frenzy” with too many aid agencies on the ground and many of them rushing to do work that would prove misguided in time. “That’s not very pretty to be honest,” he says.

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