Learning lessons in the Philippines

It is only three years since the world was shocked by Haiti’s earthquake and Pakistan’s terrible floods in the same year. That was 2010, and both governments and private donors responded with massive generosity. International humanitarian aid shot up to US$20.2 billion to attempt, at least, to cope with the ‘year of two megadisasters.’

In 2011 it was almost as much, though tragically late for those suffering food crises in the Sahel and, particularly, the Horn of Africa.  By 2012, however, international humanitarian aid was down again, $2.3 billion less than in 2010. Funds filled little more than 60% of UN appeals, making 2012 ‘the year when the smallest proportion of needs were met for over a decade’, according to 2013’s Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.

Fast forward to now – or at least to the day before Haiyan devastated so much of the Philippines. We were heading already for the end of the year in which Syria had become the worst refugee crisis for two decades – since the terrible days of the Rwanda genocide and its aftermath in [then] Zaire.

And then came Haiyan

Not to mention the millions who suffer in other countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s most protracted ‘megacrisis’ in every sense except the media coverage that still shamefully eludes it. And still a crisis for the thousands and thousands of Congolese facing violence irrespective of the rebel M23’s defeat earlier this month.

So in this year of multiple megadisasters, will the world scale up its humanitarian aid to respond to the Philippines, Syria, Congo and the countless other different crises? Or fail the test now, in 2013, that it passed in 2010? Of course there must be massive and swift aid to the Philippines. But that and sufficient humanitarian aid elsewhere is the real test of global decency as 2013 draws to an end.

Involving local communities

And aid must be effective, appropriate and accountable, as well as sufficient. That is why we must remember the lessons we all said must be learnt after Haiti, the Indian Ocean tsunami and too many other disasters in the past. The Haiti Humanitarian Assistance Evaluation, published last year, summed things up well. The humanitarian response had ‘met, and in some cases, exceeded, the immediate needs of the affected areas. However… had Haitians been more involved from the on-set of the disaster, the strategies, policies and implementation of programs to support affected communities would have been better.’

It’s painful to remember that the main evaluation after the tsunami, published in 2007, said something similar. The international aid, it said, ‘was most effective when enabling, facilitating and supporting local actors.’ And while much of the aid was good, ‘there is a tremendous need to do better and support communities’ own relief and recovery efforts, and… to invest much more in disaster risk reduction and preparedness’ in the future.

Investing in the Philippines

On the one hand, that is exactly what Oxfam and many aid agencies have been doing, including in the Philippines. Shocked by the suffering caused by typhoon Ketsana in 2009, Oxfam has been helping Filipino NGOs develop their Humanitarian Response Consortium, while remaining ready to respond to disasters like Haiyan beyond their capacity to cope with alone. Others have been doing the same – acutely aware that the challenge from such disasters is not just to respond to them, but to build people’s resilience to future disasters as well. The overwhelming scale of Haiyan certainly does not mean that the Philippines government’s work to improve its ability to prepare and respond has not been vital. It has.

On the other hand, the potential for aid donors and agencies to invest more in local organizations is still – around the world - woefully unrealized, a point made by a well-timed report, Missed Opportunities, last week.

Getting that right in the Philippines will be crucial. Few would dispute that the USS George Washington and such visible signs of international support are vital. But the real test for international action is whether it can support the local, and remember the long-term. Because, tragically, Haiyan is not going to be the last terrible disaster that the Philippines and an increasing number of countries are likely to face.

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