Six months after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, I was looking forward to major improvements on the ground.
In all fairness, some things do seem to be in better shape. Most roads have been fully cleared of debris, several establishments are now open for business, and I didn’t see a single corpse lying on the road.
But underneath these welcome improvements I witnessed on Friday when I visited Tacloban (capital of Leyte province) and Western Samar, two of the hardest-hit areas by the storm, I also saw quite clearly that the road to recovery will continue to be a rough one for some time.
Upon arriving in Tacloban on a trip with members of the local media organized by Plan International, we observed for instance how the airport is still a work in progress, and on the way to the hotel, clearly-marked UNHCR tents populate the surroundings.
And this is not just in the city itself.
In a town in Western Samar, most basic infrastructure are still a work in progress. A number of people continue to live in tents, alongside makeshift houses plastered with aid agency tarpaulins. Part of the roof of a primary school building where we had lunch later that day was still missing, wooden windows were broken, and much of the school’s walls are pockmarked with holes. The toilets lacked roofs and even seats.
A local council member briefed us on the scale of the destruction: 95 percent of the houses there have been “totally damaged” by Haiyan, as well as the livelihoods of most citizens.
International aid groups are doing what they can to help. Plan, for instance, is implementing a cash-for-work program in the area to rebuild the community. The workers carry out debris clearing, fix school buildings and temporary shelters for 260 pesos (about $6) a day.
But that program — along with Plan’s unconditional cash transfers for vulnerable individuals who can no longer be engaged in hard labor — is not set up for the long-term (it runs for only 30 days), and soon survivors will again be left wondering how they will be able to pay for their next meal, unless donors, NGOs and the Philippine government all come up with a sustainable livelihood program, which Plan would like to run for the next five years if the organization is able to get the funding.
A long shot? Maybe. The problem is that while many international donors were very generous committing funds for the initial humanitarian response efforts, much less money has been pledged — and of course, disbursed — for early recovery and long-term development.
However, that could be changing.
According to Richard Sandison, Plan’s emergency response manager, donor priorities are starting to shift toward livelihood creation and rehabilitation, and this may well be the trend we’ll be seeing in the next 12 months or so. Survivors in the hardest-hit areas will surely welcome this, especially when the cash transfers are gone and communities are left on their own to get back on their feet.
When Haiyan struck on Nov. 8, 2013, the aid community was just barely a month into its response in Bohol, a nearby island in the central Philippines that had just suffered a strong earthquake. Today, Bohol still needs a lot of assistance, especially in shelter and livelihood creation, but funding is sparse — if there’s any at all.
“Bohol has been forgotten,” Emil Paz, Plan national manager for emergency food security and livelihood, told me during one of our conversations.
Plan had a project there, but when Haiyan happened, the donor suddenly did not follow through after its initial funding commitment, thereby forcing the aid group to complete its work using its own resources, or what they call unrestricted funding, he said.
Now, humanitarians have revised its action plan for Bohol, reducing its initial appeal from $46.8 million to $33.8 million. Many groups have withdrawn their funding requests, while local government units and NGOs have been encouraged to fill the void and implement their own projects. But even this reduced appeal is being ignored, and only close to half of the funding needs until April — around $16 million — have been covered.
Donor fatigue is common in protracted crises, so what if a bigger emergency happens this year? What if a powerful earthquake like the one that levelled whole Spanish churches in Bohol strikes Basey?
It’s a troubling thought.
Plan encourages community ownership in Basey. Members of the community decided who would benefit from the cash transfers, and will likely also have a say on which types of trainings and livelihood projects it will need from the organization.
For instance, although most of the community breadwinners used to be fishermen before the storm, Paz said they know they shouldn’t focus all their efforts on building new boats. They also want to help the coconut industry recover, and farmers are learning how to plant new crops that will be more resistant to typhoons.
But for any of these to happen, donors — whether traditional or from the private sector — must sustain their funding. At present, funding for the early recovery and livelihood cluster under the U.N. Typhoon Haiyan Strategic Response Plan, meant to cover the needs until November, is the lowest among all clusters, with only $31.9 million, or 27.3 percent of the more than $117 million request, currently met.
At the end of the trip, those present — including representatives from ECHO, ACF and the International Organization for Migration — signed a pledge to work together to help the affected communities recover, and maintain the momentum.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that promise will be kept.
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