For some reason, it was the ships — one 50 yards inland on Philippines soil, red and rusting with squatters camped-out inside its hot metal hull — and another stuck upright off the Japanese shore like a chopstick in a rice bowl that caught everyone’s attention.
I’ve recently returned from visiting Tacloban, the Philippine city now globally famous for being inundated in the storm surge wrought by Typhoon Haiyan. While there, apparently like all journalists and visitors, we stopped and had our picture taken in front of the out-of-place ship. It reminded me of visiting the coastline of Japan just after the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami had brought its own kind of devastation. There too, we kayaked out to the hulking container ships that had been tossed by the big wave and snapped a shot.
The ships, I guess, help us to process in stark visual terms the scale of what happened. Because the reality is that most of the devastation after a disaster like this (and like the many, many more to come as sea levels, population and extremism rise) is human and harder to hold in a frame. How do you capture in a picture a breadwinner out of work? Or a child out of school?
But it is those human challenges that stick with me most after a brief visit with a number of NGOs and aid agencies in Tacloban, including Save the Children, World Vision, the Asian Development Bank and OCHA. Six months since the storm, an aerial scan would show much normalcy: people going about their daily activities, businesses up and running, flights taking off and landing. But look just a bit closer and it’s easy to see why one aid worker from Save the Children described to me the scale of devastation as “off the charts.”
The UNHCR tents I saw were just a weak signal for the tens of thousands who remain homeless across a vast region. Many more lost their livelihoods — no more coconut trees for the coconut farmer; no more work for the fisherman without a boat or a net. And, as another aid worker explained understatedly, “livelihoods and shelter are not inexpensive interventions.”
And that’s really the crux of the humanitarian relief dilemma we face today. With crises — both natural and man-made — on the rise, the connection between relief and development is becoming ever more apparent. It’s the level of development before the disaster that best predicts how a country like Japan or the Philippines or Haiti will come out of it.
That’s why when I met with Kristalina Georgieva in our Washington, D.C., headquarters recently, the European commissioner charged with humanitarian aid spoke of the need to further the connection of relief to development, to leave “fewer organizations feeling they have to stay in their camp.”
Back in Tacloban, the need for this long dreamed-about smooth transition from relief to development couldn’t have been more apparent. The organizations on the ground there had in short order built up impressive infrastructure: thousands of trained local staff, policies and protocols, systems for local input and communication, offices humming with activity. But the money is drying up. Tacloban is leaving the headlines and with each milestone on the road to recovery, there is one less reason to sustain international funding. Meanwhile, the toughest problems, creating jobs and building permanent housing, remain long-term challenges.
I recall one fascinating vignette from a World Vision humanitarian who took us to see some of their projects providing clean water systems. She commented that, amazingly, among the first items available for purchase after the storm was liquor. She surmised that a local market for the strong stuff popped up more quickly than, say, food or water, because there was demand from the sudden arrival of so many soldiers. Incredible, and the kind of sensational story that critics of aid feast on.
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But it’s incredible, too, that a global humanitarian network exists and itself sprang into action so fast, that aid workers (many in Manila, some farther afield) picked up from their comfortable lives and raced to the latest zone of devastation, that whole organizations optimized their supply chains and their beneficiary selection processes and their humanitarian accountability plans and so much more to show up prepared to do their very best where the situation was worst. But just when the needs finally begin to crystallize, that’s when the funding drops. Aid agencies that were among the biggest donors for relief (like the U.K. Department for International Development) decide the Philippines is not a priority country for development, cash-for-work programs run out of money, temporary housing unlikely to sustain the storms coming in the next few months becomes de facto permanent housing, and talk of resilience fades as the world’s attention is fixed on the next disaster.
So while at Devex we embrace the idea that we in the development community writ large need to innovate, to find efficiencies and increase outputs through novel approaches, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the point that we need donor countries to back that innovation with investment. In Tacloban, after high profile stumbles in the first few days of the response, what I saw was a recovery operation with much to recommend. Now would be the wrong time to pull back.
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