Helping the Philippines: What the World Should Learn From Disasters Past

Government agencies and private groups trip over one another to help
U.S. service members unload relief supplies from a Black Hawk helicopter at Tacloban airport in the Philippines Photograph by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

Estimates of the toll from Typhoon Haiyan suggest as many as 10,000 dead and 600,000 displaced. A considerable global humanitarian response is already underway, with the U.S., as usual, taking the lead. The U.S. gave $3.8 billion in official humanitarian assistance in 2012, about 29 percent of the global total. If the past is a precedent, the international community will play a vital role in limiting further deaths and providing immediate relief in the next few weeks.

But the history of previous disasters suggests the international community will be far less effective in meeting the challenges that come after the immediate delivery of relief. A fragmented rebuilding effort that is ill-coordinated and unresponsive to the true needs of the people of the Philippines is likely to produce disappointment. Donor agencies should get it right this time—by working transparently and under government coordination, providing cash rather than projects wherever possible, and recognizing that relief and reconstruction are two different things.

Take two recent disasters in which the U.S. was a key player in response: the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. The 2004 tsunami killed 150,000 people and displaced 700,000. There were $7.7 billion in donor pledges in response, of which about $500 million was spent on the initial relief phase—leaving $7.2 billion for recovery and development. A review by the Brookings Institution concluded that while the relief effort was highly effective and achieved a huge amount within six months, the larger response did not lead to “rapid, effective and productive recovery and long-term reconstruction.”

Part of the problem is that relief organizations that rush in immediately after a tragedy aren’t necessarily well-placed to support development efforts. In the weeks after the tsunami, the district of Aceh on the island of Sumatra, one of the worst affected areas, was occupied by more than 400 different aid agencies implementing over 2,200 reconstruction projects. There were more than 143 different NGOs operating in the education sector alone. Coordination was almost impossible. There were constant turf fights between aid agencies and NGOs; project quality was mixed, at best.

One evaluation of tsunami relief and reconstruction efforts found NGOs guilty of providing “unsolicited and inappropriate aid” and “brushing aside or misleading authorities.” A survey (PDF) of aid recipients suggested that only one in five recipients felt adequately informed about projects that were supposedly designed to assist them. To take one example, a number of agencies tried to replace destroyed fishing boats. The Kuwaiti government provided hundreds of fiberglass boats while the European Union established boatyards that made 200 fishing vessels. In both cases, fishermen would not take the craft out of the rivers for fear the flimsy designs would sink in open waters. As a result, one-third of donated boats from 29 different agencies tracked during a 2009 survey had been abandoned because of poor quality.

In Haiti, the initial response was hugely important in limiting the scope of what was already a massive tragedy. Some 220,000 people died in the quake and its immediate aftermath, but relief was quick enough to prevent widespread starvation, malnutrition, or the spread of infectious disease. Sadly, the relief effort never became a successful reconstruction effort. Despite all of the talk of “building back better,” 280,000 Haitians were still living in temporary camps under tents of tarpaulins three years after the earthquake. And while there were no epidemics in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, a cholera outbreak introduced by UN peacekeeping forces has killed 8,200 people. A long term plan to (re-)eradicate the disease in the country is estimated to cost $2.2 billion.

It’s impossible to know how the $9 billion in relief and reconstruction aid that poured into Haiti has been spent. About $900 per Haitian has been disbursed—more than the country’s average annual income. An analysis by economist Vijaya Ramachandran of the U.S. contribution of $2.25 billion suggests that less than 0.5 percent of it went through the Haitian government. No one knows who ended up with the rest of the money and what they did with it—although we do know that somebody financed visits from Clowns Without Borders, while others backed Homeopaths Without Borders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many in Port-au-Prince are frustrated with the relief effort, complaining about the ‘republic of NGOs’ that rules the city—and sometimes hurling rocks at aid SUVs as they pass.

The Philippines deserves better. As they focus on short-term relief, donors, including the U.S., should publish their planned spending and activities in real time—and demand that their contractors and grantees do the same. That will help improve coordination, as well as tell beneficiaries what to expect. Donor agencies and humanitarian organizations should tell individuals who want to help that they should send cash—not food, clothes, or other supplies. Wherever possible, those organizations should give cash, too. As quickly as possible, donors should move away from a model based on financing nonprofit and contractor provision of services and instead deliver aid through local government authorities.

Victims are far better placed than foreign aid bureaucrats to decide how best to spend resources to recover from the impact of the typhoon. Cash-transfer programs were tried in Haiti and became a significant part of the relief effort after Pakistan’s 2010 floods. Thanks to advances in biometric identification and electronic payments, it’s cheap and easy to ensure that cash transfers reach victims, and the risk of fraud or misallocation is low. Cash transfers are faster and more effective, and they require less overhead than large-scale relief projects—which should be limited to restoring infrastructure and public services.

The world needs to respond with alacrity and generosity to the horrible tragedy in the Philippines. If we respond intelligently as well, we’ll reduce the suffering of victims far more effectively than in the past.


    The bottom line: Relief agencies that rush to help after disasters are often less effective at leading the long-term rebuilding that follows.

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