A year after Typhoon Haiyan, poor Filipinos find a voice

The city of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan, November 2013. EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan

On November 8 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. One of the largest tropical storms ever to make landfall, it killed more than 10,000 people and left millions homeless. The vast recovery effort since then has been difficult to say the least.

Throughout the recovery phase, much has been made of the way communications technology has been used to distribute and gather information. This is now a widely used tool for coping with disasters; the 2013 World Disasters Report even introduced the term “humanitarian technology” to refer to the diverse ways communications can help manage all the stages of a catastrophe.

Facebook, Twitter, Google Person Finder and many other services have indeed been instrumental in finding missing people, raising funds, and providing essential information in various emergencies – Hurricane Sandy, for one. Most importantly, some claim digital technologies allow affected communities to increasingly become sources, not just recipients, of relevant information.

If this was going to work anywhere, it would surely work in the Philippines. Filipinos take pride in the fact that the country is known as the “texting capital of the world”, and in March 2014, Manila’s Makati City, our financial capital, was declared the “selfiest” city in the world: based on their posts on Instagram, in seven days, Filipinos shared 258 selfies per day per 100,000 people.

Yet still, the success of the technology on the ground has been rather unclear – and the extent to which it has allowed the Haiyan victims’ voices to be heard is very open to question.

Getting connected

Studies on the use of communications in disaster recovery generally focus on the emergency phase of the response, when the priority is to get vital information to the public. During this phase, affected people are mainly recipients of information (that is, if they have access to electricity, internet or mobile phone signals).

To the extent they provide rather than receive information, it’s still concerned primarily with their immediate needs: this data is used to co-ordinate relief operations, identify locations which need urgent help, and bring people to safety.

But after the emergency comes the recovery phase, when government and NGOs make crucial decisions that affect people’s lives in the long term. For affected Filipinos, the Haiyan recovery has meant starting all over again, perhaps in a new district, maybe with a new livelihood, and probably with new neighbours.

This is a far more delicate time than the emergency phase, and the problems it has to deal with are far more complex and loaded. Who is entitled to shelter assistance? When and where will people be relocated? How should aid be allocated across different districts?

These are horribly pressing issues for people on the ground, and they can’t be easily answered via text hotlines and radio phone-ins.

Laid bare

Disasters on the scale of Haiyan have a way of unmasking the real structure of societies. And so it goes in the Philippines, where the storm has shown how vulnerable to serious deprivation millions of Filipnos are. Of the 14m Filipinos most affected by Haiyan, 2.5m of them were on low incomes and in difficult circumstances even before the typhoon. Haiyan drove 1.5m more below the “extreme hardship” income level of $1 a day; 42% of the country still subsist on less than $2 a day.

Given these numbers, you might expect a furious popular response to the slowness and messiness of the recovery. And yet, Linda, the Filipino accountability officer of a large NGO, explained to me that Filipinos have generally been hesitant to give negative feedback to the administrators of the recovery, even with these much-heralded communication channels open.

She explained that out of the hundreds of comments they received through their suggestion boxes and text hotline, only about 5% are complaints or queries: “Most of the texts and notes we receive say ‘Thank you X for your relief goods’ or ‘Thank you Y for the tarpaulins.’”

In all the interviews we’ve conducted in Tacloban, only one person has said she sent any feedback to an NGO – and not to alert them to a problem. “I thanked them for their help using their text hotline,” she said.

This hesitancy to express dissent has deep roots. There’s the Philippines’ colonial past, during which Filipinos were prevented from freely giving their opinions in public. And as Helen, a Taclobanon activist, explained to us, the country’s experience with martial law during the rule of Ferdinand Marcos has also contributed to a culture of silence when it comes to bad behaviour or incompetence on the part of the authorities.

The truth about the disaster, as with so many others, is that UN agencies, NGOs and the Philippine government have all had their own interests to pursue – and that affected populations’ expectations and needs have not matched those interests. That has made the relationships between governments, UN agencies, NGOs and affected populations during the recovery period extremely tense.

Speaking up

During the six-month anniversary of Haiyan, the UN held a press briefing for local and international media at Tacloban City. The heads of leading UN agencies and NGOs were there, all praising the progress the country had made in terms of people’s shelter, health, education, and livelihood.

Local and foreign journalists asked why government representatives were absent, and noted that thousands of Filipinos were still living in tents and temporary accommodation. In a rather cautious tone, UN officials explained that they were here at the invitation of the Philippine government – and that they were “not in a position to pass judgement on the government’s response.”

And at long last, I saw signs that people were really finding a voice to challenge government executives managing the recovery.

A woman called Joan stood up and asked the city mayor’s chief of staff about the government’s relocation plans for people like her who lost their homes after the storm. Speaking in Waray, the local language, she asked: “What is the city government’s plan for us? Why are we still not being relocated to temporary shelters seven months after the typhoon?”

Seeing Joan stand up, take the microphone and ask a city official about the recovery surprised and inspired me at the same time. Joan is a young, urban-poor mother who lives in one of the coastal barangays severely devastated by Haiyan. She only finished the second year of high school; she had to stop studying at 16 to help support her nine siblings. With the support of Women for Women, a local NGO, she and others in her community formed the Tacloban Women’s Association.

So while disasters have the habit of laying a country’s social structure bare, and while the process of dealing with them can be a fraught and dangerous mess, the complexity of disaster response can also give voiceless people a chance to speak up.


Liezel Longboan is a postdoctoral researcher working on the Humanitarian Technologies Project: Communications in the Wake of Typhoon Haiyan, a collaborative study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It is led by Dr. Mirca Madianou, Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths and co-led by Dr. Jonathan Ong, Department of Media and Communication, Leicester University. Co-investigators are Dr. Jayeel Serrano of Ateneo de Manila University and Dr. Nicole Curato of the University of the Philippines.