The images emerging from cyclone-devastated Tacloban City bring back horrible memories of what I witnessed in tsunami-devastated areas of southern Sri Lanka. As with the post-tsunami relief, the Philippines disaster requires a massive global response. But we need to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes made in delivering relief and aid to the communities devastated by the 2004 tsunami.
Ironically, these mistakes were largely caused by excessive haste in the use of aid funding. It is critically important to raise as much money as possible for the relief and recovery effort while the disaster is in the news. But aid donors need to be patient in letting the experts in the field make the decisions about how to best use the money.
The 2004 tsunami experience suggests there needs to be a very clear distinction between the relief effort and the longer-term social recovery work.
As an archipelago of islands close to a major geological fault-line, the Philippines has an experienced disaster management authority and the United Nations has stepped in to co-ordinate timely contributions being made by the United States, Australia and other nations. There is also a key role for highly organised and self-sufficient organisations, including the military.
Continuing bad weather is hampering the relief operation but we can be confident that the traumatised victims of the province of Leyte will soon have their most urgent needs met.
As soon as the disaster survivors have adequate food, water, shelter, medicine and social support, it’s important to the take time to ensure the aid for recovery is well coordinated, and fairly and effectively delivered.
There was considerable waste in the hasty delivery of aid following the tsunami disaster and traumatised communities were sometimes torn asunder when the aid was distributed unfairly or in an ill-conceived way.
Widows with small children, for instance, were relocated into a new settlement carved out of a wilderness area near Hambantota and were terrified when wild elephants came through the settlement every evening.
And badly affected Muslim communities living near the sea in the Ampara District were angered by the fact that much more aid was directed to Sinhalese communities in a nearby province, resulting in an upsurge of inter-ethnic tensions locally and nationally.
My research on the post-tsunami response also found that international NGOs that forge strong partnerships with local NGOs, and community-based organisations are more likely to achieve positive results.
A local NGO known as the Foundation of Goodness, for example, managed to ensure that international aid was directed into well-planned community building projects for Seenigama, in the Galle District.
Another small, Colombo-based Christian organisation called the People’s Church did great work with a neglected community in the Ampara District even though it had no prior experience with this kind of work.
Interestingly, of the international NGOs, the Taiwan-based Tzu Chi Foundation stood out as the one with the best approach to community consultation and engagement.
This is not rocket science but it’s a slow process – so external aid agencies must avoid arbitrary time frames and have clear hand-over arrangements in place before leaving.
Build back better?
Big disasters like the one in the Philippines affect poor and vulnerable communities more than others. Poor people are often obliged to live in flimsy dwellings that are often in exposed locations, perhaps close to the sea.
These are often very resilient people, but they will be deeply traumatised by their heavy losses and they will be desperate to get whatever support they can. Anxiety and competition for resources can foster tension and even conflict.
Hasty and ill-conceived aid can turn people against each other and many people can be left without social networks and without access to paid employment.
There is much talk in disaster management literature about the possibility of “building back better” so that disaster victims are relocated into better and safer settlements. This was achieved in a few places in Sri Lanka.
But, more often, mistakes were made in the delivery of aid meant that people were left without good social supports and without access to secure employment. The mantra of “build back better” often becomes an empty and cruel promise.
“Build back better” is a worthy aim but it requires a patient, deliberative and inclusive approach.
Australia is in a part of the world where many poor communities are highly exposed to extreme weather events – the “supertyphoon” in the Philippines is a reminder of the predictions that global climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent and more intense in the decades to come.
Australia must be ready to play a leading role in delivering adequate and effective relief and aid. Needless to say, this is not a good time to be cutting our foreign aid budget.
Further, the decision to fold AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is likely to cause a significant loss of continuity and accumulated expertise. We need to ensure that the lessons of past experiences are not forgotten.