Will Philippines typhoon disaster response be another disorganized pound of cure?

The reports of at least 10,000 dead, more than half a million homeless and widespread destruction coming out of the Philippines in the wake of super-Typhoon Haiyan – known to Filipinos as Typhoon Yolanda – have prompted a worldwide disaster relief effort.

Google Crisis Map PhilippinesAs CNN noted today with a somewhat arbitrary How-to-Help list, nearly every humanitarian group, philanthropy, government aid agency or any organization with any reason to do something, anything, in response to this catastrophic storm is out there urging the public to help – often to donate. Red Cross, UNICEF, CARE, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Oxfam … the list goes on. Even Google is playing a part, with its Crisis Mapping tool (at right) and other web-based efforts intended to connect those trying to help with those in need.

So far, as Reuters and others report, most of the aid efforts are not reaching those most in need three days after the storm hit. Most of this is due to the stunning level of destruction from this super storm, with roads blocked and infrastructure destroyed.

The Philippine government has asked for, and received, international assistance, including military units from other nations skilled in reaching the most remote places under the worst conditions.

The question is if this disaster response will be done any better than we’ve done in the past. Will this one be better coordinated? Will we learn from our past mistakes? See Haiti…. 

It’s human nature to want to help, even – as we noted in 2011 after the Japan quake-tsunami disaster – when it’s not actually wanted. It’s also human nature to want to help mostly when things are most dramatic, which can sometimes make us do potentially unhelpful things like running into a burning building to look for survivors assuming someone else will call the firetrucks.

As this Bloomberg story notes, disaster relief efforts have a reputation for being a bit of a mess – a disorganized, if well-intended, rush in to help by literally hundreds of organizations.  And they often end up competing with each other, while at the same time putting out urgent calls for donations. The dirty secret of the aid-and-relief business is that most organizations use high-profile emergencies to raise funds for the less dramatic ones.

Read this debate between two organizations, Mercy Corps and World Concern, over their response (or non-response) to Japan. I give two gold stars to Joy Portella, formerly with Mercy Corps, and Derek Sciba of World Concern for their honest and candid remarks. Unusual in this field.

But is exploiting big disasters for fund-raising a failing of relief organizations, or a legitimate tactic used to deal with the public’s desire to think disasters are sporadic rather than chronic? Is it easier for you to give money in response to a massive storm you see in the news today – or in response to requests to help communities do storm preparation?

As with even the most obvious health threats, prevention tends to get short shrift as compared to treatment. It’s much easier to ignite public and policy makers by responding to an existing threat rather than asking them to invest in efforts to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Typhoons (aka cyclones or what we call hurricanes) are not at all unusual for the Philippines. This one, whether we call it Haiyan or Yolanda, is one of the biggest seen in decades and, according to the majority of scientists, certainly fits into a broader pattern of more severe storms that scientists say we can expect as a result of climate change. We see plenty of appeals by these organizations for donations when an immediate disaster strikes and they can show photos of suffering individuals. How many raise funds to fight climate change?

That’s at the macro level, and it’s hardly an unusual pathology – our tendency to react to singular problems rather than take proactive action systemically. But we don’t even do all that well in how we react to singular emergencies.

I covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and witnessed the chaos of the emergency response in Sri Lanka. Chaos is inherent to disasters. But it was disconcerting to see certain well-known humanitarian organizations – who shall remain nameless – arguing over turf and how high up they could hang their banners even as people around them were struggling to get adequate food, water and shelter.

It’s not cynicism. These aid organizations want to help; but they also can’t afford to miss an opportunity to advertise what they do, and why people should donate. But this kind of competition for donor attention also contributes to the lack of coordination, and chaos.

Everyone in the aid and development community talks, though not really much in public, about this dilemma – the need to exploit disasters to raise funds for the longer-term, lower-profile needs that never go away and may actually be more powerful determinants of a community’s welfare and resilience to the slings and arrows. It’s a legitimate dilemma, but it needs to get hashed out in public if we can ever hope to see it resolved.

Meanwhile, we all hope and pray that the aid response in the Philippines succeeds in doing what it can to reduce the already massive toll taken by this record-breaking storm.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.