Philippines Response Turning the Corner, says US Official | 

3d07951562The international relief effort in the Philippines responding to the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan is slowly improving.

Roads are clearing, making it easier for lifesaving supplies to reach people in need. Trucks and cars now move between Tacloban city and its airport.

US officials are cautiously optimistic that the improvements will accelerate the relief response to the disaster.

“We are getting to a better place,” said a senior US government official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “We are starting to turn the corner on the logistical challenges.”

The official said, before the recent improvements it was like trying to fit an orange through a straw. Logistical challenges to deliver aid are still immense.

“We now have more and bigger straws,” the official said.

The main airport in Tacloban is small Large aircraft, like a 747, are unable to land on the airstrip. C130s and other medium sized aircraft, managed by the US military, bring supplies in and evacuate people out to Manila.

Flights on Tuesday delivered 170,000 lbs of USAID supplies, as well as 6,000 lbs of water and 6,000 lbs of food from the Philippines. Wednesday saw similar levels of supplies that included tarps, medical supplies, blankets and humanitarian relief kits. People without homes were carried back to Manila on return flights. Approximately 800 people have been evacuated out of Tacloban on US flights.


Thus far, a $20 million commitment has been made by the US to support the Philippines in its relief work. Half of the money is to be spent by the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) on water, hygiene, emergency kits and more. The other half will buy food aid. The officials said US food aid should have been delivered to the World Food Programme some time yesterday.

Amid reports of declining fuel availability in the Philippines due to weather damage and looting, the US priorities remain food, water and shelter. The Philippines are leading and dictating where needs exist. Marines based in Japan will soon be deployed to the Philippines, which could bring the total number of US military on the ground to 1,000 by the end of the week, if requested.

“Our focus is to get those three key assets into Taclaban in order to prevent further loss of life,” said another official. “Then we will let the sustained piece come in.”

Overall security appears to be improving in the past day. The initial looting and violence were the result of people needing food and water. Areas in Tacloban that experienced looting only a few days ago are relatively calm following the penetration of aid.

There is still a long way to go. Aid is reaching only twenty percent of residents in Tacloban, said city administrator Tecson John Lim to Reuters today.

Tacloban, Philippines

A debrief with the advance OFDA team that was deployed before the typhoon struck is now underway. There are areas along the coast that have little or no humanitarian access. The officials are hopeful that information collected by the team on the ground will help to identify areas of need and ways to get to the hardest to reach people.

“It’s true, there are still areas that we have not been able to get to where people are in desperate need,” said UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos. “I very much hope that in the next 48 hours, that will change significantly.”

OFDA says it starting to provide grants to NGO partners that have more expertise in the region. Many groups on the ground are relying on individual donors and available budgetary space to mount a response in the Philippines. Grants from major donors, like the US, will help ensure work continues.

“That will add a lot of gasoline to the tank of their activities,” said an official.

The two day-old Haiyan Action Plan launched by the UN has raised only thirteen percent of the $301 million appeal. The US officials repeatedly said that this was a demand driven response. It was intimated that the US was willing and able to provide increased assistance if requested by the Philippines.

The focus today is on the humanitarian essentials. There is an expectation that the US will remain involved in the ensuing recovery effort in the months ahead.

Typhoon exposes countless challenges faced by the Philippines | 

Rovilyne Rosell, Daang Bantayan. Her home was partially destroyed in typhoon.
Rovilyne Rosell, Daang Bantayan. Her home was partially destroyed in typhoon.
Alabama Red Cross

The latest information regarding the toll wrought by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines gets worse. Nearly 10 million people are affected by the damage. An estimated 700,000 people are homeless, requiring $301 million in support. Roughly 10,000 are feared dead in the province of Leyte alone (the president refutes the claim, saying the total is closer to 2,500).

A combination of factors that could and could be be controlled contributed to devastation and is hampering relief effort. Poverty, geography, poor prevention work, a series of recent natural disasters and one big bad storm all conspired against Filipinos when the typhoon made landfall on Friday.

Messages pleading for food are seen painted on buildings in the port city of Tacloban. The international community is sending in whatever help is possible, but access to affected areas remains extremely hard. Out of the 81 semi-autonomous provinces that make up the Philippines, the roads and bridges in thirty-six are destroyed or impassible, says the UN.

Food, water and shelter are top priorities for the response. Getting supplies to people, let alone who needs what, is an immense challenge. The round trip drive from the airport to Tacloban, consisting of only 22 km, takes six hours, says the UN. The little information available from the hardest to reach areas is dire. Continue reading

Want to help the Philippines? Give unrestricted cash | 

Boston Big Picture

Another major disaster strikes and do-gooders rush to help however they can. It is one of the most endearing qualities about humanity, but sometimes your instincts fail you. The compulsion to help can be good, but it is only effective if done right.

With disasters, the best way to help people is to donate cash. Not just money, but donate money that is unrestricted. So, keep your unused clothes in your closet and don’t think about volunteering.

Relief agencies need money to pay for the staff, services and provisions that will help people in need. With cash, they can purchase exactly what they need for the best price possible. Yes, people need food and blankets, but what you send may not be appropriate for someone living in an emergency shelter on the other side of the world.

Same goes for medical supplies, shoes, and bras (yes, there are charities that collect them).

Aid workers compete by telling stories about their craziest experiences. Tales of unnecessary things sent to disaster areas is one of the most spirited categories. From expired medicine to wooden crosses, the stories all feature examples of airplanes full of things that end up as exported trash during a time of confusion and limited resources.

You may have some things in your closet, like an old sweatshirt, that you don’t use anymore. That’s nice, but donate it to the local goodwill store, not your church emergency effort. There are too many stories of items flooding into post-disaster situations that take up space, go bad and are thrown out. Continue reading

Humanitarian standards to go under reform process | 

Israeli Defense Forces in Haiti.
Israeli Defense Forces in Haiti.
Israel Defense Forces

An effort is underway to create a set of standards that will guide humanitarian action in cases of conflict and disaster. The Humanitarian Standards Forum, held in Geneva at the end of June, brought humanitarian leaders together to begin the process of creating the new standards.

The guideline developed going forward will serve as a set of instructions for all humanitarians. Responses will be guided by the standards in order to ensure that it is not only effective, but is mindful of the dignity of every person.

“Quality is a major concern in today’s humanitarian efforts,” said Ambassador Manuel Bessler, Head of the Humanitarian Aid Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which hosted the Forum. “It is not about controlling or enforcing, but about bringing different voices together to improve the quality that makes us accountable to beneficiaries in the first place.”
Continue reading

Why do 70 dead in Norway rank higher than tens of thousands in Somalia? | 

Sorry, I know that sounds a bit preachy.

But I’m sure I’m not the only one dismayed at how little urgent attention the world, and the media, is paying to the massive tragedy and loss of life in East Africa right now as compared to the deadly havoc created by the right-wing, Nordic hate-monger Anders Behring Breivik.

The tragedy in East Africa is getting covered, to some extent, but certainly to a lesser extent than than Norway’s bomber-gunman — and almost as if the tragedy in Somalia is just another, well, inevitable and largely unmanageable African crisis. This is wrong on a number of fronts.


I’m a Norwegian-American and have relatives in Oslo. So I’m maybe more interested in this episode than most — and perhaps less surprised given I’ve been aware of the festering problem of neo-Nazi nationalism that pervades much of Scandinavia today despite its deserved reputation for tolerance and liberality.

Breivik is top of Google News as I write this (closely followed by Amy Winehouse). Meanwhile, thousands of people are dying in Somalia and throughout East Africa right now, this very moment.

Save The Children

Ali and her son Hussein, fleeing Somalia

Why do we shrug our shoulders at one huge, ongoing cause of deaths and stare in fascination and horror at a much smaller and, arguably, somewhat unique and peculiar cause of death?

The BBC reports that, given what happened in Norway, the British intelligence service is reviewing if it is taking the threat of right-wing extremists seriously enough. That’s a good thing.

But why are so few talking about the national security threat posed by the massive destabilization of East Africa? As Jeremy Scahill of The Nation recently reported, alleging a secret CIA-run prison in Mogadishu, we clearly have national security and intelligence interests in Somalia and across East Africa.

In fact, I dare say that what happens in East Africa is probably even more important to our long-term interests than what happens in Norway. I mean, we don’t seem to think we need to run secret CIA prisons in Bergen or Oslo.

And the tragedy in East Africa is not really a “natural” disaster, as John Vidal recently wrote in The Guardian. It is, Vidal says, “an entirely predictable, man-made disaster.”

This is an entirely predictable, traditional, man-made disaster, with little new about it except the numbers of people on the move and perhaps the numbers of children dying near the cameras. The 10 million people who the governments warn are at risk of famine this year are the same 10 million who have clung on in the region through the last four droughts and were mostly being kept alive by feeding programs.

Certainly, Vidal acknowledges, one of the big drivers of this disaster is the ongoing warfare in the region. The extreme Islamist organization al-Shabaab, which is the defacto government of Somalia (and the reason for the alleged CIA presence there), has inexplicably refused to allow in many aid organizations. But as Vidal notes:

Just as in 2008, the war in Somalia is primarily responsible for the worst that is happening. As Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute says: “Wars don’t kill many people directly but can kill millions through the way they render them totally vulnerable to the kinds of problems they should be able to cope with.” In this case, he says, people have lost all their assets and can’t access grazing grounds they need.

But remember too, that Somalia has been made a war zone by the US-led “war on terror”. It’s our fault as much as anyone’s.



Update: Does Japan need/want international relief assistance now? | 

Odd as it may seem, that’s a big question right now within the aid and development community.

By a simple measure of the number of news stories and organizational appeals out there, clearly the answer is: Yes, people should donate to disaster relief in Japan.

Perhaps the most blunt argument answering the question in the negative has come from Felix Salmon, economics columnist for Reuters, who said simply: Don’t Donate Money to Japan.

I’ve posted on this debate a few times, including an anonymous post from an aid worker decrying the “ugly game” of fund-raising around the Japan quake-tsunami disaster. Continue reading

Why you should donate, but maybe not to Japan | 

Flickr, LiminalMike

People want to help.

Well, okay, not everyone wants to help. Some people are jerks.

Despite my skeptical (which some misinterpret as cynical) view of human nature acquired after working a quarter century as a journalist, I find that most people actually do want to assist when they see someone suffering.

Wanting to help is how many of us are reacting to the news out of Japan following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami — now made even more terrible by the possible (though often exaggerated) threat of a major nuclear accident.

Still, it’s important to recognize that wanting to help and actually helping are not the same thing. Continue reading

Disaster in Japan … and Haiti, Pakistan, Congo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Mali | 

Flickr, doegox

We are all focused on the disaster in Japan right now, as we should be.

But what about the other, bigger disasters?

The massive earthquake, tsunami and current concern about damage to a Japanese nuclear power plant are the top news stories today. The quake was huge, the fifth largest in the last century. President Obama said today the U.S. is “marshaling forces” to help Japan deal with the catastrophe.

Local relief organizations like World Vision and Mercy Corps have put the Japanese quake-tsunami on the “front page” of their websites even though it is unlikely either organization will be doing much in response. I talked to both organizations and they are standing by ready to help, but both said it is possible they will not be needed.

Japan can largely take care of itself. World Vision and Mercy Corps take care of those who can’t. Continue reading