Helping Countries Help Themselves Before Disaster Strikes

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Ed note. This is a special guest post from Jessica Alexander, author of Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid

There has been a global outpouring of concern in response to Typhoon Haiyan; there usually is after any massive emergency. At the center of it all is a global humanitarian aid system — an alphabet soup of international aid agencies — that is set up to swiftly respond after a disaster takes place, not before. The media’s disaster-relief feedback loop reinforces this reactive approach: the disaster happens, the media jumps in, and the money starts flowing.

Consider which is the better story – A photo-op of an aid group rebuilding a school that has collapsed in a pile of rubble or a picture of building that didn’t collapse because of special structural reinforcements?  No one doubts that it’s more straightforward for humanitarian groups to fundraise after a disaster has happened, but the question remains: Is this the best approach for people who are affected by recurring natural disasters?

Well, yes and no. But the answer lies not in the preparation and response mechanisms of the international aid apparatus, but how well middle-income countries are intent on making themselves prepared. The traditional aid machinery – international humanitarian actors and actresses swooping in to save the day – is now taking a backseat to local civil society groups and National Disaster Management Authorities, and affecting people’s own responses in their home countries. Before the international community even hits the scene, the volunteer networks, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens are already mobilizing to help each other recover. These vital early responses often go unrecognized as the official response is only recorded after the international aid system touches ground. That middle-income countries might be taking on more responsibility in identifying risk and vulnerability—and building awareness around these points — is a point that should be lauded by the international aid community.

We’ve seen this local response happen in many Asian countries prone to  recurrent natural disasters:  Cyclone Phalain, which touched land last month in India, was the largest cyclone to hit the country in fourteen years.  It resulted in just over 20 casualties thanks to the extensive evacuations carried out by the government. Fourteen years ago India experienced a similar catastrophe, but the casualty count was over 10,000 people. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed between 135,00 and 150,000 civilians whereas Cyclone Sidr in 2007 (of similar strength) killed 2000.  This drastic drop in casualties can be attributed, mainly, to the fact that the government worked with the Red Cross to issue early warnings and evacuate the at-risk communities. The success of this response reflects the years spent developing community risk awareness in India.

Not only have measures to prepare countries for disaster improved, but their responses have as well. After the 2011 floods in Thailand, international aid workers felt their presence to be superfluous after the able-bodied local response. This ranged from university students creating  sophisticated maps of the affected areas to private businesses delivering food and other necessary items quickly and efficiently to residents in need. A similar situation occurred in Central Java in 2006, where by the time humanitarian aid was flowing to aid those affected by the earthquake, local communities already had websites set up outlining their needs. In Indonesia, the government’s National Disaster Management Agency has made huge strides in preparing for and responding to domestic crises, and the agency plays a leading role within the Association of South-Eastern Asian Nations to coordinate preparedness and emergency response plans.

Typhoons, cyclones, and storms aren’t new to the Philippines – upwards of 20 typhoons slam into the country every year, causing large-scale flooding and casualties. According to the just released Global Climate Risk Index for 2013, the Philippines ranked fifth in terms of countries most affected by extreme weather conditions. As a result, the Philippines has made an effort to reduce risk and assess the vulnerability of their citizens by integrating disaster preparedness into school curricula to educate students on risks, formalizing emergency alerts, and developing and executing evacuation plans. These systems—the product of long-term planning and in-country disaster-relief infrastructure—went a long way to saving lives after Typhoon Haiyan. Still, Haiyan overpowered the Philippines. This was the strongest storm to come ashore in the country’s history, bearing sustained winds of 190 miles per hour with estimated gusts rising to 235 miles per hour. No amount of preparation could have softened the blow.

As international aid workers, we talk about working ourselves out of jobs by helping build up the national capacity to respond on their own. “Resilience” is the buzz word in the aid industry these days as we recognize that if and when the international community comes in to respond, it should do so with the intent at building up and encouraging local resources so that we won’t need to return the next time. (And there usually is a next time.)

We need to get serious about supporting local response capacity and preparedness. There’s a strong economic argument for doing so. Budgets for international relief are finite. That’s why building local resilience is crucial—not only for those countries that benefit internally, but for future humanitarian crises where governments need international support which can augment their own disaster-relief system for maximum efficiency. All climate change indicators suggest extreme weather events are on the rise— the international community will not be able to respond to all of these, even if we had the resources.

There’s a moral argument as well. As humanitarians, we have an imperative to do all we can to prevent and mitigate human suffering, of which working to reduce risk before a catastrophe plays a major part. Furthermore, local actors are able to respond faster, provide more appropriate relief due to their knowledge of the culture, and are, as citizens, more invested in long-term outcomes.

Still, efforts to prepare communities and national authorities for recurrent storms are too few and far between. A confluence of structural issues, most notably the extreme poverty that tends to be coupled with poor governance, have undermined some of these efforts. Such socioeconomic and political issues would need to be addressed and planned around in order to create the environment where local disaster-capacity building can gain traction. The unfortunate reality is that the poorest, and therefore the most vulnerable communities, get neglected. That people were evacuated to centers that then collapsed in Tacloban can’t be ignored and reveals failures of the system that go far beyond infrastructure. Finger pointing may or may not be a waste of my time, but I will say that humanitarians can’t do this alone, nor does this fall squarely in their remit. Development actors need to be engaged and their strategies better aligned with those of the international aid apparatus.

Donors have a role to play too. Prevention and preparedness comprises just a tiny fraction of international aid: less than 0.5% of the $3 trillion spent between in 1991 and 2010 was spent on outfitting countries for natural disasters. If we want a system that allows governments to protect their citizens before a disaster even strikes, funding for these activities should expand.

In response to the Philippines, humanitarians should continue to shift from the responsive nature of its system – parachuting in after a disaster happens – to a longer term approach that will identify future risks and help the Filipino government and civil society better manage those risks. Our role is not long-term care, but anytime we’re saving people but failing to set them up for recovery, we’re not doing our job.