Written by Maria Ela L. Atienza.

Since assuming the presidency in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has often lambasted the United States (US), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) for their criticisms of the administration’s war on drugs, human rights record, and treatment of the opposition. Recently, Duterte has again attacked such institutions, vowing that the Philippines will no longer receive grants from the EU. Beyond discussions about the extent of foreign aid from the US, EU, UN and other foreign agencies as well as arguments for or against receiving or relying on foreign assistance, this article focuses on the impact of foreign assistance in Yolanda affected areas.

In essence, resilience must be about bouncing ‘forward’ rather than bouncing ‘back’.

Foreign and international agencies played an important role in the Haiyan (local name Yolanda) response efforts, particularly in communities studied by the “Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda” research project. The project’s case sites are Palo, Tacloban City and Tanauan – all in Leyte province.

In the Philippines, there are guidelines and protocols for partnership and coordination with foreign and international agencies. There are also existing national government cluster systems and UN cluster systems that predate Haiyan and allow for partnership and coordination with foreign and international agencies during and after disasters. Both clusters were activated in preparation for Haiyan. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinates extensively with the national government through meetings with its relevant Philippine government counterparts during disasters.

Grounded on assessments, the government played an integral role during the response efforts, with the international UN cluster system joining the government cluster system and with most foreign agencies reporting that coordination was generally good. However, reports also highlighted significant tensions between the government and international nongovernment organisations (INGOs) as the latter’s response led to the sudden influx of international actors which undermined or overwhelmed the usual procedures and relationships established by the Philippine government. Some foreign agencies did not even consult government agencies in terms of the priority needs for affected communities.

Based on our findings, international and foreign agencies have contributed to many new infrastructure projects such as barangay health centres, schools, resettlement housing, and multipurpose buildings. Despite challenges in terms of coordination among themselves and with the Philippine government, their contribution to the immediate rebuilding and mid-term rehabilitation has been invaluable. However, access to health services and affordable medicine is still an issue in many areas, especially in resettlement areas. Some sections of society such as the elderly and people with disabilities need more assistance.

The entry of foreign agencies also brought in a number of challenges based on our findings and validated by other sources. There are also cases of different actors working in parallel and duplicating efforts alongside cases of exemplary programming and collaboration. Parallel efforts occurred because of the following:

  • Some NGOs were unaware of the cluster system.
  • Some local government units (LGUs) were also weak and/or unaware of the cluster system.
  • Some INGOs and individuals distrusted the national and local governments and avoided collaboration and coordination.
  • Coordination was difficult due to the scale of the disaster.
  • The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) also had a number of shortcomings.

The duplication and parallel efforts resulted in market distortion and the inefficient distribution of assistance, i.e. many families and individuals received cash and other items like boats but others did not.

Based on surveys, interviews and focus group discussions conducted by our project, many communities and individuals have been divorced from the rebuilding process, as they neither have the power to determine the locations of their new housing, nor been given adequate livelihood options to rebuild their lives.  They have little control over the trajectory of their recovery, which further entrenches their marginalised position in society. The adjective “resilience” that has often been used to describe Filipinos remains an aspiration rather than a sustainable reality. Genuine ‘building back better’, another often-used term by international and development planners that is actually hardly understood by locals, should be rights-based, with the goal of improving adaptive capacities and addressing and reducing vulnerabilities and risks. In essence, resilience must be about bouncing ‘forward’ rather than bouncing ‘back’.

Based on these, there are a number of policy take-aways for engaging with international and foreign actors:

  • Ensure that it is understood that external aid is only temporary to avoid long term dependence.
  • Improve coordination of the foreign and international actors with national and local governments in terms of identification, distribution and prioritisation of appropriate aid.
  • Be aware of local tensions over the allocation of resources.
  • Ensure continuity of leadership in these organisations to build trust.
  • Incorporate local socio-cultural norms into relief and rehabilitation strategies as they relate to risk and resilience as these strategies are more likely to succeed.
  • Enhance knowledge exchange and skills transfer between the foreign partners and the local actors.

Thus, different government agencies and other sectors should come together and work closely with international organisations for the transfer of knowledge and skills. In addition, these stakeholders should engage the local residents to enhance their ability to rebuild their communities, and engage them in the process of sustainably developing their security, dignity, and resilience, much like what the Catholic Relief Services is doing in disaster preparedness training for barangays (village-level local communities). In the end, communities must be empowered to be able to develop suitable livelihood and resilience programmes they can truly call their own.

Maria Ela L. Atienza, PhD is Professor and Chair at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman. She tweets@AtienzaEla. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ project entitled Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’, of which the author is co-investigator. Image credit: CC DVIDSHUB/Flickr.

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