The Risk-Monger

Postcard from Tacloban

As the plane approached Tacloban airport a bit more than seven months after Typhoon Haiyan pulled its heart out, the emotion level increased. Many passengers, including the Risk-Monger, returning for the first time since November were craning to get a view of what would await their arrival.

It did not take too long – the hodgepodge of scrap materials woven into temporary housing lined the road from the airport. After several days, this sight became normal, if not absurd – the thought is haunting that typhoon season is starting and these “habitations” offer no resistance even to the lightest tropical depression. These poor people don’t matter, never did – but their numbers and vulnerability nevertheless remain mindboggling.

But Tacloban is improving – Robinsons has re-opened, the power supply is abundant (but very expensive) and services are returning. The private sector is starting to do its job. As my friend joked: On the road to recovery, we have a road. Leaving the city limits of Tacloban is another story – little has been done in the small villages that were more decimated but less covered by the media. This is a common story in any emerging market – ignore the countryside at your peril, as these people will migrate to the large cities and squat where they can. One sees evidence of this with the undocumented residents in Cebu. So there is still much to do … but anyone who has spent any time in any Philippine city will acknowledge that there is always “so much to do”.

And that leads to my uncomfortable thought: it is time for the international aid organisations and NGOs to pull out and leave the programmes to the locals to manage. The work is nowhere near done, but I fear that the longer the benevolent, western overlords hang around the Tacloban malls and restaurants, the more damage they risk on the long-term development of the region, culture and mindset.

The Taclobanos are grateful, make no mistake, and there are signs everywhere expressing their appreciation to the outside world (less so towards the national government, but I would leave that to a local political side-show). But relying on others for too long can undermine the resilience and ingenuity that people in this region need in order to survive. Letting the locals help themselves is the best support the citizens of Leyte could receive.

The large NGOs (from the Red Cross to MSF to Save the Children to Plan International …) had raised more money for the Philippines post-Haiyan than they could ever have imagined and as this money is earmarked only for this particular aid and reconstruction, they will leave their international managers in the Philippines for many years to come. The main business in Tacloban is the business of aid NGOs and seeing so many white people tying up precious resources is disturbing. This has already put strains on the local economy as these international field managers use a large number of 4X4 drivers, prostitutes, electricians as well as infrastructure demands (the best hotels are reserved in large blocks to international NGO directors and project managers – people who don’t get their hands dirty – meaning businessmen and investors have limited choices).

Project managers from international NGOs are used to telling others what to do, and while the Filipinos can be polite, it comes across as a lecture from people who do not understand the complexities of the local cultures, social structures and motivations. The NGOs also do not trust national or regional administrations (they tend to not trust anyone outside of their organisations) and often have chosen to operate outside of the administrative requirements. Several public officials have complained to me that the NGOs often refuse to pay local taxes and fees. It is almost as if they feel that their operations go above and beyond the interests of the local government. Resentment is growing and it would be better to pull back before all of the good intentions are destroyed by misunderstanding.

When aid workers arrive in devastated regions, the first reaction is often shock and need to do something. Most arrive with the best of intentions and the realisation of the importance of their tasks. But as time passes, a certain systemic cynicism can creep in – problem-solving can become functional and a local population’s needs can be summed up as helplessness. When aid programmes become the focus for the economy, driven not by the spirit of entrepreneurship, but rather, a strange sort of recipientism, like the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, the donor/public relationship resembles something of a master/slave structure.

So those who may have arrived with the best of intentions soon adopt a cold paternalism – more prone to lecture than to listen. And this is what I had witnessed in Tacloban. Locals perceive it as an impatient arrogance and often I found myself apologising to Taclobanos hoping that they realise that not all white people were bastards. Tacloban risks falling prey to a neo-colonialism (some of these aid NGOs are very open towards their long-term objectives in the region).

Worryingly, there is a double economy forming in Tacloban. Those locals working for the NGOs as chefs and drivers, skilled workers and interpreters are paid handsomely. Those involved in the local economy earn half of what the NGOs pay and cannot cover the inflated prices. Middle class households (those who stuck it out) cannot afford local electricians and thus cannot easily rebuild their houses. Tacloban is struggling to get back to normal (whatever normal has become) and the foreign NGOs are interfering with that.

Aid agencies and NGOs of course need to stay around for their PR – to produce the reports and glossy images to report back to their donors. The Risk-Monger was overwhelmed by the number of clean, well-placed logos from all of the groups, branded 4X4s, tidy compounds, VIPs posing for the western photographers … But I wonder what more they need to do that the locals could not do themselves with a micro-finance programme and support for credible indigenous organisations.

Some would argue that the local authorities are too corrupt and the money would never get to those in need. Indeed, a lot of funds and relief goods never get past the authorities in Cebu or Manila. Stories abound in Tacloban of boats being built funded by NGOs and distributed to individuals who have never caught a fish in their lives (fishermen are not very competent at filling out the mountains of forms these donors require) … so this is already happening. Micro-credit and life-skills programmes would be more appropriate, built around what locals say they need, rather than what donors and funders want to read in a glossy report. But the structure of these organizations appears to be prohibitive towards such grassroots programmes.

It comes down to a question of dignity. If aid NGOs feel that nothing can be done without their total engagement, then they are condemning the local population to a long-term master-slave relationship. If these organisations trust that the Taclobanos can lift themselves up and rebuild their own future then they need to respect their capacity and get out of the way. Once lifted back on their feet, Tacloban needs to be able to stand proud, not be made to walk in a certain way, feeling hobbled and inferior.

If the NGOs cannot change their perspective, then it is time for them to leave.


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  1. Looks like you’re discovering the difference between emergency relief and “development” programs… You really cannot compare the Red Cross and MSF with the other aid organisations from that perspective. While emergency aid is based on compassion, “development” is based on the assumption that you know better for somebody wat’s good for him/her. That includes micro-credit schemes… and is, indeed, nothing else than paternalism/neo-colonialism. No wonder so many NGOs are funded by Northern States. It’s never easy to help someone, regardless of how good your intentions may be, as you very soon indebt this person to you; the only way indeed is not helping but sharing. Getting your hands dirty, and giving without a hope of return. That’s the only way to help without enslaving.

    1. Thanks Sue. I was indeed conflicted when these sentiments came in and wondered if I was awful in thinking this. The emergency relief people are still around (so much has been raised and earmarked for post-Haiyan that they are not going anywhere soon). A friend of mine in Tacloban of relatively good income told me, in a matter of fact tone, that he has not needed to buy his family rice since the typhoon. He then paused, smiled and said: “OK, it is not the best quality rice, but still”. They shouldn’t be there anymore (but they have to spend the money so they leave their western managers there). The development groups, or what is referred to as reconstruction and restoration, has become a competitive industry – reading the Save the Children six month Haiyan report, I had the feeling that progress for them is the ability to expand their programmes and grow the organisation for generations to come – they seem to have moved from an organisation dedicated to raising the dignity of the individual to a corporate structure engaged in misery opportunism (perhaps the report is aimed at donors, but that sentiment has leaked into the individuals on the ground). To play with the ‘get your hands dirty’ image, a kind person seeing someone on the street in need may give him or her some money, engage in some conversation and that’s it. An aid organisation will stop, decide what is wrong, set up a programme to solve the problem, have their picture taken and tell everyone what they have done. After a little while, you have to wonder what that person in need thinks of all of this.

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