The Resilience of the Human Spirit in the Face of Typhoon Haiyan

27 Feb 2014

Commissioner Mark Foster writes about his rapid review visit to the Humanitarian Response in the Philippines. The ICAI report will be released in March.

I have spent two weeks on field work for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact – one in the Philippines reviewing the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan which hit last November and a second in Zambia trying to understand the causes and remedies for child stunting and malnutrition.  In both cases I was struck by the tremendous resilience of people and their capacity to bounce back from, and endure, hardships that most of us can only imagine.

We can all recall the news in November last year, when the terrible pictures of the devastation caused in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan were beamed around the world and reporters were pictured standing amid the tangled mass of rubble and mud in the path of the storm.  There was an unprecedented public response to the emerging tragedy which eventually claimed the lives of over 6,000 people and a further 1,700 missing.  There was also a huge humanitarian response from countries, UN agencies and NGOs.  The UK, through the Department for International Development (DFID), ended up being one of the largest donors to assist the situation providing some £75m of support. They mobilised their own resources, leveraged the logistical support of the two Royal Navy ships and contributed to the activities of the multilateral agencies and NGOs on the ground.

Photo showing the damage in Tacloban caused by Typhoon HaiyanGiven the recent nature of the disaster and the scale of the support given, the Commission decided to undertake a special Rapid Review of the effectiveness of this response.  So it was that I found myself having a lot of meetings at the start of the year with the recently returned members of the task-force from the CHASE humanitarian department in DFID, as well as the military leadership responsible for their part in the reconnaissance, logistics and aid delivery activities undertaken by the Ministry of Defence.


The ships, HMS Daring and later the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, had been deployed in the days and weeks following the typhoon and been able to travel to the more remote islands which other agencies could not reach.  They had been able to deploy vital helicopters to survey the damage and assess needs, bring surgeons from the NHS into the field, as well as lift in cargos when the airports and roads were out.  The giant Hercules transport flights undertaken over the disaster zone had brought in vast quantities of supplies, which were then distributed from the airports at Cebu and Tacloban by the various agencies on the ground.

A week later I was in Manila talking to the British Ambassador about the huge coordination effort which was triggered by the onset of the typhoon and the unprecedented nature of its impact.  I wanted to understand the level of preparedness that the international community, and the UK specifically, had in advance of the call for help from the Philippine Government.  I heard a lot about the stocks of non-food items which are stored in the UK and Dubai in readiness, the air-freight contracts and other key procurements standing ready to be used, as well as the pre-qualified NGO’s who could be funded in short order and, most importantly, the expert personnel who are able to be deployed to such situations at a few hours notice.

A village sign recognising the help received from multiple agenciesThis disaster was one of the first large-scale tests of this preparation and it was also one of the first to trigger the top Level 3 response by the UN system.  In Manila and out in the field, I spent time with the leadership of the coordinating OCHA group as well as the individual agencies such as UNHCR (immediate shelter), UNICEF (sanitation, children and education), the World Food Programme (emergency food), WHO (medical supplies and clinics), UNDP (debris clearance and cash for work), the Food & Agriculture Organisation (replacement seeds) and the International Organisation for Migration (transition shelters) as well as UNDP (gender protection and victim support).  All of these groups were engaged in the immediate aftermath of the storm as were the NGOs such as OXFAM, Save the Children, CARE and PLAN.

I was able to see the work of all of these organisations on the ground, as well as the efforts of the Philippine Government itself, which led the overall response.  It was clear that, although the Philippines is regularly hit by typhoons and they had been able to put their storm-readiness procedures into place, the ferocity of the typhoon, its duration over land, and most importantly the storm surge which accompanied it, surprised everyone.  As I travelled out to the city of Tacloban and onto the peninsular of Guiuan where the typhoon first hit land, the levels of devastation were mind-blowing.

Everywhere beside the roads there were tangled structures of wood, sheet metal and other debris, mixed in with the odd mangled wreck of a car (or even, in one place on the coast, oil tankers lifted out of the water and taken inland).  The vast plantations of coconuts which cover much of the island of Leyte, and which provide the majority of the work, looked like they had been mown down by a giant scythe, with trunks either splayed across the hillsides or pointing like stubby fingers into the air, their leaves and fruit shorn off.

Crowds queuing at a cash distribution centre operated by WFP outside TaclobanOne half of the review team headed out to Cebu and the islands which had been aided by the navy, while I was based in Tacloban for four days in one of the few functioning hotels (which had electricity but no hot water) and travelled out to visit the work of the various groups funded by DFID each day.  This was the city which had featured so prominently in the coverage in November and December and it was remarkable to see how much progress had been made in bringing some semblance of normality to the centre.  But you did not have to stray too far to find former streets which are still vast expanses of crushed homes, mangled metal and stinking mud.  I started at a cash distribution centre organised by the World Food Programme in a village down the coast from the city.  They had moved on from providing emergency food to giving the poorest members of the impacted societies the funds to buy vital food, shelter repair and other items.

The spirit of the people in the Philippines; sign reading "Roofless, homeless but not hopeless". From my very first interactions with the recipients, I was struck by their attitude and spirit.  The Philippine culture is clearly one of self-sufficiency and proactivity and, while there were still huge deprivations and challenges, they were not only very grateful for all the help that they had received from the international community, but also determined to get on with rebuilding their lives.

I visited the vast distribution tents which had been the centre of the logistics operation from days after the disaster.  The roads have already been largely cleared and it is getting easier and easier to get around the affected areas, but the teams spoke of hacking their way through debris in the early days and weeks, a village at a time, trying to reach the victims.  I visited one of these villages with PLAN where I heard from the people about how they had lain on the ground, once their flimsy shelters had collapsed, gripping their children while all hell broke loose around them for hours as the typhoon swirled overhead.

They spoke with gratitude of the various teams who worked their way to them bringing vital water, food and hygiene supplies, as well as the tents for emergency shelter.  They had taken advantage of a few days of cash for work, organised by UNDP, to clear some streets and were already turning their minds to growing alternative crops amid the ruined plantations.  I was invited into the homes of some beneficiaries of tarpaulins and water filtering bottles provided by OXFAM.  They sat amid the flapping sheets in their rebuilt wooden structures planning their next stage of rehabilitation when they had the money.

Save the Children Centre; children playing outside.In another village I joined a Save the Children group who had been creating “child-friendly spaces” for young mothers and their children to find shelter and structured play, as well as psychosocial support.  It is clear that many of the children have been traumatised by their experiences, to the extent that when the winds get up or it starts to rain they fear the return of the typhoon.  I had a long conversation with one of the Philippine psychosocial advisors brought in by Save to a mobile clinic funded by DFID.  He encourages his patients to draw pictures of their experiences and he showed me how he interprets the more dramatic drawings of clouds and lightening produced by some children as a cry for help.

I travelled out for several hours to the district of Guiuan, which sat directly in the path of the storm and suffered terrible devastation.  It was like entering a post-apocalyptic scene as we trundled in our 4X4 down streets lined with the shattered remains of buildings with few walls of any height and desultory stalls of food set out on the crumbling pavements.  This poor area had been subject to another typhoon just days before my arrival (and in fact my ability to go there had been in doubt up to the last minute).

Inside the local community radio station, Radio BakdawWe visited the local community radio station – Radyo Bakdaw – which had been set up with DFID funding in the days after Haiyan, and which still, several months later, remained the only functioning radio station in the region.  It had provided vital news to the population about the emergency services and the weather, as well as providing a vehicle for missing members of families to be located.  Some of the most affecting sights I saw on my trip were the forlorn pictures of Missing Persons pinned to the notice boards on churches in the impacted areas.  The local journalists, who had been trained by the NGO Internews, were energetically engaging with their audience, creating interview segments and even providing a radio repair service from the tiny shack they operated from. In Guiuan, DFID has also been helping to fund the IOM to help with transition shelter and livelihood programmes.

We witnessed a group of families being taught how to build back their shelters in a more resilient manner, to withstand the next storm, and watched a distribution of shelter repair kits including sheets of corrugated steel, nails, glue and tools.  Some of the most dramatic images and sounds of this remarkable trip were provided by a coconut lumber cutting programme.  Some 40 lumberjacks, equipped with UK-provided chain saws and yellow wellington boots, were to be found hacking down the damaged coconut trunks and sawing them into planks to be used for shelter repair.  Only certain, 25 year old trees are suitable for this and the race is on to use the wood before it rots.

Mark Foster in Lumberyard showing devastation of palm trees.This is providing some immediate work for a few of the local people but the challenge remains that it takes 10 years for a newly-planted coconut palm to produce fruits and the need to find bridging employment at scale is one of the biggest recovery issues.  The other is shelter which, for all the efforts outlined above, remains a gigantic task.  We passed countless families in villages along the way still living inside the emergency green UKAID-emblazoned tents and it is clear that many of them cannot imagine when they will have the resources to build something more lasting.  I met with the regional social services leadership, as well as representatives of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, who are hoping to help with this, but it remains the piece of the UN appeal which is least funded and there is a long way to go.

One piece of the medium term story which is good is the apparent success of the emergency rice-planting help, also partially funded by DFID, which I was able to visit.  The rice seed stores and early-planted crops had been destroyed by the typhoon, but rapid provision of high quality seeds and distributions of fertiliser meant that the growing season was not missed and these vital foodstuffs are set for a quick return.

The various UN agencies are already beginning to pull out of the country, and the NGO community is shifting its focus from immediate support to longer term recovery activities, even though the picture of readiness across the impacted districts is very varied.  The success of the DEC appeal (which realised over £90m form the UK alone) and other international funding has created a significant potential for extended programming by these international organisations.  One of the tricks though, is going to be the ability to calibrate this activity against the relatively high capacity of the Philippine Government and the private sector in what is, after all, a middle income country.

This, taken with the self-starter nature of the wider population, means that a more nuanced and selective approach needs to be taken by the traditional development agencies, some of which have already scaled up to 200-300 personnel on the back of the situation.  The UK humanitarian support has been hugely appreciated by the Philippine people we met, and the compassion shown by the British people for a region with which we do not have traditional ties has left its mark.  This trip was the first time I have had the privilege of seeing a humanitarian response up close and I was positively impressed by the way that the system worked overall and made a real difference on multiple fronts.

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