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5 Questions for...Jessica Alexander, Author, 'Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid'

November 19, 2013

When Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines on November 7, the storm's winds of 190 mph-plus unofficially made it the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall. The destruction that ensued was catastrophic: more than 3,900 people killed and tens of thousands missing, half a million homes destroyed, and millions of people displaced. As has been the case in many recent natural disasters, aid and humanitarian agencies responded quickly and with the best of intentions but were stymied by sub-standard and/or damaged infrastructure and logistical bottlenecks.

The ferocious intensity of Haiyan also led experts and officials in the Philippines and elsewhere to connect the storm to climate change -- a contention likely to be debated for years to come.

Over the weekend, PND asked Jessica Alexander, author of Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, to rate emergency relief efforts in the Phillipines, what Americans can do to help, and whether she thinks climate change is contributing to the destructiveness of weather-related natural disasters. For more information about how you can contribute to relief and recovery efforts in the Philippines, click here, here, and here).

Headshot_jessica_alexanderPhilanthropy News Digest: What can Americans do to help the people of the Philippines? And what shouldn't they do?

Jessica Alexander: Americans should give money to a reputable humanitarian agency -- either local or international -- that is already on the ground there. It's sometimes difficult to know where to donate, but there are ways people can narrow their search. Donate to organizations that had a pre-typhoon presence in the Philippines, are transparent about how they are spending money, are clear about what the needs are right now and how their programs are responding to those needs, and are intentional about linking their efforts with local and government responses.

If people feel strongly about a certain issue, they can donate to an organization that focuses on that issue: there are agencies that work on issues related to children, others that work strictly on health issues or that specialize in water and sanitation, and so on.

Americans should not give "gifts in kind," nor should they hop on a plane with the thought of becoming a first-responder themselves. Emergencies caused by a natural disaster -- the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 -- resulted in a lot of well-intentioned people sending inappropriate items to the affected country -- food items that fail to take into account the culinary and dietary preferences of the local people, used or unsuitable clothing that ends up clogging ports and littering roadsides, medicines with labels in English, leaving people in affected countries without a clue as to how to take or use them.

While well-intentioned people may think these are "donations," they come at a high cost to the agencies who must transport the items, sort them once they arrive at their destination, ensure that they are equitably distributed, and warehouse the surplus. First responders are having a hard enough time right now getting food, water, and shelter to people in affected regions of the Philippines, and more often than not donations in kind, however well intentioned, slow the whole operation down. 

PND: How would you rate storm preparedness efforts in the Philippines -- in general, and for this storm in particular?

JA: Typhoons, cyclones, tropical storms are nothing new to the Philippines, which experiences upward of twenty typhoons -- and the attendant flooding and loss of life -- every year. I don't think anyone could have prepared for a storm of Haiyan's magnitude, however. Local governments did an excellent job warning people of the storm and its likely track and of evacuating people further inland. Relief items also were stockpiled and pre-positioned so that aid workers could start distributing them as soon as the storm had passed.

PND: Are you surprised by what appears to be a halting initial response on the part of the government and the international aid community?

JA: The first few days after a disaster of this magnitude are always chaotic, regardless of the amount of resources available to local government agencies or humanitarian organizations. We've seen that time and again after natural disasters, even in this country; just think back to the first few days after Hurricane Katrina or Sandy. Aid workers aren't magicians. We don't have magic wands we can use to clear rubble from the streets; we can't create safe zones out of thin air for people who have been displaced. People on the ground in the Philippines have been doing everything possible to get much-needed relief to the hardest-hit areas with the resources available to them. In the past few days, with the help of the U.S. military, the delivery of aid has picked up dramatically -- and will continue to do so over the coming days.

PND: Is it my imagination, or are natural disasters becoming bigger and happening more frequently? And is climate change partly to blame?

JA: Globally, we are seeing rising temperatures and sea levels, dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, and more frequent and severe tropical storms -- all of which can be linked to climate change. There are any number of potential humanitarian implications of these changes, including more severe and frequent shortages of food and water, as well as more and larger flows of people who have been displaced due to climate-related natural disasters. The number of people at risk from climate-related disasters is increasing due to global population growth and continuing urbanization, as urban populations spread into more vulnerable areas and occupy poorly constructed shelters that stand little chance against a storm like Haiyan.

PND: What lessons would you like to see the global aid community take away from this disaster?

JA: It's too early in the response to start talking about lessons from this particular disaster. It's important to keep in mind, however, that recovery and reconstruction in areas battered by the storm will take time; the people of the Philippines are not going to be made whole overnight. When the cameras leave, as they will in the coming weeks, those efforts will have just begun. Therefore, humanitarian actors in this tragedy should work to align their efforts with the longer-term efforts of the international development community to ensure the best outcomes. They should also recognize that the Philippines will always be vulnerable to natural disaster, and that the best thing they can do is to work with local communities to strengthen their capacity to prepare for and respond to the next disaster.

(Photo credit: Amy Brathwaite)

-- Mitch Nauffts

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